Taking the Long View
Sustaining a Sandhills Cooperative
by Christine Hall » Photos by Mollie Tobias
“Let’s talk about the ministry of farming, and the sacrifice farmers make to put food on our table,” Moore County Agriculture Extension Agent Taylor Williams began as he addressed a room of community leaders, farmers, restaurateurs, master gardeners and extension agents. The group had gathered in 2009 to discuss ways to help re-invigorate a deflated rural farming community in our state – one that was still reeling from changes in the industry landscape just years before.
Here in one of the top producing tobacco states in the country, Moore County once had 100 farmers producing nearly $12 million annually in flue-cured tobacco. Today that number of farmers is less than 20.
This decline is mostly credited to the end of the federal Tobacco Transition Payment Program, which had propped up farmers in the early 2000s while they re-evaluated their future, without tobacco. When the program ended in 2005, hundreds of farmers in North Carolina exited farming, taking with them a rich agricultural heritage that had spanned many generations. The farmers who remained (literally) in the field began looking for ways to adapt – and apply their practices to new markets.
One way in which farmers looked to replace or supplement lost income was by growing fruits and vegetables. For many this was a leap of faith. “Think about the average age of farmers, which at that time was about 59, and then consider being that age when you start your entire career over,” says Williams. “Changing crops can be a considerable undertaking.”
The group of visionaries, who had convened in 2009, had identified a complementary path forward: Sandhills farmers needed new markets, and consumers had interest in, and wanted access to, healthy foods. They identified a strategy for encouraging the market of fruits and vegetables and re-igniting the farmers’ passions and talents. It was then that the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative sprouted.
“The Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative is a distribution center through which Sandhills farmers can supply fruits, vegetables and other farm goods to the community,” says Molly Goodman, co-manager for Sandhills Farm to Table and Ellerbe native.
The Cooperative was founded based on a community-supported agriculture (CSA) approach in which the producer (farmer) is connected with consumers (community members) who can subscribe to the harvest and related goods of our local producers. “It is an alternative model of food distribution and consumption that enables the farmers and consumers to be linked more closely together,” adds Goodman. “In addition to distribution support, we produce a weekly newsletter that provides a communications channel through which farmers can share stories, history about their farms, recipes and other interesting facts with their customers.”
The Cooperative staff help with the business end of distribution so that farmers can focus on farming. Staff and volunteers also help fill gaps in the infrastructure, such as transportation, packing and product storage. This is all done through the Sandhills Agricultural Innovation Center (SAIC) in Ellerbe, North Carolina. The Cooperative began utilizing the SAIC as its packing and distribution facility last year.
An important philosophy of Sandhills Farm to Table is buying the farmers’ harvest at a fair price. Through the Cooperative, a farmer can get more revenue than they would receive if selling to grocery store chains. “A tomato that you might pay $1 for in the grocery store, most farms only receive 10 cents,” explains Williams. “With Sandhills Farm to Table, it is typically 60 cents received by the farmer.”
The Cooperative brings together
households in Moore and surrounding counties with the farmers who tend the lands where we live. Not only does the consumer benefit from the health advantages of seasonally fresh goods, they can also trace the origin of the products they consume. The system also supports the development of organic and other ecological farming that can improve our lands and health.
Sandhills Farm to Table is an example of a successful local food system and an alternative local food marketing option for farmers who had historically relied on tobacco. “Consumers are truly in the driver seat as to what farmers produce in their communities,” adds Williams. “If you want to preserve local farms, buy local. Sign up for Sandhills Farm to Table.”
How it Works
Consumers can join the Cooperative at any time of year, but the most common time to become a member is late winter/early spring before the first harvest. “Beginning in late April, our farmers begin harvesting items such as strawberries, cucumbers, sugar snap peas and asparagus,” explains Goodman. Volunteers and staff sort and box the goods at the SAIC. After boxes are packed, they are delivered to member site pick-up locations, or straight to member’s homes in Moore County through a partnership with Moore Home Services NC.
“My wife and I have enjoyed subscribing to Sandhills Farm to Table for several years. You cannot get any fresher produce and we love that it’s local,” says Moore County Commissioner Frank Quis. “The produce boxes offer great variety, which encourages us to try different fruits and vegetables. And learning how our farmers apply agricultural best practices helps one understand how they achieve the quality and freshness we enjoy. Sandhills Farm to Table is truly a win-win for our community.”
In return for a commitment to the harvest, consumers claim a stake in shaping and preserving local farms and what they produce. Every year, new crops, new producers and more organic and sustainable produce is added to what Sandhills Farm to Table has available.
This past year the Cooperative celebrated its 10th anniversary serving the Sandhills with the launch of a refreshed website, new box offerings, and other member- and farmer-focused improvements.
About the Goods
Members have the option of choosing between several varieties of boxes and can skip or change weeks at any time. There are more than 20 gathering sites and workplaces in Moore, Lee, Cumberland, Hoke and Richmond Counties where consumers can pick up their goods. Box prices start at $18 and home delivery is available as an added option with a per delivery cost of $9.95.
Another aspect of the Cooperative is its Workplace Wellness program. In addition to gathering sites, workplaces can subscribe to boxes for their employees as a workplace benefit, allowing local employers to encourage healthier eating habits among employees.
Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative
Sandhills Ag Innovation Center
1298 Crawford Rd, Ellerbe, NC 28338