Area farmers, restaurateurs, chefs, health care representatives, elected and government officials, retailers, and a few who were just curious came together to discuss a program called FarmerFresh on March 30th at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College.
Those attending hailed from Rowan, Cabarrus, Montgomery, Davidson, Stanly, Iredell and Davie counties. They asked questions and shared their personal opinions and insights on how to create both jobs and a viable market for food grown locally.
FarmerFresh, a virtual farmer's market connecting farmers and small-scale specialty food producers to customers via the Internet, is now successfully operating in Rutherford County. Tim Will, executive director of Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center, helped start that program. He and colleague Kurt Wilson, who now manages the FarmerFresh program, were on-hand to both explain and answer questions.
"This is about food, but it's also about jobs," Will said. He noted that Rutherford County had an unemployment rate approaching 20 percent and over 6,000 landowners who owned between five and 20 acres each when the FarmerFresh program was first conceived. Rutherford County's largest crop at that time, he added, was hay.
Since that time, the co-op, Will explained, "has really helped people's income" by connecting farmers willing to produce specialty crops such as micro-greens, heirloom tomatoes, kale and haricots verts with buyers. The farmers, who participate in the FarmerFresh program, earn 80 percent of each dollar they make, while the remaining 20 percent goes into running the co-op. Farmers can operate in a "just in time" fashion, picking their crops only when they have a buyer. This, Will said, guarantees freshness and high quality products.
"The biggest demand in the food industry is for fresh, local food," Will said, encouraging those attending the session to "go back to farming." He noted that farming has been usurped as an industry, with 1900 marking the last U.S. election when more than 50 percent of those voting were farmers.
Wells said that Rutherford County also lacked broadband Internet service, even in its schools, until February 2008. The increase in Internet service was brought about in part because of the demand the FarmerFresh program produced in that rural area. Today, Rutherford County's FarmerFresh program has 16 restaurants and 200 individuals as regular customers who have created an ongoing demand for locally grown and produced food.
"We treat farmers as entrepreneurs and we teach them how to be business people," Will said, adding that the co-op is also teaching restaurateurs and individuals the benefits when they "buy fresh, buy local and buy environmentally sensitive."
When it came time for questions, there were plenty, as well as suggestions.
A local farmer asked, "Where is the market locally and how is transportation organized" to get the food to that market?
Another attendee asked about food safety standards and the liability of the co-op and the individual farmers.
One female from Davidson County asked if the FarmerFresh program markets breads and jams produced locally, and was told, "Yes" by Will.
The Country Club of Salisbury's Executive Chef Phillip Lloyd confirmed that he and other chefs want a program like FarmerFresh in Rowan and surrounding counties. "Folks are growing it, and people are eating it, we just need to get connected," Lloyd explained.
The March 30 meeting concluded with the promise from Center for the Environment staffers to schedule and facilitate another meeting to share and gather more information about starting a FarmerFresh program to serve Rowan and surrounding counties.