Sue Baird didn’t set out to start an organic farming hub.

Several years ago Baird, then the Missouri Organic Association director, was asked to aggregate farmer’s market products to stock a commercial wooden steamship set to sail down the Mississippi River. Permits for the ship fell through, but Baird was left with an idea.

“We just decided to continue this aggregate of farmers,” Baird said. “We already had this started, and we’ve added a lot more farmers.”

This collective effort became Mid-America Food Hub and Training. Located across from Casey’s General Store in Pilot Grove, Missouri, the Hub helps 50 chemical-free and organic farmers market their products to 12 different grocery stores. The Hub is mostly operated by Baird and Dennis Hamilton, who manages marketing for the operation. They also employ several part-time employees to manage distribution and produce sales.

“If you’ve got a small family farm, you’re either really good at growing or really good at marketing, but you really don’t have time to do both,” said Dennis Hamilton, who manages marketing for the Hub.

A former Missouri farmer himself, Hamilton is uniquely positioned to help with this problem.

“A lot of our producers are very good growers, but they don’t have the distribution channels or equipment to distribute,” Hamilton said. “The deal is, they can focus on being good growers and increasing their operation size and bring it to us to distribute. From the farmer’s perspective, that’s a huge benefit. They just get to do what they do best, which is grow.”

The Hub has only been operating out of its new location for several weeks. This new space serves as a focal point for distribution, but customers can also buy fresh produce straight from the store.

Despite Pilot Grove’s close proximity to local agriculture, many of the town’s residents live without access to fresh food.

“We’re sitting in a food desert,” Hamilton said. “Your two food options in this town are Casey’s and Dollar General. There’s no place to buy clean, healthy food.”

The Hub was given its current location to fulfill this need. The building, which was funded in part by rural economic development grants, was built by a co-op of Pilot Grove residents to provide the town with fresh produce.

Hamilton also installed a full hydroponic system, allowing him to grow fresh produce indoors year-round. Like the rest of the produce distributed by the Hub, this hydroponic system is organic, not relying on the typical nitrates used by other hydroponic systems. The systems typically cost $50,000 to install, and the average farmer will get a full return on investment within a year and a half.

“When you get into colder climates, one of the biggest problems that producers have is that they can’t do business year round,” Hamilton said. “A lot of farmers have old barns that they’re not using. We’re insulating them up and converting them into growing operations.”

When Hamilton started offering hydroponic farming systems, he expected the new technology would be popular with millennial farmers. Instead, most of his customers have been older farmers with a passion for farming. Hydroponic systems allow farmers to grow without bending over or walking long distances.

Mid-America Food Hub and Training also provides education for these hydroponic systems. Baird is about to start the second round of “horticultural specialist” training at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Missouri. Ten inmates just graduated from the year-long training program, which features 12 weeks of intensive hydroponic training in the Hub’s mobile unit and hands-on experience at a farm.

“There’s such a need for skilled agricultural workers,” Baird said. “Farmers can’t do it all by themselves and with all the political issues, migrant workers are hard to find. These young people have made some mistakes, and when they get out, no one will give them a job because they’re branded a felon. We’re providing them with marketable, needed skills.”

After the inmates are released, the Hub helps with a job placement program. The Department of Labor subsidizes half of of the wages of these former inmates, to further incentivize their hiring.

“We get to change these lives, and prevent them from coming back to prison,” Baird said.

In addition to distributing produce and providing training across the state, the Hub sells chemical free and organic produce and meat in its Pilot Grove location. The business is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

ccolby@boonvilledailynews.com