Company connects local food movement

Carolyn Davis created her business with one goal in mind: Offer people easy access to local food.

Her 17-month-old venture, GO Local NC Farms, provides a group buying service for people looking for locally grown meats, eggs, vegetables, honey, soaps and more. Similar to community-supported agriculture programs, it has a few distinct differences.

"We are a group that buys from local farms but, unlike others, we have no membership fees, no minimum order and people don't have to commit to buy from us on a regular basis," said Davis.

The mother of three said she started the buyer's club as a hobby in 2009 and made it a business in January of 2010. Carolyn and her husband, Jimmy, run a small hobby farm on 20 acres in Cabarrus County.

Davis said she has gained 160 unique (first-time) customers in the last three months and 215 in the last six months. Extra delivery dates were added in May to meet increasing demand for weekly distribution, and this summer will mark the first season of offering vegetables. She serves hundreds of clients through seven area pickup locations and is planning to add a location in Union County.

She recently met with Aaron Newton, the local-food system program coordinator for Cabarrus County, to discuss ways to make local food more accessible and affordable to residents.

Newton, a 36-year-old Concord native and co-author of "A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil," praises the company's ingenuity for creating a network that connects growers and consumers through a user-friendly online ordering system.

"GO Local NC Farms is just the kind of new local foods business we need in Cabarrus County - connecting farmers and cooks through an innovative distribution strategy that harnesses the easy access of the Internet," said Newton. "Farmers can upload what they have and cooks can order what they want based on week-to-week availability."

Brent Barbee, Cabarrus County native and farm manager at the sixth-generation Barbee Farms, is offering two new additions to GO Local's usual line up. Produce baskets will come in two sizes and are expected to be a big draw as the growing season begins to peak. A small basket is $12, and a large basket is $24, and Barbee will rotate through more than 40 items of seasonal produce grown on a 45-acres farm.

"We try to keep our cost in line with the grocery store," said Barbee. "Some items are more, some are less. The real difference is in the quality. We pick the items to go in the baskets Friday, before they are delivered to the customers on Saturday. You can't go to the grocery store and find that kind of quality. This is where the real value is in the GO Local group. It puts the consumer as close to the farmer as you can get, besides coming directly to the farm."

Though the bulk of the customers are from Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties, regulars come from Rowan, Stanly and Union counties, and from as far away as Raleigh and South Carolina.

Patrons can choose from more than 150 products purchased in bulk from family-owned farms throughout Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Union counties. Prices remain comparable to local grocers, but buying local has advantages, said Davis.

"We connect you with local farms in Cabarrus and surrounding North Carolina counties," said Davis. "We believe by purchasing from a local farmer there is accountability.... You know who is raising your food, who to talk with if you have questions; you know that the farmer is eating the same food that they are selling to you, and you're benefiting from purchasing as a group."

Available meats include 100-percent-grass-fed, grain-finished beef, pasture-raised pork and chicken. Livestock are raised with no hormones or antibiotics, and produce is grown without the use of pesticides

If storage isn't an issue, cow-pooling and pork-pooling can be used for bulk buying. Pooling is the practice where each person of a group purchases a share of whole animal from a local farm. Shares come in sizes ranging from an eighth to a whole animal. An eighth of a cow - about 52.5 pounds of packaged cuts of meat - is about $200.

No dairy is offered yet, but soy-free eggs and organic animal feed are popular.

Julianna Willis, 33, has lived in Concord about seven years and started ordering with Davis more than a year ago.

"I typically buy two dozen eggs per week and an eighth of a cow once or twice a year," she said. "We also do pork pooling. We bought our Thanksgiving turkey, we've done lamb pooling and we are getting into buying the vegetables now that they're being offered."

Willis knew Davis for about four years before she started GO Local.

"I was really excited about becoming actively involved in the 'slow foods' movement," said Willis. "I loved the idea of being able to talk to the farmers and ranchers who are raising and caring for the animals we eat. I also loved knowing how fresh our food really was."

Eggs are often distributed within 24 hours of being collected, said Willis, and buyers of cows know what day the animal is slaughtered and butchered.

"Then, it's direct from the butcher to my freezer," Willis continued. "Cost-wise, with the beef and pork, you're getting a lot for your money. And we've found that grass-fed, grain-finished meat tastes the best. The pork sausage is also a big hit in our family. Eggs cost a bit more than what you'd typically pay in a grocery store, but once you taste one fresh egg you'll never go back to a grocery store for eggs again."

Callahan, 32, has lived in Huntersville for about two years and has ordered from GO Local for a year. She cowpools about every three months and supplements with smaller orders.

"I joined because I was looking for a healthier meat source for our family," said Callahan. "I feel good about my purchases because not only am I providing my family with a healthier diet, but also supporting local farms in the area."