Starting a Farmers’ Market Alliance: A Conversation with Annie Mills

— Written By Emma Jablonski
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Annie Mills is the Horticulture Agent and Local Foods Coordinator in Randolph County. This role involves providing research-based information and educational programming to horticultural businesses and homeowners. She is also responsible for coordinating the Randolph County Master Gardeners, which is a volunteer program that helps extend the reach of horticulture education in the county and across the state. 

As a relatively new Randolph County employee, Annie has relied heavily on community engagement and resources provided by the NC State Local Food Program. “This is my first year in Randolph County, so I have spent a lot of time trying to connect with the community and evaluate ways that Extension can support work that is already being done by partnering organizations as well as how I can fill in any gaps by providing relevant education and programming to the public,” she shared.

Annie’s Local Food Landscape
“Randolph County is uniquely positioned in an area where there is a large amount of agricultural land, but it is also within range of more populated urban areas that provide growers and producers additional opportunity for direct-to-consumer sales,” said Annie. Randolph County is also within driving distance of two of the State Farmers Markets. According to the 2017 Agricultural Census, Randolph County’s annual direct-to-consumer sales totaled over $2,000,000, up 440% from 2012

“Local foods are involved in just about everything we do at the office,” said Annie. Her favorite part about her position is that she gets to work with people who are extremely passionate about food access, gardening, farming, and making a positive impact in the Randolph community. “I love being able to support what others are doing and also come up with my own programs to address what the local needs are at a given time.”

Annie working with Randolph County’s Master Gardener Group at a local soup kitchen.

Annie’s Primary Projects & Programs
Annie has several exciting projects that she is currently working on. She is one of the few Horticulture Agents from across the state assisting with Small Farm Bootcamp, an upcoming agricultural program for new and beginning producers. She also collaborates with Randolph’s 4-H Agent, Allison Walker, to plan out Seed Kits for youth gardening education and to coordinate intergenerational family gardening programs and a contest focused on food production. They have also hosted and planned several programs to help support school and community gardens around the county, especially those that grow and distribute food to other outreach organizations. “I’m a strong believer that providing education to children and families on how food is grown ultimately helps strengthen our local food economy and promote a better understanding of the agricultural industry,” shared Annie.

Randolph County Master Gardeners assembling 4-H Seed Kits.

A large-scale initiative that Annie and her team are working on is improving Randolph’s farmers’ markets. As of now, there are five markets in the county. Over this past winter, a group met to form the Randolph County Farmers’ Market Alliance. This partnership involves the Tourism board, the Chamber of Commerce, market managers, and Cooperative Extension. Their hope is to strengthen Randolph’s farmers’ market scene for local food consumers and the vendors who sell there. In an effort to gain a better perspective on what has been working and what needs improvement at the markets, Annie created surveys for market vendors, customers, and market managers. With help from a summer intern, Annie delivered the surveys in person at the markets and through social media and email. The survey gleaned opinions from consumers and vendors on a variety of topics such as EBT, food waste, and vendor income from market sales. Annie received an overwhelming amount of responses, which will be delivered at the Market Alliance’s next meeting. The survey results will be used as a guide for the upcoming market season. Annie added, “We are still in the beginning stages of the Market Alliance, but with partnership from the different parties involved and these initial steps to coordinate, I think there is a lot of potential to strengthen several aspects of our local food economy.”

Members of the Randolph County Farmers’ Market Alliance.

Annie’s Final Thoughts
When asked about the future of local food in North Carolina, Annie first addressed the continuing impacts of the pandemic. “I think the pandemic has […] exposed some of the gaps that exist in our global food system and supply chain. Farmers are facing more challenges than ever with rising costs of supplies and challenges securing labor. However, in the last year I have received a number of calls from community members that want to start businesses in response to the need for affordable local foods and received more than a dozen or so inquiries from folks interested in starting a farm,” she shared. Annie also commented on policy changes. She believes policies that will support the connection of local foods with larger institutions like schools and hospitals are in the near future. These partnerships will provide a multitude of benefits, one of the most important being the additional opportunities for keeping locally produced foods in North Carolina. Lastly, she wished that the state would continue to improve its local food availability and affordability.

Annie and a volunteer working at a community garden last spring.

Annie’s favorite place to buy local food is the State Farmers Markets. She said, “I love to see the assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables and have the ability to pick from varieties that aren’t always available in the grocery store.”