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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.

Three years ago, Tim Will and his family abandoned the hectic pace of Miami for the bucolic beauty of Rutherfordton, N.C. (population 4,131), in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. “I was going to teach and grow things on our farm,” says Will, 61, a self-described “corporate dude” turned high school teacher.

He soon learned that Rutherford County had lost 75 percent of its textile and manufacturing jobs to globalization and lacked the high-tech infrastructure to create new businesses. “I’ve seen a devastated economy before,” says Will, a native of Dayton, Ohio. “My hometown lost 45,000 jobs in one year when the Rust Belt collapsed.”

An incorrigible problem solver, Will was soon on a path that would help revive the county’s agrarian economy, bring back jobs and earn him the Purpose Prize, honoring age 60-plus social entrepreneurs—those who offer innovative solutions to pressing social problems—in their second career. Will is one of five winners who will receive $100,000; another five will get $50,000. Sponsored by Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank, the Purpose Prize is financed by the Atlantic Philanthropies and John Templeton Foundation.

High-tech victory

His journey to the Purpose Prize began when Will failed to get a teaching job in Rutherfordton. Instead, he was hired and quickly promoted to head a new nonprofit, Foothills Connect Business & Technology Center, charged with promoting small businesses and technology. For new businesses to sprout, the county’s pokey dial-up Internet access needed upgrading to high-speed broadband. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere, and we couldn’t compete in the global economy because we couldn’t connect to it,” Will says.

The challenges seemed monumental but were not unfamiliar to him. In his primary corporate career, Will had introduced complex telecommunications technology in the Caribbean and South America. In February 2007, Foothills Connect applied for a $1.4 million grant, and two years later the county had 100 miles of fiber-optic cables. Now the schools, police and fire departments could use 21st-century technology.

Joining crops with consumers

But more was needed on the job front, Will concluded. Rutherford County’s roots were in agriculture, and some farmers still raised commodity crops and grass-fed cattle. But there were 6,000 parcels of family-owned farmland between five and 20 acres that was uncultivated. “People said there was no money in farming,” Will says. He set out to prove otherwise.

In a chance conversation, a Charlotte, N.C., chef told Will how the city’s restaurants struggled to find fresh local produce—most fruits and veggies were trucked long distances, and much wilted produce was discarded. “A light went on in my head,” Will says. “Here was a demand that those small farms could fill.”

In April 2007, the nonprofit launched Farmers Fresh Market, an online ordering system linking small farmers with chefs and consumers. Foothills Connect developed and runs the website where customers can order fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs and other items offered for sale by farmers. Eighty percent of the proceeds are deposited directly into farmers’ accounts, while the nonprofit keeps 20 percent. Once a week, a truck drives 70 miles to deliver produce to 15 Charlotte restaurants and small groups of consumers who choose a drop-off point.

But first, Will had to persuade skeptical farmers to abandon corn and hay for zucchini blossoms, blue-tipped turnips and $40-a-pound microgreens. Veteran commercial farmer Jeff Searcy, who was working his fields when Will first drove up, signed up early for the project. “Tim has a gift for communication,” says Searcy, who devotes a few acres to growing 70 specialty items. “He’s driven, and he doesn’t get defeated.”

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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