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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.”

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