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Fresh produce will be made available to restaurants from local farmers thanks to Down East Connect’s efficient, new ordering system. Stock photo

Aquiet revolution is creeping across the state of North Carolina. It started in the mountains with Tim Will’s Foothills Connect project (covered in the Live Local column in 2010) and crawled its way to the Outer Banks, Now, it is headed to Wilmington.

The importance of supporting local food production for a vibrant local economy is a topic familiar to regular readers of encore. The arguments in favor of it include: food security, environmental protection, economic stimulus, fresher taste (which can’t be beat!) and avoiding preservatives and heightened fuel costs (i.e. food that is harvested green and “ripened” with gas in trucks).

Foothills Connect is a distribution system that has changed the economic landscape of Rutherford County, NC, making it a food production center for the greater Charlotte area. What makes this program different is the monies that farmers pocket from it. Through the traditional food-distribution system, farmers get an average of 20 cents of every dollar; with Will’s Foothills Connect, they take home 80 cents. Better yet, it infiltrates diners, i.e. us, directly, as it connects farmers to the restaurants and handles ordering, pick up and delivery. For a county that had been decimated by the collapse of the manufacturing industry, Foothills Connect has been revolutionary, bringing literally millions of dollars into the county‘s economy. In essence, it’s a farmers’ market that delivers directly to restaurants.

Will has been working with Josh Heinberg to form Down East Connect, which would replicate the Columbus County model. Thus, fresh produce will be available to New Hanover County restaurants, too. Columbus County is largely rural and is a Tier 1 economic crisis county as designated by the NC Department of Commerce. The tier system was developed in an effort to identify less prosperous parts of the state and encourage economic activity there (New Hanover is considered a Tier 3 or high functioning county). The support available at a state level for launching a program of this nature increases when working in a Tier 1 economic crisis county. Heinberg reports that he has 16 framers committed to the project but expects that number to increase dramatically when the first delivery is made.

“If I have learned anything about farmers, it is that they are a ‘show me the goods’ kind of crowd,” Heinberg commented. “I think there may be a misconception that there is a huge quantity of food that has been grown and is just looking for a nice home to go to. In reality, raising livestock or produce in any significant amount is extremely hard, back-breaking work that only a few people are cut out for.”

Will has also been busy in the Outer Banks, working with farmers in Martin County to launch the Farmers’ Fresh Market. Just two weeks ago, the first system delivery to an Outer Banks restaurant was made!

“[They] were bought by Outer Banks restaurant Adrianna’s, located on the waterfront in downtown Manteo,” Jeff Ivey, Farmers’ Fresh Market manager in the Outer Banks, said. “It was a red letter day—a great day! This is the first of great things to come.”

Heinberg is aiming for a June target date for the first delivery to restaurants in Wilmington. The possibilities expounded by this change in food delivery is nothing short of groundbreaking. The current options for a chef looking to use local produce can and will be met without the previous burdens of pickup and production.

“The process of procuring these local products—farmers knowing what chefs need and chefs knowing what farmers have—has been a clumsy one riddled with inconsistency,” Heinberg noted. “The farmer has to leave his work, drive to the customer with his product, and hope that they have what the chef needs, or the chef has to go to a farmers’ markets and hope that there is enough product available.”

Today, thanks to the Down East online ordering system (www.DownEastConnect.com), an abundance of our region’s products can be accessed via the Internet, where chefs can pick and choose what they need from a host of individual farms. “They pay for everything at once,” Heinberg said, “and then have it picked and delivered the next day. It’s pretty enticing.”

Seasons always play a role in the value of quality meals at restaurants. This remains a key component to making local food work on a long-term basis, too: extending the growing season.

“It gives the restaurants fresh food [for] a longer period of time for their menus, and the grower levels out his income across the year,” Ivey said.

Will has been working with hoop greenhouses in Rutherford County to address seasonal issues, with hopes to move to a year-round growing season soon. Inspirited by the work of former pro basketball player Will Allen at Growing Power Farm in Wisconsin (www.growingpower.org), Tim Will hopes to harvest methane gas from landfills to heat greenhouses during the cold months in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Aside from restaurateur benefits, Down East Connect plans to offer an ordering option for the public as well.  Currently, they’re looking for people who could support the program. “Churches, offices, social groups, neighborhoods,” Heinberg suggested, “that can also function as a once weekly pick-up space for the members.”

Any groups or organizations of interest can contact Josh@downeastconnect.com.

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