The SNAP initiative has greatly energized the Polk County with its agricultural heritage. In a time of deep recession, work is being done with the social service agencies, such as the Isothermal Outreach Ministries to integrate agriculture into an economic strategy for distressed families from growing backyard gardens to starting farming operations. Many families, now unemployed, have land that can be farmed and there is an open market for good locally grown produce. Including Asheville, Greenville, SC and Spartansburg, SC there are over 1.23 million people in our economic area.
As we come to the end of the summer planting season, and the final report for the grant, many exciting new things are finally in the development stage for SNAP!
We are looking to attract entrepreneurial farmers to small, rural Polk County, and to create a community wide cultural understanding of sustainable community practices. By creating a network of organic farmers, and a consortium of local restaurant owners and retail market owners who are committed to purchasing and featuring their local products, we believe we can create a local food infrastructure for a cooperative and profitable entrepreneurial business market. The added bonus to this plan is that the restaurant owners will actively engage to obtain a zero waste status for their business by participating in a comprehensive recycling plan, part of which will help to create compost which will then be returned to the organic farms to help create rich, fertile soil. This Full Circle of Life process will create a visible and palpable model of sustainability that the entire community can participate in and expand upon.
From Farm to Fork and back to Farm again are the three objectives that create the full sustainable circle of this project.
1. From Farm: The objective of this first step is to develop a network of at least 4 local organic farmers that collectively can supply produce to area restaurants meeting year round needs as realistically as possible. The farmers benefit by having a local established market for their produce so they can focus on the diversity, quality, timing and seasonal extensions of their crops. In addition to enhancing existing operations, an initiative effort will be made to engage 1-2 new farming operations. A key to this objective is to have the buyer already in place so the farmers can focus on their production and know the produce can be sold.
2. To Fork: This objective is to provide restaurants with a reliable and somewhat predictable source of local fresh produce. Not only will they get high quality fresh produce, but locally grown organic initiatives are very marketable to the public. Also by working directly with the growers, they can help guide the choice of varieties and seasonal needs which will suite their menus. Already there are six local restaurants that have been identified as interested in featuring locally grown produce. By having on-site information about the network integrated into their businesses, these restaurants also serve as a significant awareness vehicle for the community and for people visiting the community.
3. Back To Farm: This objective is to complete a sustainability loop as an alternate to the traditional solid waste disposal. We are very fortunate to have a working company that has successfully recycled and processed waste in this fashion in nearby Asheville, NC and is interested in operations in Polk County. The benefit to the restaurants is to show that their operations are 100% green, the farmers will have high quality compost, and the disposal company will have a saleable product, including the recycled materials.
From a Polk County standpoint this project meets objectives to encourage agriculture and entrepreneurial enterprises. The project can be expanded as a sustainable project within Polk County and it can also be transferable to other areas in North Carolina and the region. A major objective is to have the project continue as a self-sufficient economic initiative.
1. Experiential Education – The Gardens at Giardini will be partnering with one of the local farmers, Lee Mink, and expanding their operation into an exciting new endeavor as a result of this grant. We have purchased a BCS tractor, will be building a 14×48’ hoop house, as well as building a 24×28’ covered pavilion in the gardens. We will also be expanding the total square footage of cultivated beds. Our goal is to partner together to create an experiential learning garden. This will not only be a viable, working, market farm, but will also serve as a location for workshops and educational programs in organic gardening methods for both local & regional farmers, as well as local residents and regional visitors interested in organic growing. We will now have a very visible 1 ½ acres under cultivation year round (counting winter cover crops), along with the new unheated hoop house and an rejuvenated minimally heated greenhouse for a variety of year round production. Lee Mink will be teaching a program in sustainable agriculture at Isothermal Community College this fall, and we are excited about taking that curriculum and assimilating it for our various individual workshops. We will be creating a permanent indoor market for produce, flowers and value added items from other local farmers, in addition to expanding on our CSA program, and supplying more salad greens and fresh flowers for the restaurant network. The Gardens are registered with the North Carolina Agritourism Dept. (www.ncagr.gov/agritourism, www.visitncfarms.com) and we hope to be able to attract people from around the state to our programs. Not only will this help to spread the knowledge of sustainable growing, hopefully it will contribute to the growth of agricultural tourism, which is one of the growth goals in Polk County.
2. The Restaurant Network got a major boost this week. We have been struggling since spring to be able to find enough growers to supply our network of five restaurants on a regular basis. But in a meeting with Tim Will, the founder of Foothills Connect and Farmers Fresh Market (www.foothillconnect.com, www.farmersfreshmarket.org), which is located just down the road in Rutherfordton, we have now established a relationship that will include the delivery of regional produce, meats and eggs to our SNAP! Restaurant Network here in Polk County. Formerly, they only had the capacity to deliver to restaurants in the Charlotte metropolitan area, but a recent re-structuring and expansion of their distribution system, they will now be able to include Polk County. This is the perfect network to be a part of, from both the farmer’s point of view and the restaurants point of view. And hopefully, once local farmers become acquainted with the system and with the local ties to this system, they will be encouraged to expand their production and join the system. By taking our little county and being able to piggy-back onto the programs in larger, adjoining counties, we are able to grow sustainability without re-inventing the wheel.
3. Website – A new communication and selling vehicle for our CSA has been found. Whereas, we originally thought we would need to be creating a new website in order to communicate with our CSA members, we have come across a wonderful software program that will do it all for us. It’s an internet ordering program called Locally-Grown.net that is being used by CSAs and Farmers Markets all over the county (www.locally-grown.net). We are able to sign up for free and then pay just 3% of everything we sell to the developer (who is farmer in Athens, GA). This system functions in a similar way to Farmers Fresh Market, in that farmers can input what they have to sell in that week, and customers (in this case the CSA members) can go online and order exactly what they want for the week. The system generates all the necessary accounting for both the farmers and the consumers, and we would simply act as the “middle man”. We feel this is a big boost for being able to expand our CSA memberships, as one of the drawbacks of a CSA is the one-size-fits-all basket each week. This program will allow consumers to only buy what they want that week, and will eventually allow us to better customize what we grow, based on what is selling the best. We will then be using the $150 for the website to sign up for Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com), which is a newsletter & survey tool that will allow us to stay in touch with a growing email list of potential customers interested in both our CSAs, and our Workshops.
4. Community Outreach
We will be participating in the Columbus Harvest Festival on October 3rd. Instead of running our own, separate festival, we will be giving those funds ($600) that were designated to a Harvest Festival to the Agricultural Economic Development office in Polk County. We will be baking wood fired pizzas in our mobile oven with tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic that are all locally grown.
At the end of the CSA season, (October 10th), we will be preparing large pans of veggie lasagna to the Thermal Belt Outreach ( www.tboutreach.org). All CSA members “donated” one of their share weeks back to the system, and we will be taking the last of our garden veggies and fresh rolled pasta to create meals that will be portioned and frozen for Outreach to use for their underserved families.
And finally, we will be working with our local Hospice to create a local program called Friends with Flowers (www.friendswithflowers.org). This will be a program that will use our new year-round cut flowers production to create bouquets that will be donated to Hospice patients
5. Recycling Program – we have finally been able to reconnect with Tim at TADS Trash & Recycle Services (firstname.lastname@example.org). We will now be moving forward to work with him with our restaurant network in order to create a sustainable system, which is as close to Zero Waste as possible. In addition, we are looking into ways of creating a county-wide composting program that will create central locations where people can bring their yard and kitchen waste in order to be composted and used at the organic farms.
1. In 2008. Polk County had two tailgate markets, Columbus and Tryon. There are now 4 successful markets and the number of vendors has almost doubled at the older markets. Over 300 customers showed up at the opening of the Saluda Tailgate Market and the Green Creek Market has become a rural neighborhood meeting place. A bi-state regional market along Route 26 is now being considered as a logical expansion of markets.
2. CSAs were formed both at Giardini’s in Columbus and the Manna Cabanna in Saluda. 45 customers are now being served locally grown produce. The Manna Cabanna will be doing a winter CSA and both of these projects should expand next year.
3. The Friends of Agriculture Breakfast was started as a networking tool. With a small grant from the Polk County Community Foundation a series of breakfasts were cooked by volunteers. Guests were invited to give a short presentation about how they can work with Polk County farmers. Groups included Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Blue Ridge Food Ventures, NC Department of Agriculture, NC State University and local viticulture growers. A special highlight was a visit by Steve Troxler the NC Commissioner of Agriculture. The Polk County Farm Bureau has agreed to continue this effort. Many local farmers are now working with these resource specialists.
4. The Polk Campus of Isothermal Community College was approached about several agriculture short courses. Courses were taught on viticulture, the basics to organic farming, agri-tourism and pastured livestock. The college did not have a course curriculum for agriculture and it is now approved to have four certified full courses next year: viticulture, equestrian studies, sustainable agriculture and vet assistants. The vision is to have an approved two year degree in agriculture and equestrian studies over the next couple of years.
5. BizWorks a regional business development program ran a special session for agricultural entrepreneurs. The course was very successful with one of the largest graduating classes in the program. The regional office is now working with ASAP and Polk County to setup a regional program for agriculture.
6. At the start of the program it was identified that the growing season had to be extended to service the local produce needs and be a reliable source of product for restaurants. Since the beginning of SNAP, 6 greenhouses are now operating. Greenhouses with Bill Davis and Cindy Veheman were abandoned and are now fully operational and a high tunnel was funded through CES Value Added Grants for Adawehi Institute to supply their health food store, David Miller, Lee Ledbetter and Bill Barker started new greenhouse operations. Bill Barker is beginning a closed system aquaculture hydroponics system for tilapia and lettuce.
7. This spring joint grant proposals were written with Polk County for the NC Farm Transition Network, ASAP, NC Department of Agriculture, Polk County Wellness Coalition and Foot Hills Connect.
8. This fall a Columbus Town celebration was being canceled and it is now planned as the Columbus Farm Festival scheduled for October 3rd.
9. A new Web Site called www.polkcountyfarms.org. is being developed.
10. Many individuals have changed their operations due to the energy for agriculture now underway in Polk County:
a. Gail Blate now has certified organic blue berries and muscadine grapes going to market this summer.
b. Lee Mink is now a full time farmer with a 2 acre organic site.
c. Vaughn Loeffler is a new farmer growing at the Stony Knoll Community Center.
d. Jeff Searcy and his wife are now producing over 60 acres of vegetables and have hired 6 new employees.
e. Doug Harmon, a dairy farmer, is planning to start a bottling operation.
f. Ziggy with Sunrise Farms is construction a goat milk bottling operation.
g. David Miller is processing syrup and jams from his blackberries in a certified kitchen.
h. Rodney Russell now has his certification and meat handlers’ license and is selling direct at the tailgate markets.
i. Mollie Lebude has expanded and has her own vegetable stand.