French Broad EMC Funds Regional Food Hub
Tractor Food and Farms supports local farmers and food access
A former sock factory nestled among the mountains of Yancey County has recently been reborn as a critical resource to local farmers, thanks in part to funding secured by French Broad EMC. Last year, Tractor Food and Farms, a nonprofit “food hub” that provides services to family farms across nine counties, more than doubled its space by moving into the old factory.
French Broad EMC partnered with the organization to secure $208,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant (REDLG) program. North Carolina’s electric cooperatives are national leaders in using REDLG funds to support economic development in their communities.
“This is another great example of how the REDLG program benefits the rural cooperative areas we serve,” said Jeff Loven, manager of the Marshall-based electric cooperative. “Tractor Food and Farms is a central piece to overall food resiliency and food sustainability within our community.”
Using the REDLG funds, in addition to a $41,670 match from the Marshall-based electric cooperative and a $54,000 investment from Tractor Food and Farms, the organization was able to fully convert the space from its textile past (manufacturing socks and sock monkeys) to a state-of-the-art food-grade operation. A new electrical system, fire suppression system, office space and walk-in freezers were part of the retrofit.
“We needed to expand,” said Tractor Food and Farms Director Robin Smith. “We physically didn’t have space for the staff that we were hiring, so it was important that we have a new facility as we grow and provide farmers with all of the tools they need to be successful in farming.”
The organization serves small farmers by providing shared services that many couldn’t otherwise afford. Growers have access to specialized training as well as use of washing and packing equipment, commercial refrigeration, farming equipment and product delivery services. The organization also works with large buyers, coordinating bulk purchases among several farmers and ensuring individual farmers are paid on a regular basis.
Additional work includes a partnership with the Dig In! Yancey Community Garden to get fresh produce to senior centers through the Meals on Wheels program, as well as a partnership with Reconciliation House to provide “summer food boxes” to children with limited food access outside of the school year. Since 2015, Tractor Food and Farms has donated nearly four tons of produce to Reconciliation House.
“The building has given us a lot of flexibility,” Smith said. “The facility gives us the space to explore other options to help farmers at all levels, whether they’re starting off small or if they want to sell tractor-trailer loads of produce.”
New services include an online store (tractorfoodandfarms.com), where orders can be placed ahead of time for pickup at the Burnsville facility, a new box storage area, and refrigeration for products beyond vegetables, including fruit, meat and other perishable goods. The organization continues to find ways to ensure local farmers have every opportunity to get their produce on local shelves.
“This has been an incredibly difficult year on farmers. It’s been nonstop rain here, and there’s been immense flooding,” Smith said. “I’m ever amazed at the continued resilience and tenacity of a farmer. They take these hits time and time again, not knowing from one year to the next if they can sustain operations, all because of weather. And they continue on.”
“These guys and gals are tough,” Smith added. “We do our best to help them in any way that we can. And they know we’re here for them. Sometimes, just the feeling that you’re not alone out there can help a lot.”
Cooperatives give back to communities