Local Foods as Economic Development — Cabarrus County

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This is the first post in a series that will profile examples of how local food systems can be viewed as a component of an economic or community development strategy.

Cabarrus County, NC — Local Food System

Cabarrus County, NC is located 22 miles north of Charlotte. Given its urban proximity, the county has grown and developed rapidly, especially along its highway corridors. Parts of the county have become bedroom communities, eroding the long-held rural culture and history of the area. In 2007, local leaders recognized that if they wanted to preserve the county’s rural culture and ability to grow food, it was time to get serious about preserving rural land. Leaders hosted a town hall meeting focused on discussion of present use valuation, a program to value property based on use (and therefore reduce the property tax burden on farmers in rapidly developing communities). The response was overwhelming.

As a result, the county negotiated an urban growth boundary with the City of Concord, restricting infrastructure and annexation. Recognizing that this boundary would slow growth and opportunity in the NE part of the county, the county’s leadership decided to find a way to make the land economically viable as farmland. Residents and leaders who participated in the meeting wanted to achieve four goals 1) create a local food policy council, 2) open a slaughter facility & meat processing plant, 3) conduct a food assessment and 4) start an incubator farm. Each goal has been realized.

Cabarrus’ food policy council has 23 members from all aspects of the food system – educators, financiers, growers, health professionals, distributors, food preparation entrepreneurs, chefs/caterers, and hunger relief workers. Their goal is to take a comprehensive look at their food system and make policy and program recommendations to elected officials.

The Cruse Meats Harvest Facility was an existing meat fabrication facility that the county assisted to add slaughtering to its services. Before Cruse offered slaughtering services, most beef grown in the county was shipped across the state for processing. For the first time in 60 years, Cabarrus County residents can grow, process, purchase and eat beef that has never left the county.

Cabarrus County Commissioners received the Cabarrus County Food System Assessment in October 2011. The assessment provided leaders with detailed perspective on the current state of local foods in the county, as well as a baseline from which to move forward. It analyzed input from key foods system stakeholders and provided recommendations for strengthening the county’s food system.  The Cabarrus County Food System Assessment has played an important role in guiding decision-making about future local food programming. For example, the assessment cited the need to increase meat supply in order to make the new slaughtering facility financially viable, then identified 69 farms that are “ideally suited to scale up inventories” to meet this need.

The Elma C. Lomax incubator farm hosts soon-to-be farmers on 30 acres owned by Cabarrus County and managed by NC Cooperative Extension-Cabarrus Center. The incubator is also a teaching facility. It’s the only certified organic farm in production in Cabarrus County.

Results

In 2008, Cabarrus County created a special fund dedicated to supporting local foods programming using revenues generated from the present use tax program.  Since then, $279,727 has been used to fund aspects of the incubator farm and $151,178 has been used to help fund construction of the meat harvest facility. In 2010, Cabarrus County Commissioners hired a staff person, Aaron Newton, to assist the food policy council and manage the incubator farm. In addition, the Cabarrus County food policy council created a locally grown brand for food system producers to promote the Cabarrus County name.

During an interview, Mr. Newton noted that at least a dozen new businesses have grown from these efforts. And, not all of the businesses are farms, in fact, there has been growth in production, distribution, processing and machine repair. For example, Cabarrus now has an online local foods buying club, where individuals can go online and purchase a basket of local goods. Cabarrus was also host to the NC Choices Meat Conference and is quickly becoming a destination for foodie events and workshops.

One of Cabarrus’ success stories illustrates how their local foods programming is providing new opportunities for individuals impacted by the economic downturn. A Cabarrus County real estate agent turned to growing micro greens when the housing market went bust. She now works with Cisco to distribute her micro greens around the country. And, she uses the locally grown brand on her products, creating national awareness of the good food that grows in Cabarrus County.

Conclusion

When asked what advice Mr. Newton would give to other local governments pursuing local food initiatives, Mr. Newton said, “There was a threshold moment in Cabarrus County, when everyone seemed ready for a change. The time has to be right. Don’t get frustrated if your community is not ready to fully embrace a shift toward a local foods economy. They will be one day- BE READY!” Mr. Newton concluded, “Food is a wonderful catalyst for making positive change in your community.”

Sybil Tate works with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) at North Carolina State University. CEFS supports communities in NC working to develop local food systems.

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