Vision West ND, a consortium of 19 energy-producing counties, is investigating the possibility of a food hub being started in Dickinson.

The community-led effort would aggregate and distribute locally produced foods exclusively to markets in southwest North Dakota.

"We've been doing some work with small businesses, with main street, a number of things, but one of the things we identified is that there hasn't been a real connection between local and midsized farm producers and local communities," Deb Nelson, Vision West ND consortium administrator, said.

By USDA standards, 60 percent of western North Dakota is considered a "food desert."

"There are a number of communities that have only a very small grocery store or they don't have one, so their ability to get those fresh products is limited. They have to travel," Nelson said. "When you start thinking about North Dakota being the most agricultural state and we have food deserts, we think that can be corrected."

North Dakota only has one food hub, in Anamoose, and it is newly started, Nelson said.

Vision West is conducting a survey to see if there is interest from consumers in having such resources, and interest from farmers in participating in such an effort.

Interest exists for greenhouse items such as lettuce and root crops, and especially for herbs, Nelson said.

"We know that primarily our farm community is growing commodity crops and livestock for sale on the big market," she said. "What we also know is more and more people coming in to these communities, particularly the young generations, are looking for whole foods, natural foods, things that will enhance their health."

If enough interest exists, Vision West would provide resources and education on the various sorts of management models for a food hub to be launched and prosper.

"If there are farmers that are interested in doing it, they would have to determine what kind of management plan they would have, because this could be a co-op, a nonprofit, it could be a single proprietorship for profit that could work with other farmers," Nelson said. "There are a number of models that could be implemented."

Vision West ND is looking at Dickinson's old hospital as a site for the potential food hub, because of the building's loading facilities and commercial kitchen.

"That exists there," Nelson said. "We don't know if it's feasible to put it there. We would want to look at it because it's already in existence."

The survey and information effort has to be completed by September, Nelson said.

"We are pretty sure it's looking like there is a real potential for this to be a possibility."

Most models for a food hub take 12 to 24 months to implement.

"If it turns out it's feasible and we get enough producers who are interested in making that happen," Nelson said, "then within a year I think it could be done."

A local food hub would benefit Stark County and surrounding counties, Ryan Jilek, Stark County Development Corporation vice president, said.

"The local food hub is a great idea and provides a missing but essential conduit between producers and local consumers," he said. "We have so many talented and enthusiastic producers in our region and giving them a place and the tools to bring their products to market is a win for everyone."