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Man from Mebane travels to Stockholm to compete in Food Planet Prize

Man from Mebane travels to Stockholm to compete in Food Planet Prize
Man from Mebane travels to Stockholm to compete in Food Planet Prize

The Food Planet Prize is not Sweden’s most famous award. That honor undoubtedly goes to the vaunted Nobel Prize winner. But with an applicant pool of around 1,000 a year and prize money twice what a Nobel Prize winner can expect, the Food Planet Prize isn’t exactly chopped liver either – or pickled herring, if you prefer the Nordic equivalent.

This annual award was founded by a Swedish restaurant owner to support projects that reduce the environmental impact of food production. It bills itself as the “world’s largest environmental award” and comes with a $2 million prize – making it one of the most prestigious awards in nonprofit circles.

So it was a special moment this spring when Tyler Whitley of Mebane learned that a nonprofit program he oversees had made the shortlist for this honor.

Tyler Whitley of the Transformation Project in Mebane

Whitley’s six-person organization, called The Transfarmation Project, was a runner-up at the Food Planet’s announcement of this year’s winner in Stockholm on Friday. First place went to C-40 Food Systems – a company connected to a vast network of cities that have joined forces to fight climate change. Whitley, who was present at the announcement, still feels honored that the prize organizers deigned to name Transfarmation as one of the finalists in this year’s competition.

“They are looking for programs that have a pretty big impact on the environment,” explained the director of the nonprofit organization, who reported his experiences after returning to Mebane The Alamance News at a local cafe on Monday. “They receive over a thousand submissions each year and spend more than a year reviewing the applications.”

Factory ready

Being selected from a global pool of a thousand applicants is no small feat for a struggling organisation of half a dozen people, but that Transfarmation managed to whet the appetites of the people behind the Food Planet Prize says a lot about their ambitions.

“We work with large factory farms – that’s hog farms and poultry farms here in North Carolina. … We currently work with four farms in North Carolina. But we also have partners in Iowa, Indiana, Texas and Georgia.”

– Tyler Whitley, Mebane resident and director of the nonprofit The Transfarmation Project, which helps farmers convert factory farms into greenhouses

The Transfarmation Project, an initiative of the national nonprofit Mercy for Animals, was founded five years ago by Mercy’s CEO Leah Garcés to help poultry and livestock farmers convert their operations to growing fruits and vegetables. Whitley, an Alabama native who now lives in North Carolina, was hired to lead this spinoff in 2021 and during his tenure has made the most of his geographic location to expand Transfarmation’s customer base.

“We work with large factory farms – hog farms and poultry farms here in North Carolina,” he continued. “We currently work with four farms in North Carolina. But we also have partners in Iowa, Indiana, Texas and Georgia.”

“We’re a completely remote team,” he adds. “We have one team member who lives in California; others in Indiana, Arkansas, New York and Boston, and I live in North Carolina.”

“We provide seed capital, spend about $50,000 annually, and provide technical support. We can provide experts to show farmers how to grow special mushrooms or lettuce using hydroponics. We also do market analysis so farmers know what is in demand in their region.”

– Tyler Whitley

Although Transfarmation does not currently have clients in Alamance County, it works closely with farmers in Anson and Robeson counties who have decided to abandon livestock farming. Whitley notes that the program’s support for these individuals can take a variety of forms.

“We give ‘seed capital’ grants; we spend about $50,000 a year,” he explained, “and we provide technical assistance. We can find experts to show farmers how to grow special mushrooms or grow lettuce hydroponically. We also do market analysis so farmers know what is in demand in their area.”

Whitley admits that the farmers he and his colleagues support are not necessarily switching from livestock to vegetable farming for purely ethical reasons. In many cases, they are the losers in an industry where large corporations outsource the work of raising livestock to independent contractors who have little control over the terms of those agreements. A corporate-level decision can even lead to the abrupt termination of contracts. But the farmers on the suffering side have often made significant investments in buildings and equipment that make it difficult for them to cope with the blows.

Whitely stressed that his organization is aware of the challenges faced by independent farmers and has tried to incorporate their concerns into its business model.

“We’re trying to focus on transforming the buildings where animals are kept,” he noted. “Farmers have a lot of debt in those buildings. It can cost $100,000 to build a chicken coop, and a farmer has to pay off that debt.”

On the positive side, Whitley says the livestock facilities have a number of features that make them well suited to being converted into greenhouses. Among other things, these buildings are already air-conditioned and the installation of glass panels can make them an ideal environment for production. Whitley stresses that these buildings can also be used to grow different types of fruit and vegetables, allowing farmers to easily switch from one crop to another to adapt to changes in consumer demand and avoid direct competition with other local growers.

Whitley said Transfarmation’s model has been a real boon for farmers like Tom Lim, who raised chickens in Anson County for decades before the company he had a contract with decided to lay him off in 2018.

“We initially gave him a $20,000 grant, which he used to buy a ‘reefer’ – in trucking jargon, that’s a refrigerated trailer,” Whitley recalls. “It was bought second-hand and almost at the end of its life. But he uses it to grow special mushrooms.”

Since then, with the support of Transfarmation, Lim has begun converting his chicken coops and is currently planning to reopen the first of these converted coops as a demonstration greenhouse in September.

An honor to even be considered

So far, Whitley and his colleagues have managed to replicate this model on a handful of farms in the US. But modest as their successes may be, they were enough to catch the attention of the Food Planet Prize judges, who named Transfarmation one of seven finalists for this year’s award when they released their shortlist in April.

The Food Planet Prize was founded in 2019 by Curt Bergfors, a Swedish entrepreneur and philanthropist who died in 2022. It was created with proceeds from MAX Burgers, a restaurant chain that currently has more than 170 outlets around the world. Unlike fellow Swede Alfred Nobel, who famously founded his eponymous prize out of guilt over the carnage his invention of dynamite had caused, Bergfors had made values ​​such as healthy eating and environmental sustainability the hallmarks of his own franchise. But according to his biography on the Food Planet website, Bergfors realized that these values ​​he espoused were woefully lacking in the “global food system.”

“Curt acknowledged that our current methods of producing, distributing and consuming food are causing significant harm and that we must urgently and dramatically change our ways of doing things to save both the health of people and the planet,” the website’s bio reads. “The Food Planet Prize rewards innovative initiatives that improve the global food system within a ten-year period while supporting a resilient biosphere and feeding a growing world population.”

With such an ambitious goal, the Food Planet Prize has typically favored large, globe-spanning organizations with well-developed processes to offset the ills of industrial food production. By that yardstick, Transfarmation was somewhat of an underdog this year, though the stark odds against them didn’t stop Whitley and his colleagues from trying their best.

As one of this year’s seven finalists, Transfarmation was invited to visit the Swedish capital to promote the award in person. Whitley ended up embarking on this odyssey with Katherine Jernigan, Transfarmation’s Farmer Outreach Director. Together, the pair prepared a five-minute presentation to present to an international jury of experts from as far away as South Africa and China.

“They said we should reapply or get nominated again in the future. They said, ‘We want to see you when your project is more advanced.’ Right now we’re working with about a dozen farms. They said, ‘We want to see you when 100 farms are participating in your program.'”

– Tyler Whitley on the reaction of the Food Planet Prize judges

Although he and his colleagues ultimately failed to convince the jury, Whitley emphasizes that the panel of experts nevertheless provided enormous support for Transfarmation’s work.

“They said we should reapply or get nominated again in the future,” he recalls. “They said, ‘We want to see you when your project is more advanced.’ Right now we’re working with about a dozen farms. They said, ‘We want to see you when 100 farms are participating in your program.'”

Whitley added that the award organisers had been equally generous to all finalists after announcing this year’s winner.

“They took us on a boat trip through the archipelago,” he said, “and served us traditional Swedish food on the boat.”

With the pressure of the award behind him, Whitley stayed in Sweden for a few days so he and his wife Rachelle Leckie could see the sights. Highlights of their whirlwind tour included Stockholm’s interactive ABBA Museum and the historic Vasa – an ornate 17th-century battleship that was so oversized that it sank on its maiden voyage. This Swedish “Spruce Goose” was eventually recovered from the icy depths of the Baltic Sea in a remarkably good state of preservation.

Fittingly, some of Whitley’s most vivid memories of his visit to Sweden were of culinary experiences. The quality of the cuisine was evident even at the hotel breakfast he enjoyed wearing the awards committee crown.

“Everything was fresh and as local as possible,” he recalls. “There was great local bread and cheese. The strawberries were in season. They even have a small window of time for growing peaches, and we were there.”