Tim Will and his wife Eleanor moved to rural North Carolina a few years hoping to pursue a decades-old dream to become organic farmers. Tim had spent his career working for big telecommunications companies as a systems analyst, and more recently had taught history and geography in an urban Miami high school.
They picked Rutherford County in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains after seeing the 1992 film of James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel, "The Last of the Mohicans." "No matter where that is," Will told his wife during one particularly eye-catching scene of Appalachian beauty, "that's where I want you to bury me."
The Wills had become interested in organic farming years earlier, while serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras and Fiji. They moved to Rutherfordton when Tim was 58; his game plan was to continue his work as a high school teacher and take up farming on a small scale.
But Rutherford County had bigger plans for Will. He's unexpectedly found himself leading a unique effort to transform a region hit hard by globalization into an Internet-fueled center for locally-grown organic food. The initiative is taking residents back to their agricultural roots-and putting them back to work.
Will's work has just been recognized with a 2009 Purpose Prize. The award, given annually by the Encore Careers campaign, recognizes older career trailblazers who have demonstrated creative and effective work tackling social problems. This year, the winners were chosen from 1,200 nominees; five winners will receive $100,000 prizes, with another five recipients are getting $50,000 awards.
The prize, now in its fourth year, was created to promote and encourage civic engagement among baby boomers. Along with Will, this year's winners include a psychiatrist who helps saves soldiers' lives by offering free mental health treatment, a former NASA executive who works to treat alcoholism in Native American communities by reviving old customs and traditions, and a couple who honor their son, killed on 9/11, by helping to bring mental health services to countries ravaged by terrorism, violence and war.
Will's teaching plans changed when he found jobs were scarce in his new home, so he accepted a job as a small business developer with the Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center, which had been created to support local small business entrepreneurs and provide community Internet access. But when Will came on the scene, the new center hadn't done much more than set up a few computer terminals for public use. Less than a month later, the director resigned. With no other candidates on the horizon, Will found himself promoted to the top post almost by default.
The challenges were daunting. The area had lost most of the jobs in its key industries-textiles and manufacturing-to globalization. And Will was especially troubled by another discovery: the area had no broadband access to the Internet.
"I thought it was criminal," Will recalls. "I tried explaining to folks that by time you get out of high school, the world expects you to have mastered the Internet, not just getting introduced to it."
His first big achievement at Foothills was snagging a $1.4 million foundation grant to bring broadband Internet access to the community. Aiming to leverage that connectivity to create jobs, Will tried creating an online marketplace to sell the wide array of Appalachian crafts made in the region, but the effort fell flat.
But along the way, Will had stumbled onto another potential source of economic growth. While studying maps of the region, he noticed that there were thousands of families that owned farmable land. "I confirmed with our local tax department that there were 7,000 families with five to 20 acres. Then we compared that list with the names of people who had lost jobs in the textile mills and furniture factories, and we had hundreds of matches."
Most of that land hadn't been under cultivation for years, due to the small size of the individual parcels-but Will knew that size wasn't a barrier for the specialized, organic crops he had in mind. "I started contacting folks to help them understand they didn't need 100 acres to be successful. We're trying to show people how they can grow organic and pesticide free with high flavor-don't go for yield, but quality in stead of quantity."
The next step was connecting farmers to a marketplace, and he found a stream of eager customers in Charlotte restaurants, where chefs complained to Will that they had very little access to high-quality, locally-grown produce. That led to creation of Farmers Fresh Market, an online ordering system that connects Charlotte restaurants with Rutherfordton farmers.
The marketplace has provided a foundation for rebuilding an agriculture-based economy in the region. The network has gone from 35 farmers in 2008 to 90 this year, growing high-value crops like heirloom tomatoes, fennel, leeks, garlic and Swish chard. "They're growing stuff they've never tasted before," Will says with a hearty laugh.
With the venture becoming more popular, Will is working to help farmers grow their business through computer training. Foothills Connect also has helped launch sustainable horticulture programs for adults in the community and high school students.