Toe River Aggregation Center Training Organization Regional, or TRACTOR, for short, has one overarching goal: to help farmers succeed in Western North Carolina by connecting growers with buyers and helping reduce food insecurity in their communities. “We are sustaining the agricultural base in the community,” says Robin Smith, executive director.
Founded in 2012, TRACTOR Food and Farms grew from collaboration between Mitchell and Yancey County Cooperative Extensions. Currently, TRACTOR connects 40 growers with retail buyers they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, such as Sav-Mor, Ingles and Lowe’s Foods. Growers who had depended heavily on tobacco for a living were left wondering what to do when demand decreased as government regulation and interest in healthier lifestyles increased. “We figured out how to help farmers become successful without Burley tobacco,” Smith says.
Fact-Finding and Forging Relationships
At the beginning, TRACTOR first held community “listening” sessions, where they were able to identify the farmers’ biggest need: a processing facility to provide storage and facilitate food safety. The goal of the farmers? They simply wanted to grow their crops, deliver them to a drop-off point and get paid, but they lacked the resources to do so. A Food hub now located at the TRACTOR facility in Burnsville provides cold storage and wash and grade lines.
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“It’s been really good for us,” TRACTOR grower and board member Terry Moffitt says. He credits TRACTOR with helping farmers get better prices for their produce through retailers.
TRACTOR is also involved with Bowditch Bottoms Farm and Horton Creek Farm to provide flat land for growers in the mostly mountainous area. Farm owners, investors interested in perpetuating agriculture, lease the land to TRACTOR.
Involving Local Youth
One TRACTOR project allowed FFA students to grow sweet potatoes at Bowditch Bottoms Farm and sell to their school, thus encouraging the full circle “farm-to-fork” experience.
“The property allowed the kids the opportunity to get out in the dirt and practice what they were learning in the classroom,” Smith says. “It was a beautiful thing. We were really proud to be a part of it.”
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“Getting the opportunity to work with TRACTOR and getting a grant helped propel me toward an agriculture career,” Smoker says. She wants to continue working with TRACTOR through college and beyond.