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A conversation about Working Landscapes

One of the great joys of traveling North Carolina with EdNC is the sheer number of organizations and individuals you meet who are doing incredible work to improve the lives of North Carolinians. It can be easy to get lost in our day-to-day lives and fall victim to the seeming drumbeat of cynical, negative headlines that come through the newspaper and evening news each day. Yet when you hop in the car and drive across the state, or pick up the phone as the case might be, you will find remarkable people doing remarkable things.

When I joined EdNC, one of my first calls was to Mikki Sager. Mikki co-founded the Resourceful Communities program, which convenes community leaders, government agencies, community members, land trusts, and others to create businesses and jobs in rural North Carolina that both preserve our land and create economic opportunity. Mikki racks up 70,000-plus miles per year crisscrossing the state, and I always tell friends and colleagues that she is a living encyclopedia for North Carolina.

Mikki told me that I needed to call the folks with Working Landscapes in Warren County. Working Landscapes is a nonprofit dedicated to building a more resilient economy in Warren County around what they call “local assets” — farms, forests, and waterways. Gabriel Cummings, who co-founded Working Landscapes along with his wife Carla Norwood, was generous enough to share their story via email and phone.

A conversation with Gabriel Cummings of Working Landscapes

Nation Hahn: What inspired the creation of Working Landscapes?

Gabriel Cummings: Working Landscapes was founded by my wife, Carla Norwood, and me. Carla wanted a way to contribute to Warren County, where she grew up. We conceived Working Landscapes as the kind of nonprofit organization that we believed was needed in this rural community — an organization that was able to respond creatively to the community’s needs. In our efforts to effect system-level change, Working Landscapes operates across the fields of economic development, natural resource management, agriculture, health, and beyond.

NH: How would you define some of Working Landscapes successes to date?

GC: In 2013, Working Landscapes launched a farm-to-school program called the Chopped Produce Initiative (CPI). CPI is unique among North Carolina farm-to-school projects because it has involved building an entire supply chain. We repurposed a former cotton gin site to serve as a produce storage/processing facility, which we dubbed the Warren County Produce Center. We equipped the Center with vegetable chopping machines. At the same time, we helped three Warren County farmers — including two minority farmers — obtain Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, so that they would be allowed to grow produce for schools. These farmers now grow collard greens and cabbage for the program. They bring their produce to the Center, where it is chopped and bagged before being distributed to schools.

To date, we have sold 22,000 pounds of chopped produce to nine school districts, three child care centers, and one university.

NH: What are some of the challenges that you have faced to date?

GC: One of our greatest challenges has been distribution — figuring out how to get our produce to cafeterias across the region. The problem is that different customers are served by different distributors: a given distributor may be able to carry our product to a given county, but not the county next door. Each season we have worked to improve our distribution network.

This season, we are partnering with Greenville Produce, a distributor who is serving all the school districts of northeastern North Carolina. This will enable us to provide farm-fresh produce to many counties that we could not reach before. Of course, this approach will only be successful if those counties choose to take part in the program and procure our product — we hope they will!

NH: How did your various programs emerge?

GC: Working Landscapes started focusing on agricultural economic development and food systems because it seemed like one of the best opportunities to increase the prosperity and well-being of the Warren County area. Our county and most of its neighbors are “economically distressed.” We have low wages, high poverty, and high unemployment. However, we also have abundant, fertile land and skilled farmers. Building on these natural and human assets seemed like a sensible, long-term strategy for benefiting the community. Food is a common denominator — it is something that everyone can relate to, and it’s not hard for people to understand the value that food and farming have to them.

In 2010-11, we conducted a participatory research project called Growing Local/Buying Local, using a stakeholder engagement method we had developed called the Community Voice Method. Through this project, we asked people in Warren County what was needed to spur the agriculture/food economy, and they identified four primary needs: 1) building farm-to-fork infrastructure, 2) supporting small farmers, 3) engaging youth, and 4) educating consumers. We took these needs as our action agenda, and we have pursued them ever since. The great thing about farm-to-school work is that it addresses all four of these needs!

To build farm-to-fork infrastructure, we have developed the Warren County Food Hub — two renovated buildings in the heart of downtown Warrenton where farm products are received from local growers and processed/stored/sold to institutions and individuals.

NH: You’ve spoken of the economic development benefit of supporting farms as a critical part of farm-to-fork and farm-to-school movement. Could you speak to your work in that area and share examples?

GC: When people think about farm-to-school work, they probably mostly think first about the benefits to children — health, education, etc. — and rightly so. But farm-to-school work can also be a powerful engine for economic development. In fact, that is why we got into it. We were interested in opening up new markets for small, local farmers. In Warren County and other rural counties of our region, the school system is the largest purchaser of food. However, the school system was not buying any food from local farmers, so it was having zero impact on the local agricultural economy. We set about changing that. Our farm-to-school supply chain is small, but already it has created employment both on and off the farm, and it has spurred capital investment through the redevelopment of a building in Warrenton that would otherwise be sitting empty. And that is just from chopped collards and cabbage!

If school systems decided to source more than a tiny fraction of their food from local farms, the economic impact would be staggering.

NH: How would you describe your work within the school system? You told me earlier that you all work to not just provide the food, but also educate.

GC: I am going to answer these two questions together. Working directly with students, cafeteria personnel, and teachers is an important part of our farm-to-school strategy, because we want to make sure that local produce is not only delivered to schools, but actually eaten by kids once it gets there. We have found that getting kids excited about local produce and educated about it is a valuable way to increase the likelihood that they will eat it and encourage their families to do the same. So, we have developed a program called What’s Growing On, which introduces students to a healthy, local group that is seasonally available during each month of the school year. This is a way to educate kids about what grows in our region throughout the year and to get them excited about these veggies and fruits. What’s Growing On happens in the cafeteria, through taste testings and informational posters, and in the classroom through lesson plans that we have developed. We piloted the project with some collard and cabbage taste tests last year. 722 students in four school districts tried the veggies, and 94 percent liked them!

In Warren County, we are proud to co-sponsor the FoodCorps position (along with Warren County Cooperative Extension). Our FoodCorps service member, Rachel Head, is taking the lead in field-testing What’s Growing On in Warren County Schools this year.

In other counties, participation in What’s Growing On is linked to our Chopped Produce Initiative. We make What’s Growing On materials and programming available for free to any school district that orders our chopped, local produce.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.