Local-food magic for the off-season

Christy Shi has been chewed out by e-mail. She's been stuck with $500 worth of vegetables.

She's driven her dusty truck over hundreds of miles of country roads.

And she's ready to spend the fall and winter doing it all again, in pursuit of local food.

Shi – pronounced “shy” – is a land-use activist in Davidson. She's also the founder of a local-food buying club. It started last winter as the Local Food Club, but it relaunches this month with a new name, Know Your Farms, and openings for 100 members. After paying a fee for a four-month membership, people in the club get access to food from a small network of local farms, everything from honey to vegetables, whatever the farms can produce.

“Participating in your food is magical,” says Shi, 34, a freelance technology trainer in her paid job. “People who experience it want more and more.”

The biggest word in food these days is local. Farmers markets have such fervent fans, several have added winter hours. Farms that offer the harvest shares called Community Supported Agriculture – CSAs – all have waiting lists.

What Shi and fellow volunteers are building is different, a winter food club that acts sort of like a co-op and sort of like a local-food taxi service.

Shi sees it as a system that could keep land in production and give new growers a reason to go into farming.

“It's not about being local,” she says. “It's about knowing where your food comes from.”

Questions and queries

On the online network LinkedIn, Shi calls herself a “pollinator.”

“That's how I see myself,” she says. She likes looking for connections and putting people in touch with one another.

She's always been a gardener – the house where she and her husband live near downtown Davidson has two rain barrels and a cluster of raised beds.

A few years ago, she started growing an idea. In June 2006, she wrote down a list of goals, mostly the usual things like “learn to dance.” And this one: “I want to know where my food comes from.”

She read Michael Pollan's book “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” and she started helping out at the Bradford Store in Huntersville, a favorite among local food fans.

“I started noticing people like me,” she says. “They were asking the same questions (about food) that I had learned to ask. There was never enough to fill their need.”

Owner Kim Bradford, a vegetarian, didn't carry meat or dairy products then (the store has since added them). But customers kept asking for meat and dairy, and they wanted to stay local in winter.

Shi asked Bradford to let her use the store's e-mail list to contact people about a meat and dairy buying club.

She sent out a query to 1,100 people and got back 300 responses. Of those, 200 listed themselves as “extremely or very interested.”

She narrowed it down to 75 families who were ready to go. But they wanted more than meat and dairy; they wanted fresh vegetables, too.

Shi decided to set it up as a local buying group that would operate in winter, when it wouldn't conflict with farmers markets and CSAs.

Next, she needed farms. Using Web resources like www.local har and the Rodale New Farm Locator, she started asking farmers about buying enough food for 75 families once a month.

“Some people just blinked at me.” A few were openly hostile. One lashed out by e-mail.

Too many farmers, she realized, have been approached by people who aren't serious or don't follow through.

So she scaled back again, pinning down potential members to find out who was really ready to commit. She ended up with 20 families willing to pay a four-month membership fee on top of food costs.

And she persuaded six farmers to let them try it for November, December, January and February.

That first run was tough. With 14 coolers on her truck, Shi spent six hours driving 130 miles round trip to visit the farms. By the time she got back, it was dark. Then she had to wait for members to pick up what they wanted.

Lessons along the way

Week by week, Shi and her volunteers refined the system. Once, she bought $1,000 in produce and people only wanted $500 worth. She had to rush around to get rid of the rest. So the club learned to buy by shares so nothing got wasted. They added a late fee, so they didn't get stuck waiting.

They also built a routine: One volunteer would go to the farms on Friday. That member would sort the shares into coolers that night and reload Shi's truck. The next day, another volunteer would drive the truck to a dropoff point.

Mostly, Shi learned about farming. It isn't that farms can't grow food in winter – the Carolina season is mild enough for winter greens, root vegetables and other things, like brussels sprouts, that like cool weather. But since most haven't had a market, they only grow for their families.

Scaling up can be complicated. Frostproofing a garden is easy, Shi says – just spread out a few old sheets. Frostproofing a field takes more, like hoop houses and irrigation. “It's a capital investment.”

Lee Menius of Wild Turkey Farms near China Grove is one of the farmers who has worked with Shi's group. He's happy to see the local food movement driving people to want more from farms.

“There's more opportunity out there than there are farmers that are taking advantage of it,” he says. Menius also works with the grass-roots agriculture initiative N.C. Choices, which helps farms find a market for sustainably raised meat.

“It's an interesting time to be involved in agriculture in North Carolina, I'll tell you that.”

Momentum and a vision

The local food club grew to 50 families when it offered a second session of buying from farms in the spring. After taking a break for the summer, when farmers markets and CSA memberships were in full swing, Shi is ready to go again this fall.

She has added two tiers of membership, a lower cost for people who agree to spend four hours a month working on a farm and higher one for those who don't work.

It's important, Shi says, that the club do more than just get food from farms.

“The farmers need to see them,” she says. “I worry that it's too much of a fad.”

The cost can sound steep – the membership comes on top of the cost of the food. Prices are about what you'd pay at a farmers' market but a bit more than supermarkets. However, members say it's a deal when you consider the cost of gasoline and the time it takes to drive to farms.

“People hear ‘club' and they think it's about deals,” Shi says. But it's important to her that the farmers get what their food is worth.

She likes to envision a time when it is 50 farms feeding hundreds of members.

“I would love for a local food club to not be a novelty,” she says. “I would love for it to just be how we get our food.”