These days it is becoming easier to find locally grown foods in restaurants and grocery stores, but that doesn’t mean the path from farm to table is smooth.
A panel of growers and producers from the eastern part of the state shared their experience at the Wilmington, NC event.
Even after the hard work required to grow and harvest quality fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood, farmers face a host of challenges such as financing, processing and packaging their goods and finding affordable channels for distribution.
Last week Self-Help hosted an event in Wilmington, NC where farmers, seafood producers, food distributors and some of NC’s leading rural and food policy experts discussed these types of challenges and potential solutions. The event, "Growing Eastern NC's Regional Food Economy," explored ways to expand access to capital and economic opportunity for farmers and other food entrepreneurs.
“These groups are doing great work to promote a more robust and healthy food system for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Hannah Quigley, Self-Help's Sustainable Food Systems Program Fellow and the event organizer. “This was an opportunity to come together to identify common problems and encourage collaboration to address some of the systemic issues producers face.”
Although the demand for local food is growing, getting the food to market remains challenging. Current agricultural policies and systems often favor larger businesses. For example, grocery stores and schools typically rely on large food distributors, and it can be hard for a smaller producer to break in. Federal policies, most notably the Farm Bill, are often more focused on the needs of large producers. Smaller producers often lack supportive policies such as affordable crop insurance and the availability of financing.
Self-Help has a strong and growing focus on providing targeted loans to healthy food entrepreneurs, businesses and organizations that improve our food system. Self-Help has invested in Eastern Carolina Organics (a cooperatively owned food distributor), Tracy’s Gourmet (all natural salad dressings), Oysters Carolina (owned by Ryan Bethea) and several food cooperatives (Hendersonville Community Cooperative, Durham Co-op Market and Minneapolis's Eastside Food Co-op, which sources from nearby rural producers. These loans also reflect our strong U.S. Department of Agriculture partnerships.
The Wilmington event aimed to increase understanding of producer and community needs and to foster regional food economy collaborations. Speakers included farmers, seafood producers, food distributors and some of NC’s leading rural and food policy experts. Scott Marlow of RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) moderated the Growers and Producers panel. Self-Help’s Sustainable Food System Director Steve Saltzman moderated the policy panel.
Marlow noted barriers faced by growers and producers, including some that could be addressed as part of the 2018 Farm Bill such as expanding the availability of crop insurance and risk management support for diversified small farms. The Local FARMS Act and the Crop Insurance Modernization Act, championed by NSAC (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition), are some of the key pieces of legislation supporting these initiatives.
Other takeaways from the day included:
- It takes time, resources and patience to educate consumers on the benefits of food produced with sustainable farming methods—for example, pasture-raised pork and beef.
- Seafood often gets left out of local food system discussions, and seafood farmers face special challenges—for example, the ocean provides no collateral for loans.
- Food distribution networks for faraway cities are often stronger than the networks available within North Carolina.
- Financing remains a challenge, and there is a particular need for shorter-term lines of credit to help small producers.
Special thanks to Jeanne Milliken Bonds at the Richmond Federal Reserve, New Hanover County Cooperative Extension and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for helping make this event possible.
We also thank each of the panelists, as follows:
Self-Help expects to work on similar events over the next few months and years. If you would like to share ideas or stay updated on this work, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.