“I’m kind of doing it Jefferson-style. I will die deeply in debt and someone else will have my land,” said a triumphant Michael Clark to an audience seated in the loading dock of the Local Food Hub’s Ivy distribution facility last Thursday.
Clark, the owner of Planet Earth Diversified, had just accepted a $1,500 prize from Bundoran Farm as the winner of the Innovation in Agriculture award, which he earned by rigging a system of antique diesel engines to burn enough waste vegetable oil from restaurants to power his entire greenhouse operation and add 20 kilowatts of electricity to his power grid. One of seven award winners at the Local Food Hub’s second annual Community Food Awards, the former UVA engineering student was triumphant simply because he has earned his living as a farmer since 1975. His joke was funny, poignant, and appropriate, delivered to a crowd of people focused on proving him wrong.
Founded in 2009, the Local Food Hub aggregates, markets, and distributes locally grown food with the expressed goal of making it possible for people to become profitable small farmers. Over the past two years, the nonprofit has worked with 75 producers to supply over 150 businesses and institutions, including 52 schools, with $1.2 million worth of fresh meat, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. At a time when small farms have to contend with rising energy costs, high land prices, and increasingly demanding food regulations, the Local Food Hub is paving the way towards a local distribution model that prioritizes small, sustainable suppliers.
“We can make small family farming a viable option for the future, and that’s really why we’re all here,” Director of Farm Services Adrianna Vargo said.
Some of the Community Food Awards winners have been in the game a long time, like Tim Henley of Henley’s Orchards in Crozet, who won the Agricultural Endurance Award for continuing a family tradition begun in 1932 that stil thrives. Henley’s Orchard grows over 50 varieties of apples and peaches on 50 acres of heavenly land. Others, like Susan and Scott Hill of Hill Farm Vintage Vegetables in Louisa, are brand new. The retired teacher and Army pilot won the Pioneer in the Field award for their innovative implementation of high tunnels to grow a range of heirloom lettuce varieties.
While the farmers were the stars of last week’s celebration, the mission of changing the way we grow, distribute, and, ultimately, eat food relies on consumers as much as producers. The Local Food Hub’s co-founders, Kate Collier and Marisa Vrooman, recognized that they needed to bring together institutional buyers who understood the value of locally sourced food to make their model something more than a feel-good project. UVA Hospital and the Charlottesville and Albemarle school districts were early adopters and have provided a consistent market. But there have been many other supporters.
Trey Holt, executive chef at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, took home the Traiblazer Award for his single-minded and steadfast commitment to using the Hub’s distribution facility as a kitchen pantry and his ability “to overcome the barriers of budget, red tape, and picky eaters to create delicious food that benefits kids, farmers, and community.”
The event’s keynote speaker, UVA political scientist Paul Freedman, framed what was ultimately an intimate and casual ceremony in its larger context.
“What sets the Charlottesville-Albemarle area apart when it comes to food is not simply that this is a great place to be a food eater—because it is. What sets us apart is that this is a great place to be a food citizen,” he said.