A stronger connection across the South

In some areas, farms are disappearing in skyrocketing numbers. While growers face obstacles that lead some to abandon agriculture, many consumers have greater interest in locally grown and healthier foods. A new organization is bringing all the players around the table to address those issues and create a road map for building sustainable food economies.

What do the trends show?

Although the 2007 Farm Census reported the establishment of more than 75,000 farms across the country since the 2002 count, 11 states saw decreases. Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia lead in the agricultural shrinkage. In North Carolina’s case, much of that loss is attributable to the decline in tobacco production. The number of tobacco growers fell from 8,000 to 2,600 during that time period, and while some transitioned to fruit and vegetable production, many abandoned agriculture. Virginia lost more than half a million acres in production during that period, which the agriculture department largely attributes to retirement.

At the same time, interest in local food continued to climb throughout the nation, including the South. Campaigns such as Carolina Farm Stewardship’s inaugural local eating promotion kicked off in 2008, along with other public and private efforts to support area growers and encourage better nutrition.

State efforts to support local food economies

Many states are promoting local foods through marketing campaigns such as Make Mine Mississippi, Virginia’s Finest and West Virginia Grown. Ag departments are issuing local eating challenges and sponsoring area cuisine recipe and restaurant competitions. In addition, farmland preservation programs continue to grow.

Virginia has launched a transition assistance program to help retiring farmers keep their lands in agricultural use. The Farm Link program matches aspiring growers with experienced farmers who want to continue the tradition beyond their lifetimes.

Hundreds of North Carolinians have teamed up to help create a sustainable food economy in their state. Growers and farmers, government officials, Compass (the world’s largest food service company) and others are developing a plan to keep agriculture the state’s top industry, strengthen the economy and supply local food to its consumers.

A closer look at the Farm to Fork initiative

What if every school had a salad bar loaded with locally grown fruits and vegetables? That’s part of the vision of Dr. Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a joint program of N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University and the ag department.

CEFS kicked off its “Building a Local Food Economy in North Carolina, from Farm to Fork” (http://www.ncsustainablefood.wordpress.com) initiative in April 2008 with grant funding. To develop a statewide action plan, meetings, attended by more than 600, were held. The 11 most pressing concerns that emerged are being tackled by working issues teams. Those groups made presentations at a statewide Farm to Fork summit this May and hope to have the action plan complete this fall. Leaders expect state legislators to pass a bill establishing a sustainable local food policy council. This legislation will help bring together influential decision-makers who can address policy, programs, regulatory issues, statewide goals and baseline assessments.

N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue pledges her support at the statewide Farm to Fork Summit in Raleigh in May.

Creamer says the initiative is helping to coordinate and connect the many emerging local food activities. “We wanted to understand where the gaps and opportunities were and highlight the best models, or develop new ones for filling the gaps,” she says.

Other Farm to Fork goals include developing and prioritizing policy recommendations, program initiatives and funding needs. Organizers hope to facilitate a collaborative network that will implement the state action plan over the long term.

Sorting out the issues

The identified working issues include communications, community gardens, direct marketing, Farm to School, local government and land use and new and transitioning farmer support. Processing and food systems infrastructure, public health and food access disparities, retail and institutional markets and youth and social networking are also under consideration. Issues teams are developing “game changers” to address each concern.

The communications group plans to capitalize on existing interest in local foods, but hopes to improve the public’s understanding. Members say some who are interested in the initiative are confused by what constitutes local food and are overwhelmed by the thought of completely abandoning imported items. The team will encourage a goal of 10 percent and will illustrate practical ways to meet the target between local markets, restaurants and home gardens.

To make a local food economy viable, there is a need to better understand and to expand the existing processing infrastructure. The team recommends a “one-stop shop” resource center for growers and processors, along with regional advisers, to aid in unraveling the web of regulations and technical information. An important game changer would be availability of scale-appropriate insurance.

Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, listens to one of the Farm to Fork Summit speakers.

Both public health and market opportunities can be improved by enhanced connections with those who have reduced access to fresh, local foods, including the elderly. Community gardens and markets at public health departments and similar agencies could assist less affluent consumers in sourcing fresh produce, particularly if EBT food stamps are accepted. The group suggests that mobile food markets visit communities without access to produce sellers. They envision emergency food providers, such as food banks, teaming with farmers to offer local foods and suggest that such organizations establish their own gardens.

Creamer says the retail/institutional markets group is developing a comprehensive model that deals with the barriers faced by small and midscale producers. Factors such as lack of competitive prices, inconsistent product availability, inconsistent product quality and substandard packaging shuts some growers out of markets. Lack of processing infrastructure, storage capacity, delivery channels, coordinated ordering, transportation and distribution logistics are other obstacles. The cost and requirements of commercial liability insurance, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification and audits are sometimes untenable for smaller producers.

Local governments also can play a role by conducting community food assessments, establishing food policy councils and supporting beginning farmer programs. Farm to Fork is developing a toolkit to help officials implement procurement strategies and incentive possibilities, farmland preservation plans, mechanisms to highlight local venues that achieve procurement goals, development of community gardens and local food celebrations (considered a viable method for attracting and involving youth).

Farm to Fork organizers plan to further engage young people with N.C. Food Corps, modeled after successful programs such as The Real Food Challenge (www.realfoodchallenge.org ), a national student campaign for a just and sustainable food system.

A win-win proposal

There seem to be no losers in the initiative. Creamer’s school salad bars benefit growers, children and the local economy. She says that with many schools no longer equipped with kitchens, there is a new business opportunity in washing, cutting and preparing produce.

Growers can expect to gain other new marketing opportunities that strengthen the direct connection with consumers and institutions, and greater political advocacy. Higher profit potential can result due to the shorter value chain. In 2007, Packaged Facts reported that 70 percent of consumers want to know the source of their food and are willing to spend more on local food. Linking those shoppers with community growers can significantly impact an area’s economy. If households spent 5 percent of the average $4,010 food budget on locally grown products, the local economy would see a $1.7 billion cash influx, while improving human and environmental health and preserving farmland.

Creamer says the response to Farm to Fork has been overwhelming, with more than 1,000 subscribed to the initiative’s list-serve communications.

“This concept addresses many of the key issues North Carolina faces, especially in a time of recession,” she says. “From economic development to job creation, to farmland preservation, to reducing obesity and other food-related illnesses, to increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables to populations in need, people are seeing local food systems as a way to make inroads into these things.”

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.