PILOT MOUNTAIN — Already a model for other areas, officials with Pilot Mountain Pride say they have hopes to build on the services they offer in an effort to make it easier for county residents to access farm-fresh, locally-grown vegetables and produce.
“We’re currently in the planning stages at this point, but what we’re hoping to be able to do is set up a process where individual Surry County residents can log onto our website and place an individual order for what we have available via email,” said North Carolina Cooperative Extension Director Bryan Cave.
But that’s not all Cave and Pilot Mountain Pride Director Lewis Draughn have in mind.
They are also in the process of trying to secure a retail storefront in Mount Airy where county residents can walk in and buy local fruits and vegetables.
Cave said it only makes since to buy locally, since often the produce in grocery stores could have been picked and packaged days ago.
“The average distance a product in the local grocery store travels is about 1,500 miles,” Cave said. “We’re selling products from seven counties, all within a 50 mile radius.”
It’s food you may have eaten without even knowing it.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that everything we market here doesn’t just go to grocery stores,” Cave said. “We already sell regularly to area restaurants.”
Through the center, an email is sent out to participating restaurants listing what the center has available, an order is placed and the food is delivered.
In addition, the group regularly delivers orders to county staff.
And it’s not just the basics like squash and lettuce they are selling.
Cave said that in the three-year history of the aggregation center, the 70 or so farmers who participate sell about 60 different products through the center.
“We sell anything from strawberries and blackberries to fruits, produce, herbs and vegetables,” he said. “We’ll sell anything that’s a marketable product.”
But just because you grow a few veggies in your backyard garden, don’t think you can load up a basket and market it through the center.
Cave said one thing the center is strict about is maintaining safety while preserving quality.
“All farmers who market with us have been certified in GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) through the U.S.D.A.,” Cave said. “It’s basically a food safety for farmers that helps train them on how to minimize the risk of any kind of problems.”
To date, more than 100 local farmers have received the training, Cave said, although “some sell through the center and some don’t.”
And for the farmer, the unique marketing opportunity — which is drawing interest from other areas — offers them a chance to put a little more money in their pocket.
“There are vegetable and produce brokers out there, but we don’t operate like they do,” Cave said. “Brokers take about 50 percent of the sell price, they charge a premium for packaging or other services like washing or cleaning the product and the farmer has literally no control over pricing or anything.”
As a non-profit owned by the Surry County Economic Development Partnership Foundation, Pilot Mountain Pride keeps the farmer foremost in their mind.
“What we do is bring in the product, market it and keep just 20 percent to cover our overhead,” Cave said. “Pilot Mountain Pride isn’t designed to make money, rather to get as much money to the farmer as possible. The farmer’s get a much better deal.”
And that marketing model ensures that customers get a top-quality product, he said.
“If it comes in today, we try to ship it out no later than tomorrow,” Cave said, smiling. “That’s what’s really cool about what we do.”
Draughn said he is sympathetic to the plight of the farmer.
“I grew up on a farm,” he said. “I know what it’s like to struggle trying to make a living off the land. What I want to do is what I can to help other farmers survive.”
Cave chimed in, saying that without farmers it’ll be difficult to eat.
“One of the things we’d like to do is try to give younger farmers a way to market their product,” he said. “Farmers are aging out, the average age of a farmer today is 60, and it’s so expensive for young people to get started in the industry.
“We want to offer what help we can, even if it’s just by opening up new markets for them.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.