A time to reflect, re-write, and roll on! In our first year as a county with an agricultural economic development office, (2008) a one-man office with 3 AmeriCorps volunteers developed a small farm festival in downtown Columbus, NC. By year two, we had an abandoned building donated us and a team that grew from 4 to 8. We held small events and many volunteer days to help save the building and wrote for grants and grew our farmers markets from 1 to 4 and the momentum went on from there. In the 3rd year the team has grown to hundreds who help out regularily and many of whom have gone out into the community with spin-off projects to include community college education, establishing a Slow Food Subchapter called Slow Food Foothills, individual workshops (produce growing, CABA workshop). We feel it’s okay to celebrate a little for all the hard work we’ve done. Our local high school has 250 kids in ag classes: Ag Econ. Office has a certified sustain ag acredited class under continuing education which helps local kids stay local for their ag education. We hope to have those credits recognized by 4 year institutions. All of these projects, goals, and outcomes combined is making the Mill Spring Ag Center a regional center for sustainable Ag and teachings and workshops occurring directly on farms: Within 20 minutes you can be on any farm in this county with the Ag Center as your starting point. We are truly an agricultural community “university” without walls!
In the first quarter of this year, (Jan. 2011- March 2011) we met with the Polk County Planning Department and established that agricultural development, both in production and marketplace, is a primary economic tool for Polk County. We profiled 3 farms: Charlene’s Garden, Nelon Knoll Farms, and Restoration Farm, all in Polk County. Our profiles give them the who, what, where, when and why about the farms as well as testimonials from the farmers about their history, what brought them to farming and their passion for sustainable agriculture and community. This template has set the format for as many more farm profiles as we can fit in 2011 and then turn the project over to our annual AmeriCorps volunteers who can follow the format and continue to update the local farm scene. (see Farmers’ Profiles at www.polkcountyfarms.org)
We also hosted alternative spring breakers from the University of Illinois for a week-long general building improvement. In the second quarter (April – June) we corresponded with our 50 identified participants to establish with them the economic baseline they were operating at and how we could assist them into further marketplace. The most common responses were that most were at their max production levels for their marketplace of choice which in many cases is one or more of the four weekly farmers markets. We knew we were on our way to opening our Farm Store and worked the phones and markets to encourage producers to begin ramping up productions and participate in this cooperative indoor year-round farm market. We started with very few vendors between April and June, going from 7 vendors and a store run on the honor system to around 20 when we formerly launched the store on June 1, 2011 with sales records, departments for each vendor and a regular rotating volunteer staff. In the third quarter (July – Sept.) we continued hosting special events for the community to come together over agricultural economic development and to raise awareness of the local farms, value-added producers, food artisans and the PolkFresh TradePost Farm store and distribution center. We held a collaborative fundraiser with our local Humane Society called the Dog Days of Summer which opened the Ag Center for a large flea market with produce, crafts, and local food sales, as well as displays by animal-friendly services around the community including a mobile veterinarian, an on the road adopt a “Farm Dog” or “Barn Cat” unit, and pet-obedience classes. In our troubleshooting the distribution area: although everything is clean and painted and we’re using it and there’s been no requirements, we’d like to open it up to area industrial food operations but are not yet GAP certified. Solved a problem for foothills connect: because we had the coolers, farmers could bring things in the day before. Which helped on-time deliveries, added a management quality to the whole day. 48-hours more realistic level. Foothills under our guidance grew from $87k to $135 growth of small local farmers. Our target is to incorporate larger vegetable growers to hit the $400k: we will always accept Polk County farmers quality vegetables with additional orders being filled from a regional basis.
In August we hosted a project participants overview meeting, inviting Store vendors (who are a good deal of our farm market vendors) to a potluck where we overviewed the processes of the retail store’s development and service to them as their co-operative year-round indoor farm market process and surveyed the group for their feedback and continued support. We are continually amazed and pleased to see such a community spirit work together in hard times and in good to develop our own bottom lines for our own families, sustainably within a web of community support, under the roof of our new and beloved center.
By September, we showcased over 20 of these 40 store suppliers in a Farm to Fork Supper fundraiser for the Ag Center. Again, nearly 300 people attended and feasted off local food, viticulture, and beer beverages, as well as organic minted teas and organic fruited lemonades. Local live music, a silent auction, and raffles including sales of auditorium repair seats totaled over $7,000 raised for the center.
Our Agri-Tour, Dog Days of Summer, and Farm to Fork Supper brought hundreds of new people into the Ag center, PolkFresh Tradepost store, and Distribution Center.
Fourth Quarter (Oct. – December)
A time to reflect, re-write, and roll on! In our first year as a county with an agricultural economic development office, (2008) A one-man office with 3 AmeriCorps volunteers developed small farm festival in downtown Columbus, NC. By year two, we had an abandoned building donated us and a team that grew from 4 to 8. We held small events and many volunteer days to help save the building and wrote for grants and grew our farmers markets from 1 to 4 and the momentum went on from there. In the 3rd year the team has grown to hundreds who help out regularily and many of whom have gone out into the community with spin-off projects to include community college education, establishing a Slow Food Subchapter called Slow Food Foothills, individual workshops (produce growing, CABA workshop). We feel it’s okay to celebrate a little for all the hard work we’ve done.
4th quarter: We are trying to collect many more farm profiles during this final quarter as well as transition the managerial support the store has received through this grant process into the hands of a volunteer-based store committee who will continue to grow the store and its reach into further agricultural economic cluster marketplaces. We have taken survey for farm store vendors and exit surveys from the farmers market vendors. Farm markets have formalized their committees which are run by the farmers in their charter.
We’ve had weekly meetings with Polk County Planning to work agricultural economic development into the unified code for our county’s 20/20 Five Year vision plan.We hosted a community-wide Volunteer Day, which sourced local food catered for no charge by local growers and garden-club enthusiasts. We began the development of a very special event that connected the Ag Center with our diverse business community by hosting a Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce After-Hours event. We also partnered with Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) in Asheville to mutually participate in a June, 2011 Local Farms Agri-Tour. Within this event, we picked up two new farms who chose to associate themselves with our grant project: Maple Creek Farm and Sweet Grass Farm, both meat producers. Finally, we help establish a local community-center kitchen as one for commercial use for value-added production and local food artisans to rent on an hourly or daily level. 3rd quarter: EVALUATE our outcomes of economic clusters: We supplemented Foothills Connect, an established regional distribution system offered on-line through a grant by the Golden Leaf Tobacco Trust Fund and located in Rutherford County. We supplemented by funding one of their employees 2-days a week to work over here at the Mill Spring Ag Center and use our working coolers and dry spaces as a drop off point for Polk County farmers going to further marketplace. Another distribution center objective was to coordinate farmers with commercial herb distribution: Regional herb producers such as Gaia, Golden Needle,(Blue Ridge Food ventures) and other culinary and medicinal herb markets. Regional ag leaders who helped participate in this are Jeanine Davis, Ag-Ext. Regional Fletcher Research Station. Land o’ sky regional council. Caroline Edwards, where we went to the Cherokee reservation looking at herbs. Jim Shlulte has purchased land with 6k square feet of greenhouse to produce basil.
Regional Ag Clusters: The regional effect is a base line estimated at 7 million dollars of new commerce, farmland preservation easements, larger agricultural start-up operations like a wholesale herbal greenhouse system and an aquaponics Tilapia operation. Henderson County hired an Ag Economic Development Director modeled after us: That coordination is extending into these others counties. Cherokee, Graham, and Clay, Buncombe, Yancey, Wilkes, City of Charlotte
Putting specific farm product into a website: Kiveo Polk County Gifts (last quarter). web marketing, Toward the end of this quarter, we began our new 3-paneled, two-sided brochure. (attached) We had a store sign painted and began business card and product label layouts and ordering.
Toward the end of June, we held an 11-stop Agri-Tour in cooperation with ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project). ASAP was holding their annual family farm tour on the same day as ours so we collaborated. Our farm-tour car pass got folks into their farms and their farm-tour car pass got folks into ours. Over 300 people were estimated to have visited the collective of stops, selling out their direct farm sales and many of whom have become regular customers to the farms from this day forward. A major media-release campaign gained regional attention, with news outlets in Hendersonville, Asheville, Spartanburg, and Greenville, SC picking up on the story. Over $1400 was raised for the Ag Center. Farmers and volunteers were exhausted and thrilled after the several days preparation and all-day long tours. Troubleshoot and adjust difficulties: 3rd quarter: Everything is full-steam and we can note a couple of the improvements: store system went computerized. We launched our buffalo meat guy from a volunteer vendor in our farm store where he had to pay a commission and give 4 hours of service per month to the store to strictly getting by on direct farm sales, which is the boost they needed and no longer need any subsidizing support from the farm store. Another person launched from the store to their own direct sales is Restoration Farm for their egg production. We have experienced an evolution of businesses and people: coming in and “subsidizing” and launching forward.
Educational & Outreach Activities
VISIT www.polkcountyfarms.org for uploads of what’s mentioned here.
Our outreach into the community through our SARE funded project includes the Friends of Agriculture monthly breakfast series attended on average by 70 farmers, value-added producers, food artisans, educators, county planners and commissioners and related agencies. It is through this group that we identified 50 farms, farm market vendors, local food producers and local food artisans to work with. (attached). Further community outreach has included the Polk County Wellness Coalition, where we showed a series of wellness films here at the Ag Center this year, held several farmers market vendor meetings, and work weekly with our co-operative extension office including the health and wellness coordinator who we assist on her Buy 10% Local Campaign. We created a new website and extended the social media component to include three videos (“Meet your Polk County Farmer, “Momentum” on the Mill Spring Ag Center, and a video produced about our Economic Development Office and opportunities in the county), We send a weekly online newsletter from our farm store, the PolkFresh Trade Post, and our distribution center sends web notes to farm distribution lists and hospitality clubs.
We created a logo “PolkFresh” (attached) We began development on our new website, www.polkcountyfarms.org, linked with social media sites Facebook and Twitter and generated regular posts and e-blasts as our newsletter format. Our website gives information on local farms, farm markets and the vendors who attend, local CSA’s, local road-side stands and local farm to table restaurants. We published several press releases about the grant and its objectives. We unveiled our new logo and website, as well as the Farm store and distribution centers’ development plans at the NC Soil and Water Conservation Districts Annual Conference in Asheville, NC. In March we attended the ASAP sponsored “Marketing Opportunities For Farmers” all-day workshop and networked PolkFresh and regional farmers and growers with regional distribution companies, restaurants, and small and large groceries. (GreenLife and Poppies, as well as Whole Foods).Our Ag Development office helped lead the development of a larger distribution support system within the Ag Center. One of the distribution center’s first projects was to help provide local foods to a 3000 person event at the Charlotte Convention Center. We have also made contact with the Bi Lo Convention Center in Greenville, SC to perform a similar service. We continued developing the PolkFresh Tradepost Farm store growing the 20 vendors to now 40, ever reaching the 50 participants level where we hope to continue to grow them in their economic development bottom lines. The span of vendor specialties now include: produce farmers, egg growers, meat raisers, wine-grape growers, grains and flours, dairy items like goats milk and cheese, cows milk, cheese, and butter, sauces, jams, baked goods, jellies, cereals, coffees, and teas.
The PolkFresh team (Lynn Sprague, Carol Lynn Jackson, AmeriCorp volunteers at the Ag Center and other project volunteers) have attended dozens of community coordination meetings with all supporting agencies: presentation to County Commission updates by Lynn Sprague: Health and Wellness Coalition: strategic planning commission, Tryon Rotary Club, Lions Club, Pea Ridge Community Center, UUWA, and our local small business entrepreneurial program called Mountain Biz Works where we have developed a model of agricultural business planning that has gone out to 17 NC counties.
We designed the farm store layout with our builders. We met with our co-operative extension agent, the nutrition counselor in order to create packets to promote the “Buy 10% Local Campaign” within the community. We took packets around to area restaurants and currently have 4 of these private businesses signed on. We worked daily alongside the Ag Economic Development office and visited our state farmers market to see where PolkFresh growers could find a niche there. We were offered our own booth space and began to determine which farmers’ wanted to be involved in a more regional marketplace on a weekly basis. We had one farm, our largest produce producer in the county, willing to take on the challenge of yet another market and they continue selling up there to date. We met a local nut roaster who asked us to consign PolkFresh produce into his monthly rented booth and he would hand back to the growers the more generous portion of the split. However, this was a hard sell: to consign perishables into a marketplace that was over 30 miles away. We know producers are more interested in selling out right until traffic flow and demand has trained the consumers to sell them out whether they are direct selling or consigning. Challenges we need to troubleshoot further include consigning in fresh produce to the store and managing the recycling of it, finding a value-added stream for it. The idea of the store being a business incubator for vendors of any scale production leaves us managing checks of $1 or $2 or $3. We’ve learned that re-writing the mission statement of the store and how it needs to run is an okay, in fact necessary approach for success. We also want to get to where a farmer can bring things into the farm store after area farmers markets: they’ve gone to the work of harvest and what doesn’t sell out or if it’s a slow day, it can leave them feeling devastated! So our store needs Saturday market store hours.
As the contracted laborer to see through the objectives and goals of our SARE grant application, as it partnered with funding from an ASAP grant, an Ag Options grant, and a Blue Ridge Heritage foundation grant, offering me funding for one-year’s full-time work on these projects collaborated, I must say I am exhausted and ENERGIZED all at the same time for what Polk County is doing. Our recommendations are that we want funders to continue to see us as worthy of investment and when we apply again in 2012 for another SARE grant, that you see how well we’ve done with our monies, community enthusiasm and involvement and economic and sustainable development for agriculture in Polk County. We want to continue to ally with private agriculture businesses who are growing, marketing, teaching, distributing, and developing. We need a commercial kitchen at our Ag center something fierce! We need value-added production supports and GAP certified facilities development supported and funded for labor. Advertising and road signs are much needed for our Ag Center and its’ farm store and support for continuing education in our relationship with our community college and private instruction workshops on growing, marketing, preserving, and distributing.
My personal future recommendation is that you will give me your serious consideration or anyone else from Polk County who is in ties with the PolkFresh Tradepost Project (not many left you aren’t!) as we apply for your support, once again, in 2012. Happy New Year! Sustainably yours, Carol Lynn Jackson and Lynn Sprague