Alex Jones, Farmstand Product Manager
It’s an afternoon in early January, and snow is falling outside the University of Vermont’s Davis Student Center. In a classroom inside, Michael Rozyne poses a logistics problem to a roomful of students.
Given the trucking company’s rate and the palletization table for different crops, what’s the unit freight cost for 5 pallets of lettuce bought from one source, using trucking company A? What’s the cost for 5 pallets of tomatoes? How about kiwiberries?
Rozyne isn’t an academic. He’s one of the founders of Red Tomato, a Massachusetts-based source-identified regional produce distributor (also known as a food hub). And the students aren’t traditional college students. They’re professionals who work or volunteer at food hubs in communities from New Mexico to Maine. Many are able to be here because their tuition has been funded by their employers, their state’s agricultural extension agency, UVM scholarships, or their own crowdfunding campaigns.
The cohort of 25 students -- of which I am one -- is here in Burlington for a weeklong residential session of The University of Vermont’s first Food Hub Management Certificate Program, part of the school’s continuing education department. Fair Food’s executive director, Ann Karlen, serves as Faculty Director; she has worked closely with the university to develop the curriculum and currently coordinates the residential week’s programming and student engagement during weekly online coursework.
The program -- FHMCP for short -- is unique not just because it’s the first to offer training to position the next generation of food hub managers (and their hubs) for success. The instructors are professionals in business and logistics, food safety and marketing, and some run food hubs or farmer advocacy organizations. And the students’ backgrounds range from business to nursing, front-of-house service to farming; a few are straight out of college and others are closer to retirement age, building a second career farming or working to build a sustainable local food system in their communities.
The FHMCP isn’t meant to be a starting point for a career in food hubs, it’s meant to build on the on-the-job experience of food hub managers and fit more easily into their professional lives than an academic degree. Bookended by a residential week at the start and end of the course, most of the learning is done through online course modules and an action project to be completed at a food hub.
A business background or a past life working in kitchens can serve as a foundation for a career in food hub management, but it doesn’t capture the scope of skills needed for success. Food hub managers need training in business planning and logistics; in grant-writing and managing staff; in marketing and food safety. And often, food hub managers have succeeded on the kind of mettle you can’t get from an academic background: learning on the job, making quick decisions based on instinct and experience, putting in long hours, and improvising solutions with limited resources.
During the residential week in Burlington, students had a chance to connect and network with each other between lessons from the likes of Rozyne, Karlen, RAFI Executive Director Scott Marlow, and Regional Access General Manager Dana Stafford. We learned the difference between an LLC and an S Corp and played with land use modeling software to gauge the environmental impacts of farm and food hub planning -- and that was just classroom time.
Our cohort spent two days on site visits to Intervale Food Hub, a nonprofit with an onsite incubator farm within the city limits of Burlington; Mad River Food Hub, which specializes in provising production space and storage for value-added producers; multimillion-dollar dsitributor Black River Produce and its new venture, Vermont Packinghouse, which processes sustainably raised local meats; and Farmers To You, a unique farm-to-consumer online store that brings Vermont farm products to customers in the Boston area.
The cohort has already worked through our first two online units on business planning, fundraising, and financial forecasting. I’ll be sharing a few more updates from my work in the program before it concludes in October. To learn more about the FHMCP, check out UVM’s website -- and feel free to send me questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.