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Purpose Prize Winner Helps Farmers and Chefs Connect

Tim Will uses the Internet to link fresh produce with restaurants, bringing jobs back to the North Carolina foothills.

Ninety farmers are currently in the program, about a third of them first-timers. To lure newcomers to farming, Will cleared a vacant lot for a demonstration garden and launched Foothills Connect Sustainable Horticultural School, to learn soil sampling, site analysis, use of organic fertilizers and other ecologically beneficial methods. So far, 110 adults have graduated, including Lindy Abrams, a former nonprofit arts manager who now raises organic produce on three acres and sells it online. “I couldn’t have done this without Farmers Fresh Market,” she says. “The bottom would have fallen out of my business in the first few months. I would have had to spend days just marketing in Charlotte. Selling through the Internet knocks out a major time-consuming step.”

Busy chefs in Charlotte are also pleased with easy access to flavorful local produce. “Just take a carrot picked two weeks ago in California and one picked yesterday—there’s a world of difference,” says Jean-Pierre Marechal, executive chef at the Marriott City Center hotel. “The fact that we can get dozens of farmers in one place and we use the Internet to communicate directly is just wonderful.”

A passion for solutions

Purpose Prize winners like Tim Will often see a social need others miss, then use their work and life experience to address those problems, says Alexandra Kent, director of the awards program. While plenty of age 50-plus adults relocate as they near retirement, “what sets Tim apart is that he has a real passion for solving problems,” she says. “He saw the area’s needs and said, ‘If I’m going to live here, I’m going to do what I can to help my neighbors.’ ”

Will, whose staff secretly nominated him for the prize, becomes emotional when talking about how past experiences led to his latest encore career. A Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras and Fiji as a young man, he learned communications in the Army and was a neighborhood planner in New Orleans. Then, he left a well-paid telecommunications job to teach troubled youth in Miami. “It’s all coming together now,” he says.

Will plans to give all his Purpose Prize money to Foothills Connect to expand programs, including a new industrial kitchen where farmers can turn their harvest into jams, jellies and other products. “We’re just a catalyst,” he adds. “I can’t take all the credit—a lot of people realized what we’re doing was in their own self-interest and they jumped onboard. Together, we’re creating jobs in a place where there were no jobs.”

Elizabeth Pope writes about work and retirement. She lives in Portland, Maine.

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