Food & Drink

Chew on This: Business helps Triangle farmers earn income in winter

James Taylor, who has benefitted from the farm funding The Produce Box distributed.
James Taylor, who has benefitted from the farm funding The Produce Box distributed. COURTESY OF THE PRODUCE BOX

Winters can be tough for some farmers. If they don’t have a market for their crops, they don’t grow them and, of course, they don’t make any money.

The Produce Box, a Raleigh-based company that offers weekly delivery of fresh North Carolina produce, wants to change that for the 40 or so farmers who work with them. So this year, they decided not to wait until April to start offering weekly delivery of fresh produce from North Carolina farms. Deliveries began last week.

The Produce Box founder Courtney Tellefsen explained the farmers’ problem this way: “They didn’t want to take a risk unless there’s a buyer.”

Tellefsen decided to show farmers that there is a market for winter produce among the thousands of families who order from her company. Last week, 3,000 families placed orders for winter produce.

Her efforts are a work in progress. Tellefsen cannot find enough North Carolina fruits and vegetables to fill those winter produce boxes, so about 40 percent of the food is coming from elsewhere in the Southeast. She hopes that within a few years, her network of local farmers can produce enough winter produce to offer boxes 100 percent sourced from North Carolina farms. And while she had originally hope to offer this service year-round, it now seems likely that the best they can do is extend the timeframe when they sell boxes by 4 to 6 weeks on either end, which would significantly close the gap when farmers don’t have any income.

Regardless of the limitations, this is how you grow a local food system. Small-scale farmers can only thrive if they have someplace to sell their produce. While not every small-scale farmer wants to grow crops in the winter, expanding the appetite for local winter crops will help others who do grow them and the local food system as a whole.

Or as successful small-scale farmer Alex Hitt of Perregrine Farm in Graham, N.C., says: “The more folks in the industry, the more the boat floats.”

The story of how Tellefsen started The Produce Box is a testament to that appetite.

In 2007, the stay-at-home mom from Raleigh realized that a typical community-supported agriculture subscription was not a good fit for her family. That model requires families to pay a farmer upfront for a weekly box of produce throughout the growing season. Consumers don’t get to choose what comes each week; it depends on what the farmer’s planted and whether the weather and other factors cooperate. (If a blight takes out the tomato crop, your CSA box may be devoid of tomatoes.)

Tellefsen would sometimes forget to pick up the box each week. She struggled with with what to do with the produce. She was overwhelmed by kale.

A better system

Tellefsen thought there might be a different way to do things. Working with one farmer, she recruited 30 people to buy boxes of produce delivered to their door or neighborhood. With the help of a crew of other stay-at-home moms, Tellefsen grew her business, which now has 250 employees and a customer base of about 8,000 families from Wilmington to Greensboro.

At least one farmer is delighted by this new opportunity: James Taylor, 28, of Wilson Mills, who farms about 30 acres owned by his grandfather. He grows exclusively for The Produce Box.

Without farm income this winter, Taylor took a second job: “I’ve been working for a landscaping business for the last two months.”

Next winter, Taylor hopes to spend that time working in his fields.