VALPARAISO | People who want to eat fresh, locally grown produce might not have to head to a farmers market to see if anything strikes their fancy if an Indiana Department of Agriculture project comes to fruition.
The state agency recently won a federal grant to study the viability of regional food hubs, which essentially would serve as virtual farmers markets, said Connie Neininger, director of economic development and international trade for the Indiana Department of Agriculture.
A farmer who had extra tomatoes, eggs and honey would not have to set up a tent in a parking lot on a Saturday morning to try and unload them at a farmers market. Instead, the farmer could list the items on a website. People could buy as much as they wanted, and then drive to a local warehouse to pick up their order, which would already be bagged.
As many as six or eight food hubs could be set up across the state if the study finds there is a market for it, Neininger said.
Neininger and other state officials told a business crowd about government programs, the agricultural industry and opportunities for growth at the Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. The event was put on by the Northwest Indiana Forum, which wants to make local farmers, agribusinesses and food processors aware of grants, technical assistance and other resources the state can offer, said Karen Lauerman, director of marketing and communications for the Forum.
The state awarded Fair Oaks Farm a livestock promotion grant for its new Pig Adventure exhibit, and another grant for its upcoming fish project. State agricultural officials touted a number of other initiatives, including efforts to expand international exports, develop new markets and promote locally grown products to Indiana residents. They also hope to get more fresh, locally grown food served in school cafeterias, and educate the public about where their food comes from, Neininger said.
Farming is a big business, even in heavily urbanized Northwest Indiana. Nearly 4,200 farms in operate in Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Jasper, Newton, Starke and Pulaski counties. They had cash receipts of $940 million in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available.
"It's an extremely important part of economic development," said Rex Richards, president of the Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce. "In Northwest Indiana, we think of steel mills and heavy industry, but we've got some of the finest agricultural land in our region and in the country."
A lot of ducks are raised in LaPorte County, including at the Great Lakes Duck Farm, and Indiana is the top duck exporting state in the country. Duck exports have surged in recent years, largely because of demand in China, Neininger said.
Overall, the state's agricultural exports have more than doubled over the last decade, growing to $5.1 billion last year from $2.4 billion in 2004.