This is part of a series of articles about a local food distribution program. — The Editor
A new food initiative could soon have Richmond County farmers providing fresh produce to local institutes like schools and hospitals.
The Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative is a commercial enterprise selling fresh food to households. Unlike a grocery store, you pre-order your food and pick it up at a Gathering Center. The direct connection allows for the farmers to be paid more while consumers pay the same. The mission is to satisfy our local food needs with locally grown and produced foods.
After three successful years of the cooperative operating between Richmond, Moore and Lee counties, Founder Fenton Wilkinson is attempting to take it to the next level. Whereas the cooperative first served private subscribers, the latest idea is to connect farmers to institutions who wish to be served local produce.
“I think a couple of things made SF2T successful,” said Paige Burns, Richmond County Cooperative Extension Agent. “One was timing: the ‘local food movement’ was gaining momentum in 2010 and many people became interested in eating locally produced products and getting to know the farmer that grew them. Peoples’ lives are busy, and while most people enjoy going to farmers markets, their schedules don’t always allow the time to go. So a local box picked up at a convenient site works well with modern lifestyles.”
Wilkinson made a presentation to the Richmond County Board of Commissioners on Monday, after being introduced by Burns, to describe what he is trying to achieve, and where he is in the planning stages of his effort.
“This goes hand in hand with Vision 2020,” said Wilkinson. “This program comes out of and is driven by the private sector, and has been from the beginning.”
Wilkinson said his cooperative is “the first in the country where farmers, consumers and staff are all equal,” in the sense that all three entities hold an equal share of the company. He said his goal is to shift from a focus in retail market with household consumers to local institutions. According to Wilkinson, a feasibility study is being conducted on the logistics of putting together a “food hub,” due to strong local interest expressed by hospitals and schools.
“I want to express that the interest is not just from people saying yes. They have already contributed over $10,000 towards the feasibility study,” said Wilkinson. “The food hub would be an aggregation facility, which is cutting edge in local food systems. We are looking at models around the country and one of the biggest elements of this is that we are looking to create long-term relationships.”
“Local institutions add another market level for farmers, expanding the potential customer base, and is a market that can use more volume of product than most households can use,” said Burns. “So farmers can sell more product to additional customers.”
Wilkinson said the cooperative has raised at least $75,000, and although they are not ready to begin, they are considering a learn-by-doing pilot which would be comprised of a 30-week season.
“Ideally, the Institutional Food Hub will expand markets for local growers, allowing them to grow and sell more product,” said Burns. “It could also provide a basis for season extension, with farmers moving into a year round production season. Improved economics will make farming more profitable for existing growers, and increase the potential for new and younger people to take up farming. With the average age of farmers at about 58, we need economic incentives for the next generation to get interested in growing our food. The Food to Institution Food Hub can take local food consumption to the next level of success.”
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.