News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 19, 2012

Mark Bennett: Food hub puts focus on overlooked sector of state

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The ideal setting for a campaign ad is rural Indiana.

Candidates crave to be filmed strolling through rows of bean fields, wearing rolled-up sleeves, jeans and boots, and pointing into the distance, while a farmer in bib-overalls and a grain cap looks on in admiration. Or talking with retirees on the porch of a general store. Or leaning against a produce truck, chatting with the driver inside the cab.

As a memorable “Seinfeld” character would say, “that’s gold, Jerry. Gold.”

And then the film crews leave.

Otherwise, the economic potential of rural Indiana is largely overlooked or written off as a remnant of bygone America. The obstacles facing small towns and farm communities dot their landscape. Many have shuttered school houses, grocery stores, post offices and barbershops. (Such images don’t show up in those “Hoosier values” ads.) A church or volunteer fire department may offer the only tangible signs of cohesion and vitality.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see energy aimed directly at those forgotten places so often portrayed as the backbone of Indiana.

A project generated by Indiana State University should breathe new spirit into villages and wide-spot-in-the-roads.

Last week, the long-named, much-needed Rural-Urban Entrepeneurship Development Institute (or RUEDI) announced plans to create the Wabash Valley Food Hub by next year. The food hub embodies the goal of the institute, which is, in the words of RUEDI coordinator Steven Pontius, “to improve the economic stability of rural and small towns in Indiana through collaboration with local schools, government officials, other educational institutions and business enterprises.”

RUEDI and its food hub are part of ISU’s “Unbounded Possibilities” initiative, which is intended to give the university a distinct niche in the state.

Rural Indiana could grow, literally, to appreciate that attention.

In a nutshell, the food hub will make it easier to buy and sell locally produced fruits, veggies, eggs, meats, fish, dairy products, coffee, honey, herbs, spices and other edibles. The hub will connect local markets and outlets, which would like to offer locally grown items, with local farmers with small- and medium-sized operations. Local consumers who seek more local food will have access to a greater variety.

The word “local” comes up a lot. That’s a good thing.

Anyone who’s compared the taste of home-grown vs. shipped-in tomatoes can understand the value of “local.”

“We don’t know where our foods come from at times. Sometimes, we’re told,” said Jason Saavedra, project manager for the Wabash Valley Food Hub. “That tomato traveled thousands of miles to get to you, when there’s a farmer nearby. You wonder, ‘Why can’t I get that tomato locally?’”

The food hub concept helps solve that mystery.

With that local farmer-to-market-to-consumer network, “if you go into a restaurant and order a salad, the tomato or the lettuce will be local,” Saavedra said. “You won’t see the difference, other than the taste and nutrition.”

There may be some visual signs, such as a Wabash Valley Food Hub logo on products or on the menus as a sign of community spirit — goods raised and consumed here, with local dollars staying in the local economy. (The hub itself will be nonprofit and sustained by memberships. RUEDI is funded through ISU’s $5-million Unbounded Possibilities initiative.)

The increasing demand for local food isn’t a fad. Evidence of its appeal in the Wabash Valley has steadily emerged during the past decade, through the popularity of the Terre Haute Downtown Farmers Market, ag tourism shops such as the Swiss Connection on the Yegerlehner Farm near Clay City, and the formation of the Terre Foods Cooperative. Terre Foods, which seeks to build a member-owned market of organic and locally produced products, will benefit from the food hub, not compete with it, Saavedra said.

“It’s sort of another leg for Terre Foods to stand on,” he explained.

The hub also creates opportunities for people living in rural Indiana. Veteran farmers may add a crop of market-style produce. Young, new farmers may raise chickens or goats, hoping to sell eggs and milk. Tomato farmers may expand.

Research by ISU’s rural institute revealed a gap in the Terre Haute market for local foods, and a significant amount of producers who would like to fill that void, Pontius said. The food hub will “reduce barriers” to that market for those producers, he added. The RUEDI crew continues to gather that research this fall through polls of small business owners, farmers and residents in rural Indiana counties. The concerns addressed go beyond the marketability of Indiana tomatoes to broader issues such as health-care coverage for young farmers.

Those conversations are healthy, just like locally grown tomatoes and hope for small-town farms and businesses.

“Not a great deal has been done to promote the needs of rural Indiana,” Pontius said.

The food hub helps.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or