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Mills River farm stars in promotion of food box program

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler sample apple slices during a tour of the Flavor 1st operation in Mills River to promote the Farmer to Family Food Box Program. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler sample apple slices during a tour of the Flavor 1st operation in Mills River to promote the Farmer to Family Food Box Program.

MILLS RIVER — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said spending a morning with Kirby Johnson took him back to his days growing up on a farm.


“My father loved what we called truck farming — vegetables, cantaloupe, peas, beans, sweet corn,” Perdue said. “Kirby brought me back to my roots today.”
Kirby gave Perdue a tour of his Mills River fields before they arrived at the big packing house on Banner Farm Road to meet with farmers, state agriculture officials and the press to promote the Farmer to Family Food Box Program, which is aimed at feeding the hungry and shoring up farms during the pandemic.
Launched in the spring, the program has distributed nearly 50 million food boxes to families affected by the covid-19 pandemic, the USDA said.
The Farmers to Family program starts in fields like the ones Johnson cultivates in Mills River, Georgia and South Florida and ends with the packing and shipping operation at Johnson’s huge Flavor 1st facility. Flavor 1st packs and ships about 7,000 food boxes a week to distribution centers run by the Baptist Home Mission, which contracted for the “last mile delivery” of the fruit and vegetables to churches, food pantries and other agencies to give to needy families.
“This isn’t throw-away food,” Perdue said. “This is first-quality food that you and I would be proud to have in our homes.”
IMG 0629Packers sort tomatoes at Flavor 1st.“Things change. Farming’s changing,” he added. “Kirby’s not doing the same thing he was 30 years ago, with the latest practices and keeping up with consumer demand, consumer taste, doing a good job that way.”
Steve Troxler, North Carolina’s agriculture commissioner, praised the program.
“When you can create a market for farm products and feed people at the same time it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “And creating jobs. I think you’ve seen how many people work at this facility. So as we work our way through the pandemic, this is a key program to get agriculture from point A to point B.”
Inside, around 180 workers packed boxes of tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, apples and green peppers in the boxes as they rolled by on conveyor belts.
“These farmers are selling it at market value,” Perdue said. “I think the price per pound is probably between a dollar and a quarter and two dollars a pound. They’re also doing dairy products and processed meat products.”
“We call it a win-win-win situation,” Perdue said. “When the restaurant business closed down, those were a lot of Kirby’s customers here, and then the distributors in the middle, they were out of business essentially. You heard rumors about produce being plowed under, distribution facilities closing up and laying people off.”
Apple grower Kenny Barnwell, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Flavor 1st owner Kirby Johnson.Apple grower Kenny Barnwell, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Flavor 1st owner Kirby Johnson.Johnson marveled at how fast the USDA launched the program.
“I was actually planting green beans when this happened,” he said. “A good friend called me about this program. I was going down the row real slow planting green beans. I laughed to myself that by the time this program gets in motion, (the pandemic) will be over. Let me tell you, that was a Tuesday, the following Thursday I was packing in this packing house vegetables to go to the people. I’ve done a lot of government stuff. Nothing has ever been done this quick, especially produce. People that need it need it. They don’t need it two months from now, they need it now.”
Family Food Box Program, he said, has helped offset some of the financial damage the pandemic has brought on.
“We took a hit in South Florida because none of this is going on,” he said. “I’ve benefited. If we get the third stage, the apple growers in Hendersonville will benefit. They’re going to get a little bit of it (before the next phase) but they won’t be in volume.”