“There is a bright future for local food,” Charlie Jackson told a gathering at UNC Pembroke’s first Local Food Connections Conference. “We are unleashing the entrepreneurial potential of our farmers. Our 2011 survey indicates demand is overwhelming.”
The local food economy in the U.S. is an $11 billion business and growing fast. It is touted as a sustainable economic opportunity for farmers and rural communities and a healthy option for consumers.
A local food luncheon was served up by New South Catering of Pembroke. Locally grown Beef, sweet potatoes and vegetables was on the menu.
Looking to develop the region’s farm-to-table movement at the conference were approxi- mately 100 local farmers, businesses, non-profit organizations and university and government repre- sentatives. It was sponsored by UNCP’s Sustainable Agriculture Program and a Locational Advantage Grant from the university.
Biology professor and coordinator of UNCP’s Sustainable Agriculture Program Dr. Deborah Hanmer helped organize the event.
“The purpose of the Local Food Connections Conference was to support local foods in Robeson County,” Dr. Hanmer said. “We wanted to involve both producers and consumers of local foods, and we’ve had a good event.”
Jackson is executive director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), a non-profit group in Asheville, N.C., representing 600 farmers and 30 restaurants, supermarkets and specialty retail outlets. He advised careful planning in developing local food-to-table economies.
“There is no one-size-fits-all strategy, but there is a strategy for every community,” Jackson said. “Assessment is the first step.”
Although farmers markets are familiar symbols of the local food movement, restaurants, supermarkets and specialty vendors are also putting locally grown food of all kinds onto diner tables.
Local food is a complex economic system that includes finance, transportation, processing, retail consumption, composting and growing, said Christie Shi with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a partnership between NC State and N.C. A&T universities and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
“There are many shiny opportunities in the local food economy,” Shi said. “An assessment of this system will help solve underlying issues.”
Even the name - local food - can be misleading, she said, advising farmers and entrepreneurs to think regionally. Shi offered a dozen or more examples of businesses, non-profits and cooperatives solving the puzzle.
Slow Money NC is a peer-to-peer financial non-profit that matches capital to businesses. The urban agriculture non-profit Growing Power of Milwaukee, Wis., is solving the issue of lack of growing space in North Carolina urban settings.
Charlotte-Douglas Airport is raising worms and composting 80 percent of its waste. The Produce Lady is turning out videos for You Tube and public television that educates consumers on food preparation.
Ron Taylor, owner of Lu Mil Winery in nearby Elizabethtown, N.C., attended and handed out brochures on his new business, D’Vine foods, which offers farmers and homemakers custom canning and pickling.
There were 10 workshops covering topics from raising backyard chickens to raising capital to start and expand businesses.
Lunch was all about local food and was prepared by Lester Locklear’s New South Catering Company. The meal featured beef from Moore Brothers of the Prospect community that was braised with wine from Locklear’s Vineyards; hand-made sausage from Scottish Packing Company in Lumberton; and sweet potatoes and cabbage from Ellery Locklear’s farm.
A graduate of Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts, Lester Locklear, is also the director of Robeson Community College’s Culinary Arts Program.
“All the food is local, and I’m local too,” he quipped. “I’m from Pembroke.”
Robeson County Farm Bureau sponsored the luncheon. Local partners included the Center for Community Action, a Lumberton non-profit, and the Robeson County Agricultural Extension Service.
Dr. Hanmer, coordinator of the Sustainable Agriculture Program, noted several action items that came out of the event.
“Having Robeson County become a host site for a Food Corps program is one action item that surfaced during the town hall meeting,” she said. “Another was the creation of an incubator farm. Food Corps is a children’s education program, but both ideas speak to the need for food education.”
Dr. Hanmer was pleased with the daylong conference.
“We are pleased with the attendance, especially for a first time event. Everyone was inspired to promote fresh local food,” Dr. Hanmer said. “The local foods lunch was promoted to show how delicious fresh local food can be,” she continued. “We hope that individuals are inspired to ask for fresh local food next time they cater an event.”
For more information, please contact Dr. Hanmer at 910.521.6744 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.