Virtual farmer’s market brings fresh food to local buyers

KENANSVILLE — Tim Will doesn’t mince words when describing the current state of the food industry. “Our food system is broken. The average fruit you buy in grocery stores has come 1,500 miles and is 10 days to two weeks old and has been treated with poison four times. It’s horrible.”

Taking matters into his own hands Will has come up with a solution to what he sees as the wasteful, unhealthy way that food is distributed across the United States. Three years ago, he founded the Farmers Fresh Market, a virtual farmer’s market linking growers, chefs, and individual buyers. Businesses and individuals place their orders online, local growers process the orders and the Framers Fresh Market organization delivers them. The goal of the program is to provide fresh and nutritious produce in a convenient and sustainable manner.

A former Peace Corps member and telecommunications systems analyst who left the industry to pursue a career in teaching, Will has made a habit of following his passions. Relocating from Miami to Rutherford County in 2006, he took a job as a small business developer with Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center in Rutherfordton. The center was created to support small business entrepreneurs and provide community Internet access. Less than a month later the director of the center resigned. With no other candidates on the horizon, Will took over the job.

Will admits the position came with challenges. As one of the most economically distressed areas in the nation, Rutherford County had lost 75 percent of its textile and furniture manufacturing jobs to globalization. The county’s technology infrastructure also lagged far behind most urban communities. “I moved from a totally connected world to a mostly disconnected world,” recalled Will. “People didn’t realize how far down in the hole they were. Without broadband, they were never going to get out of it.”

Taking matters into his own hands, Will won a $1.4 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation to wire the county’s schools and police and fire departments.

Will’s next project was to find new economic opportunities for the 6,000 families in the county that owned between five and 20 acres of land. Will learned that small farms had once been the county’s primary economic engine, but few of them were still in operation. Those that were relied on a central distribution network that set prices at subsistence levels.

Will said the idea for the Farmers Fresh Market originated during a visit with a cousin who worked in the Marriott Hotel in Charlotte, where he became aware of the dearth of fresh vegetables available to the hotel’s chefs. “The chefs were skeptical at first” said Will. “They wanted to know what I could provide them that the USDA couldn’t.”

Will said the answer came in the form of a little known, locally grown vegetable called creasy greens, which is similar to water cress and has a distinctive, peppery flavor. “They loved them,” said Will. “During that time, all they were getting was iceberg lettuce, which has no flavor at all, so they were excited.”

Sensing the potential market for fresh, local produce Will ran some numbers and conceived and idea: Foothills Connect could persuade farmers to grow for Charlotte restaurants while creating an online ordering system to facilitate business.

Wills said his initial vision was for farmers to get a retail price for their crops, increasing per-acre yields from a few hundred dollars to as much as $30,000, while allowing laid-off factory workers to return to farming.

One of the major benefits for growers, said Will, is the potential for an increased share of the profits. “This eliminates three to four layers of middlemen from the equation,” he stated. “Instead of getting 20 percent of the profits, they get 80 percent.”

These new economic incentives are vital, said Will, explaining that in the market place, government subsidies make up a significant portion of large, commercial farming income, while small farmers are left to fend for themselves. “For every dollar that these farmers earn, 62 cents come from state, federal or local subsidies,” said Will.  “How many small farmers do you think get a penny of that? None.”

Will said another concern is the amount of pesticides large farming operations use on their crops. “Last year, farmers put over two billion pounds of poison on your food” said Will.  “You’re not eating food, you’re eating chemicals.”

According to Will, the Farmers Fresh Market system is focused on three main goals: minimizing administration time and cost for growers, chefs and produce buyers; minimizing transport time and cost; and providing the freshest produce available. “With the Farmers Fresh Market, growers leave the trucking to us. By using one truck to pick-up and deliver on a local route, this one truck is more efficiently utilized. We’re able to move more produce for more growers and deliver to more locations than individual producers could reach by themselves.”

Another asset of the program is its ability to reach customers living in what Will describes as “food deserts,” areas where access to grocery stores that carry fruits and vegetables is limited. “Obesity has become a major problem in this country,” said Will, pointing out the number of health-related problems that can be tied directly to poor dietary choices. “We’ve traded off cheap food for high medical costs,” said Will. “You go to some places and you don’t see farmer markets, you don’t even see grocery stores, all you see is fast food places. It’s no wonder we have so many problems.”

Will said the current food distribution system has implications that stretch far beyond the farming community. “It costs a truck driver about $8,000 to drive a rig from the east coast to California. Once the price of diesel hits $4.50 a gallon, it no longer becomes sustainable; the whole industry collapses,” stated Will. “We’re in trouble; everybody knows it. We just don’t know how to get out of it.”

Will said it has been estimated it will take 10 million small farmers to fill the food void should the commercial farming industry go under.

Above all, said Will, the program is about helping to bring back a form of farming that sustained this country for hundreds of years, allowing more farmers to share in the economic opportunities available from crops that may not be staple household items. Throughout history, said Will, humans have managed to cultivate 80,000 plants, but Americans get 95 percent of their calories from only 30 crops. “We’ve encouraged a system of mono-cropping; we’ve encouraged farmers to grow only one or two things.”

According to Will the Farmers Fresh Market currently serves 20 restaurants and 300 individuals in the Charlotte area alone. Will said the program is already up and running in Rutherford, Cleveland, Gaston, Mecklenburg, McDowell, Polk, Bertie, Rockingham, Stokes, Caswell, Columbus and Buncombe counties. Will said he has had offers to bring the “Farmers Fresh Market” concept to Kentucky and South Carolina as well.

Will said he recently acquired three acres of land in Rutherford County that will be used to teach young students how to raise their own crops. “We have to get these kids young,” said Will, “ to show them the value of these small businesses.”

During a recent workshop in Duplin County, Will spoke to a small but enthusiastic group of local farmers, running down the benefits of participation in the Farmers Fresh market program. “This is a jobs program,” Will told the group. “And it’s probably more about broadband, about the ability to get an Internet signal or else you can’t put in your inventory. But ultimately, for me, it’s about social justice.”

Will said anyone with fewer than 200 acres is considered a hobby farmer by the Department of Agriculture. “Let me bust that bubble,” said Will, explaining that where he lives, the average farm size is 80 acres.

“This is economic development,” said Will. “This is creating or sustaining thousands of small businesses and creating thousands of jobs. The market is already there; we’re just helping to expose farmers to multiple revenue streams.”

Will said the only requirements farmers need to join the program are “a good attitude and the ability to learn.”

To be successful, said Will, small farmers must follow a business model that is the opposite of what he describes as the “industrial food system.”

“Let’s sell direct; let’s label every ounce of food so buyers know exactly where it came from; lets build a system that isn’t chemically dependent; lets build a system that instead of taking 10-14 days to get to market, lets do it where we pick it in the morning and deliver it in the afternoon. And let’s diversify what we grow; lets create regional food systems.”

For more information on the Farmers Fresh Market, visit their website at http://www.farmersfreshmarket.org.

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