Farm-to-Table Coop Looks to Grown
BY FLORENCE GILKESON
From a 4-H blueberry project to a Sandhills Salsa enterprise, a $30,000 grant has paid off big time for local growers of vegetables and fruits and for the people who eat their produce.
The Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative has become so successful in its first year that international attention has been added to its accomplishments.
"It's been an extraordinary year," said Jan Leitschuh, a leader in the cooperative.
Leitschuh and fellow cooperative principal Fenton Wilkinson gave a report on the cooperative's first year to the Moore County Board of Commissioners at a Feb. 15 meeting.
Their report shows that the co-op's 1,230 household members represent 3.5 percent of the county population. They are in addition to 20 farm members.
Sales of produce directly from farm to family amounted to $300,000 with 70 cents of each food dollar going to the farmer. Three tons of produce were distributed to families in need with $18,000 given to two churches and two elementary schools.
Leitschuh said the program inspired a number of colorful projects. One 4-H club undertook a blueberry project and sold all the berries through the cooperative. Two farmers best known for raising tobacco, John Blue and Billy Carter, went together on a joint venture that produced Sandhills Salsa, a specialty brand using locally-grown tomatoes.
The enterprise attracted international attention when it was selected as a feature for the Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, in October.
A survey revealed that 89 percent of participants increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Despite some early concern that Farm to Table would have a negative effect on other types of direct sales, the survey showed that it had just the opposite effect. It revealed that 69 percent more people turned to farmers markets and roadside produce stands to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Leitschuh said the intention of the cooperative's founders was never to encroach on farmers markets and roadside stands, the traditional source of local produce.
Helping to make the cooperative a success were local volunteers, who contributed an estimated 2,500 hours to the program. Volunteers helped with the weekly packing and ran the gathering sites, among other tasks.
Also contributing to Farm to Table are several corporations and institutions serving as community partners. Among them is FirstHealth.
For the coming year, the cooperative's leaders have established such ambitious goals as increaseing sales to $750,000 and upping the membership to 7 percent of the county population.
The presentation was illustrated with color photos that whetted the appetites of the five commissioners, who were nearing the end of a meeting lasting five and a half hours.
"Did you bring any samples?" Commissioner Tim Lea asked.
"I did, but I got so hungry, I ate it all," quipped Wilkinson.
The cooperative leaders said that members for the new year are being accepted and invited everyone to visit the website www.sandhillsfarm2table for more information. The fee to join is $25, and the number of subscriptions is limited.
In addition to locally grown fruits and vegetables, members may take advantage of special opportunities, such as bulk purchase of tomatoes for canning purposes, locally raised beef and chicken and "next-day" seafood shipped directly from the North Carolina coast.
Planning for the cooperative began in 2009, when the board of commissioners approved an application for a $30,000 grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) USA. No matching funds were required.
Tim Emmert, community development planner with the Moore County Planning Department, wrote and administered the grant application.
RAFI is a private nonprofit based in Pittsboro that administers grants through the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, an arm of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. The commission was established to allocate funds from the master settlement agreement whereby major tobacco companies contribute billions of dollars to compensate states for expenses incurred by the use of tobacco products.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at email@example.com.
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