By James Johnson
Over the past four years, Lorraine Berman has gone from being a weekly volunteer at the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative to being its treasurer to her current post – acting general manager.
Like many who are involved in the cooperative, Berman saw her participation as more than a passive hobby, but as a duty to her community and to the farmers who serve it.
“I feel very strongly about protecting farmland,” she said. “If you look at all the things going on in the world, from a national security standpoint, if we depend only on getting food from California, and some catastrophic thing happens, either some weather event or some other reason, then all of a sudden you have a food supply shortage.”
The retired vascular surgeon delights in explaining the cooperative. Established eight years ago, the Moore County-based co-op connects Sandhills farmers and artisans with customers who pay subscription fees to receive weekly or biweekly boxes of fresh local produce, meat, dairy, bread and other products. The boxes are delivered to more than 40 pickup spots around the region, including several in Fayetteville, Hope Mills and Spring Lake. It’s kind of like Netflix, for food.
The organization is extra unique in that it is the first in the country where producers, consumers and staff are all counted as equal members, said co-founder Jan Leitschuh.
According to Berman, the co-op currently serves 1,000 to 1,200 members and is partnered with 40 to 50 different farmers and product producers.
The items in the boxes depend on the season and the level of subscription. For example, in the spring and summer, the boxes will contain such produce as lettuce, tomatoes, kale, carrots, onions, peppers, strawberries, peaches, sweet corn, blueberries, cantaloupe, cucumbers and watermelon, as well as “habit-stretchers” like bok choy, okra and mushrooms, to encourage dietary experimentation.
With the start of fall, the boxes’ contents change. Berman says the fall offerings are likely to include field tomatoes, broccoli, six varieties of apples, butternut squash, kale, three varieties of peaches, fairytale pumpkins, elephant garlic, sweet potatoes, spinach, three types of muscadine grapes, baby bok choy, acorn squash, carrots, Bibb lettuce, Sandhills Salsa, collards, radishes, Chinese cabbage, various berry jams, natural fall decorations like decorative Indian corn and more.
The produce is typically picked within 24 hours of its delivery and sometimes on the very morning the items are delivered.
“North Carolina has an amazing diversity of climate,” Berman said. “We can grow an astounding variety of food product and to me it makes more sense to have it done locally. It decreases your carbon footprint, and having farmland is also better for the environment, so many things help to make it a benefit for everybody.”
Berman also believes the co-op has an important economic impact on the community.
“For every dollar that you spend, it circulates within the local economy,” she said. “If we buy local produce and the farmer hires people and they spend their dollars locally as well, it really contributes a lot more than if you spend your money at the big chains that have distribution from all over the country. Much of that money goes to wherever the corporate headquarters is, which is sometimes in other countries. It takes the money out of the local economy for sure, even when those big chains hire locally.”
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, North Carolina is home to more than 50,000 farms, which generate an estimated $12.5 billion a year in revenue.
The co-op was organized in 2009 and began operating in 2010 to help local farmers struggling both from the elimination of tobacco subsidies and the economic downturn. Leitschuh said Moore County was losing farmland to development faster than nearly anyplace else in the nation at one point in the 2000s. Sandhills Farm to Table sought to stem that loss by giving local farmers a market for produce and other food crops.
“This supports the farmers in two ways,” Berman said. “We provide a consistent market for them, so they know certain crops can be sold, and we give them a better price than the wholesale price from one of the grocery stores.”
And the co-op does vital leg work for farmers. While a farmer may be able to sell his or her product for a higher price at a farmer’s market, he doesn’t know how many customers he’ll have, if any, and he has to spend several valuable daylight hours away from his operation.
The gathering sites – the locations where co-op subscribers pick up their food boxes each week – also benefit. The co-op paid these churches, locally owned businesses and other nonprofit organizations more than $45,000 last year. The co-op itself took in an estimated $500,000 in gross sales.
The co-op is also focused on pleasing its subscribers, by providing them with fresh, healthy food at good prices.
Subscribers can choose from three box options. The Harvest box contains six to 10 fruits and vegetables and is designed to serve two people who eat produce regularly. The Family Harvest box has twice that amount of fruits and vegetables and is intended to feed a family of three to four people. Finally, the Bread & Veg. box, as its name implies, contains four to eight fruits and vegetables, along with a loaf of fresh baked bread.
For those not wanting to subscribe, but still wanting a taste of local offerings, Sandhills Farm to Table’s website now includes an online marketplace where individual items can be purchased. Available items include local honey, blueberry jam, goat cheese, tea, herbs, pulled pork, baked goods and much more.
The organization has a small staff and depends on a much larger group of dedicated volunteers to help weigh and pack boxes at its many gathering sites. To sign up for a membership, inquire about volunteering or simply to peruse what is available, go to www.sandhillsfarm2table.com or call (910) 722-1623.