Like any small community trying to develop its food economy we encounter the challenge of balancing both sides of the local food see-saw at once. On one end sits the buyers who would prefer local food but ultimately need a reliable, affordable supply for their families or businesses. On the other end sits the growers who would like to make income from their crops, but might not be able to afford the risk of ending up with a lot of excess, unsold produce.
If there aren’t enough local vegetables to meet the time-sensitive needs of the buyers, they are going to get their produce off of the big reliable trucks and leave our growers on the see-saw, sitting in the dirt. Then, if there aren’t customers when the big harvests come in, the growers won’t likely be taking that risk again. Pretty soon, the kids are going to stop coming to our local food playground.
To develop a viable local food economy, a community has to develop good communication and trusting relationships between buyers and growers. Sometimes this takes lots of formal meetings, committees, and structures. In our case, after all this hard work had taken place, what we needed was some serendipity and two enterprising individuals to take the initiative to bring the pieces together. In Pocahontas County, Dawn Baldwin Barrett and Steve Saffel are those two.
Last season with some Grow Appalachia logistical support, Dawn Baldwin Barrett of Brightside Acres took it upon herself to run a distribution route between growers and commercial buyers across the county. She did this without asking for a fee from the growers for her considerable time and mileage from their farms to the buyers. With an eye to the future for what this route could mean for local growers, she operated out of her truck with lots of coolers and a cell phone that rarely got reception.
Collecting and distributing produce this way was challenging for several reasons. First, our county takes almost two hours to drive across, and that’s sticking to the main roads—not winding down gravel paths to the farms. Second, it relies on the farmers to wash and sort their produce in a presentable way for the buyers. There’s only so much preparation one can do in the back of a truck.
This year, Dawn joined forces with Steve Saffell of S & S Farm, a local grower with a strong presence at the Marlinton farmers market for the last several years. They took advantage of an offer from Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity to share their building to act as a local food hub, collected a donated refrigerator and an 8’ by 8’ walk in cooler, and began “Pocahontas Produce on the Move” at the end of June.
In addition to supplying local restaurants and institutions, Dawn has signed up at least 15 families to participate in her new CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). These families receive weekly baskets of fresh local food grown naturally at area farms. With this new facility, she can collect even small amounts of vegetables from producers (including several of our Grow Appalachia participants) wash, sort, and aggregate them to meet the growing demand from the buyers.
This enterprise fills some important needs in the local food picture. Having a place to keep produce cool and fresh can ensure that buyers are getting the best possible product. With sinks and counters, produce can be washed, sorted, and packaged. It gives growers an option beyond the farmers market for selling their produce and can inspire them to grow more each year. Finally, by bringing in more produce from more sources it can strengthen the Marlinton farmers market by rounding out its offerings with produce that remains unsold at the hub.
With Pocahontas Produce on the Move, we hope that our local food playground will be a bigger draw for those who want to grow lots, eat well, and play on the see-saws.