Last year, Mike Ortosky put out a call to hundreds of Orange County farmers. If they were interested in becoming certified in Good Agricultural Practices—a U.S. Department of Agriculture designation that allows farmers to sell produce to large institutions—the county would pay the certification’s $1,000 price tag for each farmer.

Surprisingly, only one farmer responded to Ortosky’s offer. Brett Evans of Red Hawk Farm in Hurdle Mills became GAP-certified this past February.

“I was hoping it’d open up doors of who I’d sell to,” Evans says. But so far, he isn’t using it.

That sums up the struggles that Orange County—and by extension, the rest of the Triangle—faces in its efforts to get more locally-grown food into local institutions. For the region’s food economy to thrive and be genuinely sustainable, local growers need to sell their produce to big buyers like area hospitals, schools, and jails. But the cost of doing so, through GAP certification, is onerous. More importantly, local institutions currently aren’t interested in buying from area farmers, most of whom work on far too small of a scale to be useful to them.

That’s a problem Ortosky—who is Orange County’s agriculture economic developer—and other local government officials around the Triangle are aiming to solve. Their goal is to create a large food hub where locally grown produce can be aggregated and standardized, and then trucked to big buyers in the area.

But this is a project that will likely take decades. What’s immediately clear is that getting there will require wrestling simultaneously with two familiar economic drivers: supply and demand. 

Around sixty years ago, North Carolina was home to farms of a range of sizes, and many owed their existence to the state’s best-known cash crop: tobacco. Earning good prices, tobacco allowed small and midsize farms to flourish. Although this state still produces the most tobacco in the country, its popularity dropped precipitously around the turn of this century, and N.C. farms, especially small ones, were hit hard. Between 1954 and 2002, the USDA found that the number of N.C. tobacco farms dropped from 150,000 to 8,000.

At the same time, a new trend was developing. Local, sustainably grown food began increasing in popularity in the nineties, and small, diversified farms growing fruits and vegetables sprang up around the state, especially in educated, affluent regions like the Triangle.

“Over the past ten or fifteen years, demand for local food has really ramped up,” says Ortosky. Indeed, according to the USDA, the number of farms in Orange County that sell produce directly to consumers—via farmers markets, farm stands, and consumer supported agriculture—went up by 54 percent between 2007 and 2012, and the amount of revenues from direct-to-consumer sales more than doubled in that time. That’s echoed a national trend; according to the market research firm Packaged Facts, local food sales in the U.S. grew from $5 billion to $12 billion just between 2008 and 2014.

The result is a polarized environment for agriculture in N.C. There are big farms that sell tobacco and corn on a national or international scale, and there are small operations that sell directly to local markets, restaurants, and individuals. “Farming in the middle has disappeared,” Ortosky says.

 Meanwhile, many of those small farms are starting to hit a wall. According to Ortosky and other local agriculture advocates, Triangle farmers markets are leveling off in growth: The area can support only so many of them. That follows a national trend; in 2016, the USDA noted that nationally, farmers market sales and direct subscriptions were beginning to plateau. What farmers need are new markets.

The natural next step would be to look to big institutions such as schools, hospitals, and jails as potential outlets for local food. A food system with a broader base—that is, one with more area farms producing food for more local outlets—would allow Triangle governments to meet several important goals. Economic growth is the big one: getting locally grown food into regional institutions would keep dollars local and have a multiplier effect, adding jobs like truck driving and food processing and boosting growers’ financial stability. Plus, it’d result in fewer greenhouse gases emitted in transporting food, increased food security for the region, and probably better health outcomes for residents, concepts widely accepted by advocates of the locally-grown food movement.

So why can’t UNC Healthcare hospitals get its sweet potatoes from Orange County’s Cates Corner Farm, for example, rather than from a big distributor like Sodexo that might be sourcing its tubers from California?

There are a couple of reasons. The first is GAP certification, which large institutions typically require of farmers who sell to them. It includes a set of standardized procedures to increase food safety and a one-day audit that can cost $1,000 a year. The process may require farmers to invest in new infrastructure or radically change their practices.

The bigger issue is that GAP certification doesn’t make sense for most of the area’s farms. The big ones selling commodities like corn or soybeans aren’t required to have it, and the small ones are currently too tiny to produce quantities of food at a level that would make it worthwhile. That’s a problem of supply.

But most farmers also aren’t eager to become GAP-certified because, so far, there’s not much local demand for it. After all, given the small size of many Triangle farms, sweet potatoes destined for UNC Hospitals would have to come from a handful of places, rather than one midsize operation. And that could mean a wide range in quality, and perhaps a half-dozen pickup trucks unloading at the hospital’s docks daily.

James Watts, merchandising manager at Weaver Street Market, says the problem affects all the region’s larger buyers. “For example, today, I have three different farmers growing Sungold cherry tomatoes—one for each store, because there isn’t any one who can supply all of my stores,” he says.

That might work for a small grocery, but it wouldn’t be feasible for a large institution.

Indeed, UNC Healthcare said as much in a statement: “We are open to exploring ways to get more local food items on our menus. The biggest challenges are the high volume that we go through on a daily basis and getting pricing that would fit into our food cost budget.”

What’s needed, Ortosky says, is a food hub, a central site where local produce is aggregated, processed if needed, and then distributed to institutional buyers. That way, quality could be standardized, and smaller farmers could combine their products to fill orders. That would likely make buying local produce far more attractive to local institutions.

And if that kind of new market opened, Ortosky says, “farmers will respond.” Evans of Red Hawk Farm, for example, is farming only about a tenth of his fifty-two-acre property and says he could scale up if the opportunity arose.

What would make the Triangle food hub Ortosky has in mind special would be its size. Ortosky—who’s supplementing his Triangle work with a fellowship at Virginia’s Wallace Center, which focuses on national efforts around local food systems—believes that the final design would have to include Durham and Wake counties as well as Orange, and perhaps others too.

“Regional is the sweet spot,” he says. “Food systems are like watersheds. They’re not confined to geographic boundaries.”

The result could be beneficial to everyone, allowing shiitake mushrooms from Wake County to combine with an order of Tuscan kale from Orange County for Duke University’s food service. It’s big and ambitious, and exactly what the food hub would look like is very much a work in progress. Ortosky and cooperative extension officials from Durham and Wake counties are meeting regularly to talk to stakeholders and map out a plan, though they’re still in the very early stages.

One good example of how this facility might function, writ small, is in downtown Durham. Farmer Foodshare started out in 2009 as a gleaning operation but has since morphed into a hub connecting regional farmers with local institutions like Durham Public Schools and the Durham County Detention Facility. Farmer Foodshare does all the logistics: picking up and delivering most of the produce and holding it in cold storage when necessary.

The organization has flourished largely because of the support of county officials. In 2009, Durham County pledged to begin buying local food for the school system and other public institutions; last year, it gave Farmer Foodshare $20,000 to pilot a program that would bring local food into the jail. And after the county’s one GAP-certified farmer ceased production last year, commissioners budgeted $50,000 to assist new local farmers interested in GAP certification (four are currently seeking the certification).

“There is good work being done to make Durham city and county a model food community,” Heidi Carter, a county commissioner who’s helped drive the focus on local food, told the INDY in an email. “One important step is for our local and regional food systems to be strong, and this requires ample numbers of farmers who are matched with robust markets.”

That kind of public support for farmers, paired with mandates to bring local food into public institutions, might be the key to realizing Ortosky’s dream of a thriving regional food system. After all, moving it forward is a chicken-or-egg question: What comes first—supply provided by farmers, or demand on the part of institutions? A government mandate that includes a specific percentage of local food to be used in public institutions could be just the jumpstart that gets the whole thing going.

One way or the other, it’s going to take a while. Ortosky estimates that it might be ten years before Triangle institutions feature even 10 percent local ingredients. The end result, though, could be worth the wait: A Triangle economy that is genuinely local, truly sustainable, and supports farmers at every level of their growth.