Farm to Web to Table

Broadband is transforming this county’s economy, one small farm at a time.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

Tim Will saw the potential for Farmers Fresh Market in Rutherford County. Photo courtesy of Civic Ventures, Encore.org

Tim Will saw the potential for Farmers Fresh Market in Rutherford County. Photo courtesy of Civic Ventures, Encore.org

Tim Will’s first impression of Rutherford County, N.C., was from a scene in the film Last of the Mohicans. When he saw the part where a character scattered ashes from the side of a cliff in a beautiful mountain range, “I told my wife, ‘I want to be buried there, too,’” he says.

Will had been a telecom specialist, both in the Army and the private sector. He was teaching history in Miami when he and his wife decided to make the move to Rutherford County in 2006. They found a 45-acre farm just 3 miles from the cliff where the film was shot. He was thrilled with the location, less so with the amenities.

“I started interviewing with schools and found that none of them had broadband Internet,” says Will. “Keep in mind, this was just a few years ago.” The economy in the county was shot, too. This was ground zero for the domestic collapse and globalization of the textile industry, which had floated Rutherford County’s fortunes since the 1930s, when 100,000-plus acres of cotton were farmed within its borders. In the middle of the 2000s, the county had the highest unemployment in the state.

Local chef Liz Rose says her sweet potato–pecan bread, with potatoes from an FFM grower, is the top seller at her restaurant/bakery, Café at the Mall.

Local chef Liz Rose says her sweet potato–pecan bread, with potatoes from an FFM grower, is the top seller at her restaurant/bakery, Café at the Mall.

Will walked into Foothills Connect, the business and technology center in the county seat of Rutherfordton, hoping to sign up for broadband. At the time, Foothills Connect was an advocacy group bent on bringing broadband to the county by writing grants and raising money. When Will told them about his background, “they pretty much hired me on the spot,” he says. He’s now the group’s executive director.

Will, whose formal education is in city and regional planning, learned about sustainable agriculture in the Peace Corps.  The move to Rutherford County ended up drawing on just about everything he’d learned in his career. Getting a grant meant finding a business purpose for the broadband, and Will knew the county’s farm legacy. In the Peace Corps, Will had taught families in the sub-tropics to become self-sustainable in 75 square meters. “We have land here, good land. Some of it needed work, but I knew we could grow things,” says Will.

In 2005, a $1.44-million grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation, which had wisely invested the state’s piece of the tobacco settlement, and eNC Authority, a state initiative to link all North Carolinians to high-speed Internet, helped lay 100 miles of fiber-optic cable in the county. The infrastructure was in place to begin economic reclamation, but what would drive demand?

After a conversation with a Charlotte-area chef, Will discovered a market in North Carolina’s upscale urban centers for locally grown produce, and he took the idea back to Foothills Connect. The idea for Farmers Fresh Market was born.

Mac Edgerton still grows a little tobacco, but specialty vegetables are more lucrative.

Mac Edgerton still grows a little tobacco, but specialty vegetables are more lucrative.

Mac Edgerton and his family farm 250 acres in the county, 100 of which have been in his family since the land was granted to his ancestors by the king of England. He had just retired from the Farm Service Agency when he heard about Will’s idea to sell produce to high-end markets online. “I was skeptical, I admit it,” Edgerton says. “But it has been a real asset to us to sell online and into the high-dollar market in Charlotte.”

Edgerton, who says half his income once came from tobacco, can now make more from a half-acre of high-value vegetables than he could from a half-acre of the leaf. He sells a little bit of everything through FFM and his family’s community-supported agriculture operation—Angus beef, lamb, even homemade jams and jellies from the wild muscadine on his land. “What we sell, we couldn’t deliver, but through a co-op organization like Farmers Fresh Market, we’re able to access those markets and get good prices for what we grow,” he says.

FFM’s 60-plus growers maintain their own digital storefronts at farmersfreshmarket.org by simply posting new product and removing what’s sold out. Buyers—chefs, individuals, green grocers—purchase the produce online, and the funds are deposited directly into the farmer’s bank account, minus a nominal fee. “It’s simple,” says Will. “And the grower gets to keep about 80 cents of the food dollar.” The National Farmer’s Union says the typical farmer’s share is less than 20 cents.

Brandon Higgins and Kirk Wilson are proud of the sustainable ag projects at R-S Central High School, many of which were made possible by a grant through Foothills Connect.

Brandon Higgins and Kirk Wilson are proud of the sustainable ag projects at R-S Central High School, many of which were made possible by a grant through Foothills Connect.

The food is shipped directly to wholesale buyers and to central locations in cities for individual pick-up. Kirk Wilson, FFM’s farm manager, says much of the food can be picked, packed and shipped to a six-county area (including urban centers like Charlotte and Asheville) within 24 hours.

FFM is Foothills Connect’s flagship program, but there are others that reflect its commitment both to business development and sustainable agriculture. A $60,000 grant through Foothills Connect helped Brandon Higgins, the ag teacher at the county’s R-S Central High School, fence in 30 acres for teaching kids to raise pigs and broilers and build a new greenhouse for experimenting with sustainable growing methods. He and his students even restored the school’s Massey Ferguson 230. The community supports the school’s efforts through events like a yearly feeder pig auction. Massey Ferguson dealer Phil Shehan of NC Tractor & Farm Supply supports the event as well, bringing out new tractors for display.

Wilson, who grew up farming and worked for GoldKist before Will hired him at Foothills Connect, says the county’s economy is still depressed, but he likes what he sees. “Really, we’re pushing to create jobs, and those jobs are called ‘small farms,’” he says. “We’re change initiators, and it’s fun to watch.”