Farm Marketing Co-ops
How co-ops use the Internet to spread fresh food to cities and wealth to farming communitiesBy Hannah Miller
Five farmers' marketing co-ops in North Carolina are now using the Internet to make lucrative connections with big-city chefs, employees of large businesses and enthusiastic home cooks who don't mind paying premium prices. Last year, they brought more than $200,000 into their rural counties.
Josh Heinberg, executive director of Down East Connect co-op, says money flows from Wilmington, its biggest market, to farms in Columbus, Bladen, Brunswick and Robeson counties.
Farmers set their individual prices, which can be $7.50 a pound for grass-fed, extra-low-fat ground beef, and $4.50 a dozen for brown, Grade A Jumbo eggs. "We encourage our farmers to know where their price needs to be (to cover costs)," says Brenda Sutton, a founder of Wentworth-based Piedmont Local Food.
The markets mimic Rutherfordton-based Farmers Fresh Market, established in 2006, and most can still be accessed through that group's website, www.farmersfreshmarket.org. Piedmont uses www.piedmontlocalfood.com.
Customers order from sophisticated Internet presentations of sustainably-grown, mostly chemical-free food including exotic variations — like purple okra — as well as the staples of meat, dairy and produce. The markets' trucks deliver within two days.
The Rutherfordton market includes about 100 farmers from Rutherford, Polk, Cleveland, Buncombe and McDowell counties. They sell to some 20 restaurants and wholesalers and more than 500 individuals in buying clubs in Charlotte and Greenville, S.C.
Erin Brighton of Charlotte, an enthusiastic home cook, cooking blogger, health teacher and mother of four, describes delivery day at her home, a pickup point for 50 friends. She has "crate upon crate" in her dining room, and "depending on how much food there is, in my front hall. There's like a pile of money on the table. My 1-year old is trying to throw eggs. It's crazy."
But, she says, from an economic and health perspective, "I love what we do."
At Piedmont Local Food, 75 farmers from Rockingham, Caswell, Stokes, Guilford, Forsyth and Alamance counties bring food to a borrowed warehouse, where volunteers pop the ground beef in a freezer and sort the produce for delivery to about 600 customers in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point and other towns.
Businesses let employees order and accept deliveries during the workday because "they're trying to help their employees eat healthier," says Brenda Sutton.
Deborah Crumpton of Running Pine Herb Farm, an EnergyUnited member from Wentworth, says, "We've sold probably more fresh-cut on there (the website) than we do at the farmers market. Surprising."
The 20 growers of Down East Connect, which started with the help of a $2,500 grant from Brunswick EMC, sell in Wilmington, Whiteville and Brunswick County.
Down East, at www.downeastconnect.com, has also formed an alliance with Eastern Carolina Food Ventures, www.farmersfreshmarket.org/easternfoodventures, supplying leafy greens and receiving granola and pork. Eastern Carolina, allied with James Sprunt Community College and including 40 producers in Duplin, Pender, Lenoir and Sampson counties, sells to buying clubs in Duplin and Pender and intends to expand to Lenoir and Sampson.