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Steve Knight, CEO of United Helpers, stands in front of the safe in the old Community Bank building in Canton.  He hopes this will be part of a business incubator and food hub for the agricultural community.  Photo: David Sommerstein.
Steve Knight, CEO of United Helpers, stands in front of the safe in the old Community Bank building in Canton. He hopes this will be part of a business incubator and food hub for the agricultural community. Photo: David Sommerstein.

How "food hubs" could create jobs in the North Country

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According to the USDA, there are more than 200 regional "Food Hubs" in the US. The USDA says it believes the hubs "offer strong and sound infrastructure support to producers across the country which will also help build a stronger regional food system."

New York recently announced funding for four more across the state, including one in Canton, through its Regional Economic Development Councils. Canton's grant is for $350,000. The details are still in flux, but David Sommerstein spoke with one of the project's organizers, United Helpers CEO Steve Knight, to get a sense of the food hub's vision.

United Helpers is a non-for-profit organization known more for health care than for work on food issues, but it's bought the old Community Bank building, on Main Street in Canton, to house its new for-profit business incubator, Sparx Corp. Sparx, says Knight, is a partner in the food hub project.

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David Sommerstein
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SK: The idea of the Food Hub is to be a catalyst for new agricultural businesses in our community. The building, it's part of Main Street, it's part of the fabric of our community like agribusiness used to be. When I grew up, there were milk processing jobs in my hometown of Lisbon, right in town. People brought their milk [to the local Agway]. Those businesses and jobs have disappeared. One of the things that we wanted to do was help keep Main Street vibrant, and keep our community vibrant.

DS: So what will a Food Hub do?

SK: the Food Hub is the catalyst for other businesses, and I'm going to list three core components of a Food Hub. One is aggregation and distribution and wholesale: active coordination. It's kind of the back office business operations of a much larger agribusiness.

Instead of having one business with 500 people, I think our goal would be to have 50 businesses with 10 people.
The other is they provide permanent facilities, because a lot of smaller farmers need processing space, they need cooling space, they need freezing space, and they can't afford to do that themselves, so the hub kind of consolidates that.

Also the hub is the mechanism for larger businesses and wholesalers who want to use your product but can't go to 50 different producers. So you consolidate all of those growers into a hub, or those producers into a hub, and then you have a brand that you sell out to potential buyers.

DS: How does the $350,000 grant that this Food Hub got as a part of the Regional Economic Development Council get you started?

SK: That's a good question, because our grant request was for considerably more money. So what we're working on right now is adjusting the scope of the project to meet within the confines of the finances that we have.

DS: Would the Food Hub itself be a business, or is it a sort of not-for-profit center?

SK: I think that many of the Food Hubs we've seen are not-for-profits, but I've visited at least one and read about several others that are for-profit operations too.

DS: The Food Hub is part of a broader mission that you've been thinking about a lot here at United Helpers, a different way of thinking about economic development.

SK: A lot of economic development seems to want to hit a home run every time. They want to get that big corporation in that's going to have 200, 300, 400 jobs. I think the data shows that we haven't been very successful with that, and where rural communities have been successful has been in hitting singles and doubles: Getting a business going with three, four, five people, or 10-20 people, but creating more of them. So instead of having one business with 500 people, I think our goal would be to have 50 businesses with 10 people.

Steve Knight is CEO of United Helpers, one of the partners in the Food Hub project funded by the North Country’s Regional Economic Development Council.  North Country Pastured, the group working on creating more slaughterhouse capacity in the North Country, is also a partner. Knight says more details on the Food Hub project will be available in the coming months.

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