Centralization and the apparent need for large economy of scale have led to the disappearance of the small farm. In 1959, the U.S. was home to 4.1 million farms. Today, there are just 2.2 million. Some 40% of American farmers are 55 or older, and young people aren’t exactly lining up to replace them. But a new program in North Carolina hopes to make farming a viable career option once again.
Rutherford County, N.C., has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Yet some 6000 families own between 5 and 20 acres of land, and chefs in nearby Charlotte, N.C., are in need of fresh produce for their restaurants. As part of a sophisticated economic development effort, Mr. Timothy Will, a retired telecommunications analyst, helped wire the region for broadband Internet access and set up an online ordering system—Farmers Fresh Market (www.farmersfreshmarket.org) —that lets Charlotte chefs place orders directly with Appalachian farmers. Next, he convinced the locals to grow more exotic items like lacinato kale and purple beans. (“They’d never seen beans like that before,” Will laughs. “Here, beans are green.”) Two years later, Farmers Fresh Market counts 90 local farmers among its members in what amounts to a virtual co-op.
Members of the co-op plant crops they know the restaurants have expressed interest in. When harvest approaches, the food producers list their forthcoming harvest on the website. Interested food retailers and restaurants contract on line for delivery. A driver, hired by the co-op, makes the pick-up rounds of the farms guided by a geo-routing map for efficiency, and delivers the crops to the customers, again by geo-mapping routes. The farmers set their own prices, and the co-op takes a percentage off the top to pay for the driver and operation of the co-op.
The website cost about $3,000 to set up, and the buyers pay a 10 percent transaction fee to help maintain the site.
One of the farmers, Jeff Searcy, was working his fields one day when Will drove up, unannounced, and approached him with the Farmers Fresh Market idea. "He kind of shared his vision for how it was going to work," Searcy says. "I was skeptical."
Today, Searcy is the most active farmer in the project, growing about 70 specialty crops for restaurants and a local farmers' market Foothills Connect established.
This project has the potential to be a significant contributor to local rural economy, according to Mr. Will. “According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, every dollar brought into a farm economy by a small farm producer has an 8 to 1 multiplier.”
In addition to teaching farmers computing skills and converting a vacant plot into a demonstration garden, Will and his colleagues have introduced sustainable agriculture courses for adults and high school students. “It’s kind of a resurrection of our history,” says Lindy Abrams, a 25-year-old who, after losing her job and enrolling in Will’s adult-education class, now grows vegetables and salad greens on land her granddad once farmed. “People are really excited.”
Farmers Fresh Market has a wonderful website found at http://www.farmersfreshmarket.org/.
This project won Mr. Wills the Purpose Prize from the Encore Foundation, which celebrates individuals who have made significant contributions in their “retirement” years.
From the standpoint of solving some of the problems our country confronts regarding reducing the embodied energy in food (each pound of lettuce shipped from Latin America or Mexico raises our dependency on foreign oil), this system also creates the opportunity for new part time jobs in the rural areas surrounding major markets. By pooling the transportation costs, each food producer is free to pursue their own area of expertise growing things, while reducing overhead. This allows the final food product to be priced more competitively than factory farmed food, while paying the food producer a premium price for their product. This also increases our national security by keeping our food supply decentralized and less vulnerable to disruption either from accident or malice.
(The content above was modified from an article in Parade January 24, 2010) and the Farmers Fresh website.)