Women Farmers Building a Healthy Community and Economy in the High Country

Final Report for CS05-033

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2005: $9,900.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Chelly Richards
Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture (BRWIA)
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Project Information


An institutional food assessment gauged the interest and desires of institutions for local food procurement. It identified the specific barriers and recommendations of institutions on how to make purchasing local food easier. Institutional markets and suppliers were developed simultaneously. Information gathered by the assessment and input from participants can be used in trainings for local growers interested in selling to institutions. Institutional food purchasers and growers were brought together for a vendor fair.


The core components of a community-based food system in the North Carolina High Country include local agricultural producers; agriculture-related businesses, such as value-added food processors and community kitchens; local points of distribution like farmer’s markets and food co-ops; and food consumers like restaurants, institutions, and individuals. When these components are linked together they strengthen local relationships between stakeholders in the food system—from field to table. The outcome will be a system that ensures each member of the community has access to healthful and nutritional food grown in way that reduces reliance on agri-chemical fertilizers and pest control and where the economic benefits remain and are re-circulated within the community.

Institutional markets such as schools and hospitals can play a vital role in sustaining local agricultural producers and local economies. Institutions are driving forces in rural economies such as the High Country; they create jobs and produce goods for the community. By encouraging and developing markets for a different kind of exchange, these same institutions provide more benefits to the places they serve and exist. Even if small percentages of their food budgets were spent on local food procurement, it would add thousands of dollars back into the local economy creating a multiplying effect. Institutional markets for High Country farmers will also create opportunities to enable many of the underemployed constituents develop viable income streams through sustainable alternative agricultural enterprises such as specialty crops and value-added products.

For individual producers, however, overcoming barriers to entering institutional markets, including production methods, insurance requirements, distribution channels, and quantities needed to supply institutions can seem daunting. In addition, women farmers face unique challenges in finding necessary resources and access points for establishing profitable and marketable farms. Although a strong and growing force in agriculture, women have long been undervalued, underserved and underestimated. Opening new markets such as institutions will assist women farmers to advance toward agricultural sustainability, improve their family’s economic status as well as the community’s economic status, and battle against social inequalities.

Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture (BRWIA) organizes women farmers to take the lead in creating a sustainable community based food system. The “Women Farmers Building a Healthy Community and Economy in the High Country” project assists rural women through training and market development to create economic opportunities for themselves and their families, with agriculture as the cornerstone, as well as to address issues of consumer access to locally grown and produced products. This project aims to continue to build women leaders and provide new opportunities for them in our community food system through institutional markets.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: Conduct the High Country Institutional Food Assessment

-Hire Farm-to-Institution Coordinator
-Develop Institutional Food Assessment strategy and survey
-Identify institutions in the eight High Country counties in which BRWIA works (Ashe, Avery, Alleghany, Wilkes, Watauga, Caldwell, Mitchell, Yancey)
-Conduct telephone surveys
-Compile and analyze results
-Publicize our findings to the High Country community
-Use the results to identify target institutions and training needs

Objective 2: Train women farmers on successful production and marketing strategies for local institutional markets.

-Use the results of the Institutional Food Assessment along with input from High Country women farmers to identify specific training topics
-Develop a training program
-Identify and secure expert trainers for workshops
-Market training workshops to women farmers
-Conduct a workshop to educate women farmers on production strategies for institutional markets (such as season extenders, growing large quantities, succession plantings, etc.)
-Conduct a workshop to educate women farmers on marketing strategies for institutional markets (such as increasing quantities to be sold, packing and distribution, insurance requirements, etc.)

Objective 3: Develop two institutional markets for locally grown and processed foods

-Collaborate with project partners to plan vendor fairs which will connect farmers and food service directors
-Host vendor fair for mountain counties (Watauga, Avery, Ashe, Mitchell, Yancey)
-Host vendor fair for foothills counties (Caldwell, Wilkes, Alleghany)
-Plan on-farm and institution site visits for farmers and food service directors
-Identify two institutions that want to increase their local food procurement
-Collaborate with farmers and target institutions to develop strategy for increasing the local food procurement
-Plan and develop two pilot “all local meals” at the target institutions
-Survey participating institutions to identify challenges, successes, and recommendations for future of institutional markets in the High Country

Objective 4: Document our lessons learned and allow for replication of the project across the region

-Prepare a written strategy on the institutional food assessment. This will entail our survey tool, a comprehensive list of institutions in the High County, the compiled results of the survey, and recommendations on how to approach targeted institutions.
-Prepare written documentation on our methods for the vendor fairs, institution site visits, and on-farm site visits.
-Prepare a hard-copy of our comprehensive list of institutional processes of food procurement and perceived barriers put forth by the institutions so we can establish specific strategies for the institutions we plan to work with in the future.
-Set forth our recommendations for future programs and strategies needed to establish successful and sustainable institutional markets for local food procurement.
-Compile surveys of project participants throughout the two-year program to provide recommendations and success stories for the guide.


Materials and methods:

Phone surveys were carried out under the direction of Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture (BRWIA). The types of institutions included in the project were: hospitals, schools, colleges and nursing/rest homes. The counties included in the survey region were: Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey. The purpose of the survey was to better understand institutional food purchasing as well as to determine the demand for local food in our region.

Project partners included: NC State Cooperative Extension and Appalachian State University.

Attachments: Survey form, “meet and greet” vendor fair invitation and menu, “Feeding the High Country” color handout, “An Assessment of Institutional Food Services in the High Country” booklet (draft), and a recent BRWIA newsletter, “Local Food Connection.”

Research results and discussion:

Through this project we assessed institutional barriers and desires for local food procurement. This assessment will strengthen proposals for future community food projects. In the development process of this unique market, BRWIA demonstrated the possibility for moving local food into the institutional food services and, thus, increasing the percentage of local food commodities procured by target institutions. This project empowered women farmers to become successful producers and marketers to local institutional markets. Most importantly, perhaps, we fostered relationships between the institutions and farmers in the area interested in building a local food system that benefits the entire community.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

“Feeding the High Country,” a full-color handout summarizing the findings of the High Country Institutional Food Assessment was published. The handout featured statistics from the survey that suggest a significant potential market for local farmers. It also shows how local farmers already produce some of the top products purchased by the institutions. The institutions surveyed that already purchase local food are pleased with the high quality and dependability of local farmers. The barriers institutions face in purchasing local food and what the institutions need to make the transition are also graphed on the handout. “Feeding the High Country” was available at the “meet and greet” vendor fair and other BRWIA events held throughout the course of the project.

“An Assessment of Institutional Food Services in the High Country,” a full-color booklet that expands upon the information provided in “Feeding the High Country” was also drafted. When finalized and published, this document will be used to promote the program as we continue to develop institutional markets.

In addition to the publications and events described throughout this report, all of which provided outreach for the project, BRWIA utilized its strong connections with the local media to inform farmers, institutions, and the general public about the project through newspapers, radio, and television. We also utilized our website and email listserv to conduct outreach for the project.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The High Country Institutional Food Assessment was completed successfully.
-Three university students were hired (in succession) to assist with the assessment.
-A survey on institutional food purchasing practices, desires, barriers, and recommendations was created, tested, and revised. (see attached)
-A list of 68 regional institutions was compiled. -All of the institutions were contacted.
-Forty-one of the institutions participated in the survey.

Other accomplishments include:
-Over 50 individuals attended the "meet and greet" vendor fair held on June 19, 2008. The catering menu was comprised completely of local foods. (see attachments)
-Preliminary results of the survey were used to create the “Feeding the High Country handout,” which was disseminated at the "meet and greet" vendor fair. (see attached)
-A first draft of our recommendations for future programs and strategies needed to establish successful and sustainable institutional markets for local food procurement was completed.
-“An Assessment of Institutional Food Services in the High Country,” a full-color booklet detailing the findings of the institutional assessment was drafted. (see attached)


Potential Contributions

An important result of this project included the realization that effective development of the institutional market in the High Country local food system is a very difficult task. While fostering connections between farmers and institutional food directors is an important first steps—and one of the most significant outcomes of this project—long term efforts to address the underlying infrastructure and policies of the food system, all of which serve to provide a competitive advantage to the conventional-industrial food system, will certainly be required in order to have a significant impact on our local food economy.

To that end, BRWIA engaged a diverse group of stakeholders by hosting the first High Country Local Food Summit in 2006. The Local Food Taskforce, an outgrowth of this effort, will be an important actor in creating systemic change. In addition, BRWIA is an organizing partner in the 2009 Local Food Summit.

Future Recommendations

Even though the results of this project include some impressive achievements, we did not have enough time to complete all of the tasks outlined in our ambitious proposal. Staff turnover, in particular, impeded our progress on the project.

In 2009 BRWIA plans to partner with Appalachian Regional Medical Center and Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) to facilitate successful business connections between local farms and hospitals by implementing a Farm-to-Hospital program. We recently submitted an application to fund this work through the “Creating New Economies Fund,” a seed grant program of the Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program.

While we do not have specific plans or funding to conduct training workshops in 2009, equipping High Country women farmers with the skills they need to be competitive is an important part of our mission and we hope to offer vendor production and marketing training sessions in the future.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.