Mitchell County October 2023


County Seat

Median Income

Population Density Designation

In Spruce Pine, the Extra Miles Tour van pulled up to a building that stood, more or less, empty. When we walked inside, there wasn’t a lot of activity to see: A folding table with a bushel of apples, gourds and squashes of various shapes and sizes, a cabbage … and one guy leaning against the back wall, who warmly greeted us when we walked in. We hadn’t taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. This vacated car dealership was right where we were supposed to be.

The setting for our conversation in Mitchell County was in what will soon become the new storefront center for TRACTOR Food and Farms. Two weeks before our visit, this thriving CSA (community supported agriculture) had closed on this building. In a few more weeks’ time, this quiet, unassuming space will become a bustling hub of agricultural and economic activity.

While the Blue Cross NC team munched on the tasty, freshly harvested apples Executive Director Andrew “Dru” Zucchino offered, he painted a picture of surrounding hillsides that were once blanketed with tobacco fields. As the market for that crop diminished, the area’s economy changed. Mr. Zucchino also explained that the county is a food desert. With very few grocery stores selling fresh produce and nutritionally dense foods, residents (especially those in more remote corners or without reliable transportation) can find it difficult to drive 30 minutes or so to purchase fresh produce and nutritionally dense foods.

TRACTOR started with a dual mission to address both of these challenges simultaneously. On the one hand, the organization is an economic development effort, designed to help farmers transitioning from tobacco to other profitable produce find lucrative markets for their product. At the same time, it works to promote food security throughout the region. TRACTOR operates as an aggregator, pooling resources from across a robust and steadily growing network of local farms. It then supplies locally grown foods to human services organizations (HSOs), which distribute these resources to those in need. TRACTOR also runs its own food prescription program, Farefield (supported by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation), which delivers bespoke food bundles to food-insecure individuals who have specific health needs. The organization also makes its CSA bundles commercially available. TRACTOR’s market-driven approach allows it to offer choice, variety and quality to every one of its customers, whether they pay for their CSA box or receive one through an HSO or a Farefield prescription.

TRACTOR’s success demonstrates that philanthropy and capitalism aren’t mutually exclusive; sometimes they can walk hand-in-hand and help make community-building enterprises more sustainable for the long haul. TRACTOR partners with more than 100 “under-resourced farmers” – including 43 women farmers and producers. By opening new markets for locally grown and produced food, TRACTOR helped generate $620,000 in new income for small farmers last year alone. It also distributed 142 tons of collards, mushrooms, lettuces, beans and plenty of other fresh vegetables to more than 20,000 individuals facing food insecurity.

The organization is also driving collaboration among the farmers it partners with. Mr. Zucchino talked about how a “culture of connectivity” is developing: Local producers work with one another to problem-solve issues around pests, blights and other issues. Furthermore, TRACTOR works with farmers to shape a strategic plan for the crops grown across the region. Because the organization knows what produce will be in demand, it can help coordinate who grows what, so farms don’t duplicate or compete with one another.

That evening, our conversation in Mitchell County moved to an even more unusual location: The banquet hall in Spruce Pine’s Smithmore Castle, a grand inn nestled on top of a 121-acre private mountain. The setting and the food were both outstanding, but what was really remarkable was the conversation. We invited many of the friends and partners from the surrounding counties we’d met on previous stops (or were about to meet). Avery, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey Counties were all represented around the hall’s massive table, which played host to provocative dialogue that covered a range of topics, including youth mental health, substance use, heath care workforce challenges and much more.

At the end of the day, the Blue Cross NC team retired to yet another setting: the Blue Ridge Boutique Hotel. The historic building – perched on a hillside and looking over the beautiful town of Spruce Pine below – was once the area’s elementary school. Today this setting is much more than a cozy inn in a stunning location. It’s also a non-profit operation run by Mayland Community College to provide work experience and training for its students. Even at the end of the day and over a night’s rest, everyone on the Extra Miles Tour was once again learning about (and directly benefitting from) how local colleges are finding creative ways to promote workforce development and help students of all ages get on track toward future careers. This has been a recurring theme throughout the Extra Miles Tour.

The next morning, the Extra Miles Tour van was back on the road, headed down the mountain for further conversation. Everyone in the van felt like it was a little bit too soon to be leaving such a beautiful county with so much to see and so much to learn about.

This feeling has been another recurring theme. Mitchell County was the 96th county on the Tour … and 96 counties beckon us to return.

Meet Dr. Algie Gatewood

Dr. Algie Gatewood is only the fourth President to lead Alamance Community College (ACC) since it opened in 1958. During Dr. Gatewood’s tenure at ACC, the college won its largest ever bond referendum – nearly $40 million – in 2018 to fund a number of major capital projects and expansions. The college also secured $16 million in county funding in 2014 to build the Advanced Applied Technology Center. Other notable accomplishments include creating a Biotechnology Center of Excellence, introducing an Early College, facilitating an apprenticeship program, and introducing nearly two dozen new academic programs and articulation agreements with state universities.

U39702, 12/23