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From farm to TABLE: Efland farmer provides low-income families with organic produce

73-year-old farmer Jim Sander smiles for a portrait at Wildflower Lane Farm in Efland, N.C. on Sunday, March 31, 2024.

When Jim Sander planted his first vegetable garden at Wildflower Lane in Efland over a decade ago, it consisted of a modest patch that he used for sustaining himself and gifting to friends.

73-year-old farmer Jim Sander greets his dog Rio at Wildflower Lane Farm in Efland, N.C. on Sunday, March 31, 2024.

As his plot and experience grew, he began to sell his harvests to various local businesses — Whole Foods Market, Weaver Street Market and restaurants.

Today, Wildflower Lane Farm occupies three-quarters of an acre and puts out over $100,000 worth of organic produce annually — or, it would if Sander took his produce to market.

He doesn’t make a cent from his harvests anymore. 

Sander found selling to markets increasingly unsatisfying because of the food waste created by rejected produce and the arduous organic certification process that allowed him to sell at a higher price.

73-year-old farmer Jim Sander waters seedlings in the greenhouse at Wildflower Lane Farm in Efland, N.C. on Sunday, March 31, 2024.

“I was running around a lot to make a little bit of money,” he said. “And then one day I just said, ‘Why don't I just take it easy and make no money? And have more fun out of it.’”

Several years ago, while walking through Carrboro, he saw a sign for TABLE, a nonprofit dedicated to delivering healthy food to children experiencing food insecurity in Orange County. He walked in with an idea and walked out with a deal in the works: TABLE funds Wildflower Lane Farm, and Sander donates all of his produce to the organization.

Jennifer Adams, the interim program director at TABLE, said that nutrient-rich produce, such as that donated by Sander, is often expensive and inaccessible.

“Low-income people are often having to just take whatever they can get at the grocery store and food access programs like ours,” she said. “What we do is we actually address that inequity by getting our kids access to that local food that they generally wouldn't have had access to.”

In 2019, TABLE gave Sander $4,500 for materials and seeds. And in return, he delivered $45,000 worth of fresh produce. In 2023, TABLE contributed $25,000 for a $110,000 return.

Sander said he donates 95 percent of his produce to TABLE. The rest goes to PORCH, another nonprofit hunger relief organization in Hillsborough.

He said maintaining this model is only possible through volunteers, as well as through the low-cost principles of regenerative agriculture. These principles require a less intensive and more intentional approach to working the soil.

73-year-old farmer Jim Sander explains the benefits of his pit greenhouse at Wildflower Lane Farm in Efland, N.C. on Sunday, March 31, 2024.

Among those working the farm is Abigail Bethune, Wildflower Lane Farm’s sole employee. She works part-time, with her wages paid as part of Sander’s deal with TABLE.

“I really do appreciate how small-scale it is,” she said. “And because he doesn't use large rototillers and tractors, it makes the work that much simpler and much more manageable.”

Spring is Wildflower Lane Farm’s busiest season. Sander's dogs, Rio and Maple, circle his feet as he tends the field, equipped only with a broadfork tiller and a drill-powered tilther. Volunteers come and go, tilling soil, moving compost and planting seedlings. 

Flowering dogwood and Eastern redbud trees surround rows of lettuce, kale and chard seedlings, which make up Sander’s cool weather crop. Volunteers started these from seeds in February in a nearby hoop house before transferring them to the fields at the beginning of spring.

Wildflower Lane Farm cycles crops out for the cold and hot seasons — leafy greens that thrive in the cold, and tomatoes, peppers and squash for harvest in the summer. Drip irrigation lines run between rows of plants, delivering water directly to their roots, conserving water and limiting labor.

In late March, some nearby plots were still covered by tarps. Beneath them, legumes that had been planted in the off-season withered and reincorporated into the soil. 

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Sander said that legumes, because of their unique ability to collect nitrogen in their roots, function as natural, soil-enriching fertilizers. When spring rolls around, volunteers remove the tarps, till the plant remains into the soil and plant the next row of seedlings.

The result is leafier, more nutrient-dense produce going to hundreds of food-insecure families in a matter of days after harvest. 

Sander said he hopes to duplicate this model around Orange County, and he has already begun mentoring a garden club in Hillsborough hoping to follow in his footsteps.

“It takes someone who really wants to make it happen, to make it happen,” he said.

73-year-old farmer Jim Sander walks with his dog Rio at Wildflower Lane Farm in Efland, N.C. on Sunday, March 31, 2024.