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New River Organic Growers marketer Caleb Crowell, left, and president Sally Thiel are working to prepare the cooperative’s new distribution facility in Fleetwood for receiving beginning in early June. Photo by Anna Oakes | Watauga Democrat



Originally published: 2013-05-23 20:21:39
Last modified: 2013-05-24 11:32:25

Farm co-op opens distribution facility

by Anna Oakes

The High Country's local food cooperative is growing faster than weeds in a wet spell.

New River Organic Growers, founded in 2000, announced the opening this week of a new distribution facility to aid in efficient delivery of farmers' meat and produce to an ever-increasing list of buyers across Western North Carolina.

The 2,000-square-foot facility is located at 9290 U.S. 221 S. in Fleetwood, close to the Watauga and Ashe county line. The space features two garage doors and will house a 16-foot-by-16-foot cooler and a small office for the cooperative.

"With this facility ... we can get on the road for deliveries two hours earlier," said NROG marketer Caleb Crowell.

The nonprofit cooperative includes more than 55 farms in Ashe, Watauga, Wilkes, Alleghany, Burke, Yancey counties and in Grayson County, Va., that provide produce, eggs, cheese and meat. NROG began selling to area restaurants several years ago, and today it has more than 70 buyers, including restaurants, buyer's clubs, retailers such as Earth Fare and Whole Foods and other distributors in Boone, Blowing Rock, Asheville, Morganton and Hickory.

Members of the cooperative also pool their resources to share farm equipment, purchase supplies in bulk and share best practices.

Prior to now, the cooperative has received products on its delivery truck from farmers at three pickup locations, but the process was disorganized and time-consuming, Crowell said.

"It worked OK for so long," he said. "It's holding us back from getting to more buyers."

The distribution facility will provide a central receiving location, better organization of product and freezer and refrigerator storage for meats and cheeses, which will help extend the marketing season into the winter.

NROG hopes improved efficiency will lead to more customers, and continued growth of the cooperative's customer base will help area farmers expand their businesses and could help them retain their employees for longer portions of the year.

"A lot of growers have untapped land already ready to increase production," Crowell said.
 
"And at least you know, when you put it in the ground, it's sold," said Sally Thiel of Zydeco Moon Farm and president of NROG.

Farmers receive 80 cents or more for every dollar paid to the cooperative, Crowell said, with the rest retained to support NROG's marketing and distribution operations.

NROG's sales reached $240,000 in 2012, and the cooperative indicated it is on track to increase that figure by 70 to 100 percent this year.

"We did expand last year to Asheville -- that's what really helped us," Thiel said.

The burgeoning local food movement continues to drive demand from NROG's customers for sustainably-grown specialty items and bulk products, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes.

"We continue to need farmers in the High Country area, as we have far more demand than products available," NROG said in a statement this week.

The cooperative amended its bylaws this year to allow conventional farmers into the fold to better meet growing demand. Before, only farms that were certified organic or transitioning to certified organic could be members of NROG.

Conventional farms will be marketed as "New River Growers," said Crowell, and their products must not be genetically modified. In addition, NROG encourages its conventional farmers to use low-spray and sustainable practices.

"We're kind of doing this as a case-by-case basis," Crowell said, and he doesn't feel this change will weaken the NROG brand.

"Our buyers count on us to find sustainably grown product, whether it's organic or local," he said.

Ideally, the cooperative will be able to teach conventional farmers organic methods and help them transition to becoming certified organic, after which they can receive better prices for their product, Crowell said.

"We've seen this happen often," he said.

NROG has never required that livestock products be organic, but instead that the livestock be pasture-raised and not administered growth hormones or prophylactic antibiotics.

Interested farmers or buyers should contact Caleb Crowell at (828) 773-1588. For more information about NROG, visit http://www.newriverorganicgrowers.org.