Working Landscapes is helping local farmers get to market, while placing fresh, healthy food in front of schoolkids and others in rural northeastern North Carolina.
By Taylor Sisk
Roasted carrot and baby squash quiche alongside a cup of cuke and herb soup and a locally produced beer, accompanied by live music and served in a newly refurbished casually swank venue.
This is a town with a population under a thousand on the western edge of rural northeastern North Carolina. It’s 108 South Main St., in historic downtown Warrenton.
It’s a café called Warren FoodWorks, and, yes, it’s pleasantly unexpected. But look behind it – or, more accurately, one door down and up the stairs – and you’ll discover the roots from which it sprang.
There you’ll find the offices of the nonprofit Working Landscapes. Working Landscapes’ mission is to widen avenues of distribution for local growers and otherwise bolster the region’s economy while providing fresh-off-the farm food to its residents.
As Warren FoodWorks casts a healthy glow onto Main Street, Working Landscapes envisions a means of helping sustain an economy and a culture.
Times have changed
On a recent Monday lunch hour, two local growers and a couple of Working Landscapes staff member/strategists gathered in the Working Landscapes offices to share FoodWorks fare and discuss the current nature of farming in general – and growing vegetables in particular – in rural North Carolina and beyond.
“Traditionally in this county, people never bought a whole lot of produce,” said Victor Hunt, whose farm is in the nearby Manson area, just off U.S. 1. “If I had too many green beans, rather than sell them I would call a neighbor and say, ‘I’ve got some extra if you want to come over and pick them.’”
“Years ago,” Hunt continued, “everybody farmed and everybody had a little garden. But now that’s not the case.”
Times have changed. Most folks no longer have any significant connection with the sources of their food. Working Landscapes was launched to address that.
The idea is not only to provide easy access to locally sourced foods (at eateries such as Warren FoodWorks and in schools, grocery stores, farmers’ markets and beyond) but to nurture a sustainable agricultural economy that’s firmly community based.
“When I started farming in the early ’80s, there were some 400 farms in Warren County that were considered to be full-time farms,” said Jeff Bender, who works about 400 acres of grain, tobacco and produce near a crossroads called Axtell. “We’re talking about maybe 20 now.”[pullquote_left] Get notifications of new NC Health News stories to your newsfeed – “like” us on Facebook today!
[/pullquote_left]What’s required to keep the local agricultural economy alive, said Working Landscape’s Tim Williams, is “a whole new system.”
The question, Williams said, is how to create a landscape that’s productive and healthy and provides for communities, one that will “promote local agriculture, feed people healthy food and provide jobs for the people who process that food.”
Working Landscapes aims to answer that question. And what better place to start than with kids?
Working Landscapes’ Chopped Produce Initiative provides locally grown chopped and bagged collard greens and cabbage throughout the school year to five area school districts: Warren, Bertie, Hertford and Northampton counties and Weldon City, all of which are members of the Roanoke River Valley Educational Consortium. It was through the consortium that CPI gained access to the schools.
CPI also recently sold produce to Beaufort County, and has sold to UNC-Chapel Hill as well.
The schools were a natural fit: they’re among the largest buyers of food in their communities, and a steady source, and are required to provide fresh, healthy foods.
CPI pays the growers an agreed-upon price throughout the season based on the value of the finished product.
“If we’re not delivering a fair price to the farmer, we’re failing in what we want to do,” said Gabe Cumming, who founded Working Landscapes in 2010 with his wife, Carla Norwood.
A fair price must allow for a fair wage for farmworkers and processing-facility employees while still offering an affordable finished product.
“It’s a tight squeeze, after you put all that together,” Cumming allowed. “And when those markets haven’t been established, it’s risky.”
Working Landscapes takes on some of the risk so that other actors can get into the food system, on the premise that when it takes hold new avenues of economic opportunity have been opened.
This requires outside funding in the early stages, which CPI has received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School and Local Foods Promotion programs and from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
The longer-term goal is for the program to be self-sustaining. But first it needs to work for growers like Victor Hunt. He grew up on the family farm – tobacco, corn, soybeans and cows: “Sort of like Old MacDonald,” he said, “a little bit of everything.”
Then, in 2005, came the tobacco buyout. The Hunt’s were out of the tobacco business and didn’t have enough land to justify focusing on large-scale growing of traditional commodity crops like soybeans and wheat.
“I just thought something like collards or cabbage would be a good fit,” Hunt said.
Cumming said a primary reason for focusing on produce was that much of the same equipment used to raise tobacco is equally suitable for produce production.
Off to school
Once harvested, the produce heads into town for processing in a revitalized downtown cotton warehouse. It’s then off to the schools.
Jacqueline Rowe-Higgs, child nutrition director for Bertie County Schools, loves what the program provides.
“It’s local, nice and fresh, and it comes in good condition, ready to prepare and eat,” Rowe-Higgs said. “And it’s meeting a lot of my requirements.”
Rowe-Higgs said the price is competitive, and no one else offers these items fresh and chopped from growers who are GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified. (Working Landscapes assists with the GAP certification process.)
Williams, who heads the Chopped Produce Initiative, visits the schools to talk with the kids about farming and survey them on how they liked what they were served.
In the Warren County Schools, students grow cabbage and collards in school gardens, and then advocate for the produce with their classmates.
In the winter of 2014-15, 12,275 students across the region were served CPI produce. Working Landscapes is now investigating introducing several other crops.
Charla Duncan’s job is to further secure the communal bonds.
She’s from Macon (pop: 119), five miles northeast of Warrenton. She left home for UNC-Greensboro, taught high school English in High Point for three years, then went to NYU for a master’s in public administration. She returned home to rest for a bit.
That was two years ago; she’s now fully invested in Warren County’s potential. She’ll soon wrap up a stint as the Chamber of Commerce’s executive director and has been with Working Landscapes for about a year as FoodWorks’ program manager.
In addition to the café on Main Street, featuring locally sourced items (including collard green pesto), FoodWorks runs a local-foods retail market within the café and manages a shared-use kitchen.
“We’re harvesting our cultural resources here,” Duncan said, “creating a third space, a community space for folks to gather together and engage with one another.”
With that – as with the broader Working Landscapes initiative – come opportunities that entrepreneurial growers welcome.
“We can raise it,” Bender said. “But you’re only half way there, if you’re that far, when you raise it. You’ve got to have a market for it.”
“This organization, Working Landscapes, is providing that,” Hunt added.
Working Landscapes hasn’t yet made a significant impact on the economy of Warren County, but Tim Williams trusts in the potential.
“It’s exciting to me that this is possible,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is develop a regional food system that makes sense, that values small producers, values family farms, and that increases access to locally grown food all across the region.”
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to grow this project so that Jeff and Victor don’t have to raise anything else,” Williams said.“They can just grow cabbage and collard greens to their hearts’ content.”[box style=”2″]This story was made possible by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to examine issues in rural health in North Carolina. [/box]