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Mebane man travels to Stockholm to compete for Food Planet Prize

The Food Planet Prize isn’t Sweden’s best-known award. That honor undoubtedly belongs to the vaunted Nobel. Yet, with an applicant pool of roughly 1,000 a year and a cash prize that’s twice what a Nobel laureate can expect, the Food Planet Prize isn’t exactly chopped liver, either – or pickled herring if one prefers the Nordic equivalent.

Endowed by a Swedish restaurateur to support ventures that reduce the ecological impact of food production, this annual accolade bills itself as “the world’s biggest environmental award.” It also comes with a purse of $2 million – which, in nonprofit circles, makes this particular prize about as grand as they come.

So, it was quite a moment this spring when Mebane’s own Tyler Whitley learned that a nonprofit program which he supervises had made the short list for this encomium.

The Transformation Project’s Tyler Whitley of Mebane

Dubbed The Transfarmation Project, Whitley’s six-person organization ultimately found itself among the runners-up when this year’s Food Planet winner was announced in Stockholm on Friday. The top slot went to C-40 Food Systems – an enterprise associated with a cyclopean network of cities that have banded together to fight climate change. Whitley, who was present for the announcement, nevertheless feels privileged that the award’s organizers had deigned to name Transfarmation as one of the finalists in this year’s competition.

“They’re looking for programs that are pretty substantial in their impact on the environment,” explained the nonprofit director who, having returned home to Mebane, recounted his experience to The Alamance News at a local coffee house on Monday. “They get upward of a thousand entries every year, and they spend more than a year reviewing the applications.”

 

Factory finished

To be picked out of a global candidate pool of a thousand is no mean achievement for a scrappy outfit of a half dozen people. It nevertheless says something about Transfarmation’s ambitions that it was able to whet the appetites of the folks behind the Food Planet Prize.

“We work with large confinement operations – which here in North Carolina that means hog farms and poultry farms. . . 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 livestock factories into greenhouses

An initiative of the national nonprofit Mercy for Animals, The Transfarmation Project was founded five years ago by Mercy’s CEO, Leah Garcés, in order to help poultry and livestock farmers convert their operations to the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Whitley, a native of Alabama who now calls North Carolina his home, was tapped to lead this spinoff in 2021, and during his tenure, he has made the most of his geographic location to add to Transfarmation’s stable of clients.

“We work with large confinement operations – which here in North Carolina that means hog farms and poultry farms,” he went on to elaborate. “We currently work with four farms in North Carolina. But we also have partners in Iowa, Indiana, Texas, and Georgia.

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

“We make ‘seed’ grants; we give out about $50,000 a year, and we provide technical assistance. We can find experts to show farmers how to raise specialty mushrooms or grow hydroponic lettuce. We also do market analysis so that farmers know what’s in demand in their area.”

– Tyler Whitley

Although Transfarmation doesn’t presently have any clients in Alamance County, it does work closely with farmers in Anson and Robeson counties who have decided to give up animal husbandry. Whitley notes that the program’s assistance to these individuals can take any of several forms.

“We make ‘seed’ grants; we give out about $50,000 a year,” he explained, “and we provide technical assistance. We can find experts to show farmers how to raise specialty mushrooms or grow hydroponic lettuce. We also do market analysis so that farmers know what’s in demand in their area.”

Whitley admits that the farmers he and his colleagues assist don’t necessarily make the about-face from livestock to veggies for strictly ethical reasons. In many cases, they find themselves on the losing end of a cut-throat industry, where large corporate conglomerates farm out the work of raising animals to independent contractors, who have little control over the terms of these arrangements. A decision at the corporate level can even lead to the abrupt cancelation of contracts. Yet, the farmers at the receiving end have often made substantial capital investments into buildings and equipment that make it difficult for them to roll with the punches.

Whitely stressed that his organization recognizes the challenges which confront independent farmers and that it has tried to factor their concerns into its business model.

“We try to focus on converting the physical structures used to raise animals,” he noted. “Farmers have a lot of debt in these structures. A chicken house might cost $100,000 to build, and a farmer has to pay off that debt.”

On the plus side, Whitley says that the facilities used to raise livestock have a number of features that make them well suited for reincarnation as greenhouses. Among other things, these buildings are already climate controlled and, with the installation of glass panels, they can make an ideal setting for produce. Whitley stresses that these buildings can also be used for a variety of fruits and vegetables so that farmers can easily adjust from one crop to another to meet changes in consumer demand and avoid head on competition with other local growers.

Whitley said that Transfarmation’s model has been a real godsend for farmers like Tom Lim, who had raised chickens in Anson County for decades before the company he contracted with chose to cut him loose in 2018.

“We initially gave him a $20,000 grant, which he used a buy a ‘reefer’ – which is a refrigerated trailer in trucker lingo,” Whitley recalls. “It was bought second hand and near the end of its life. But he uses it to grow specialty mushrooms.”

Since then, Lim has begun to repurpose his chicken houses with Transfarmation’s assistance, and he is currently slated to reopen the first of these converted coops as a demonstration greenhouse in September.

 

An honor just to be considered

So far, Whitley and his colleagues have managed to replicate this model at a handful of farms across the U.S. Yet, as modest as their achievements may be, they were enough to get the attention of the Food Planet Prize’s adjudicators, who named Transfarmation as one of the seven finalists for this year’s award when they put out their short list in April.

The brainchild of Curt Bergfors, a Swedish entrepreneur and philanthropist who passed away in 2022, the Food Planet Prize was launched in 2019 with the profits from MAX Burgers, a restaurant chain that presently boasts more than 170 locations across the globe. Unlike fellow Swede Alfred Nobel, who famously endowed his own eponymous award out of guilt over the carnage wrought by his invention of dynamite, Bergfors had made values like healthy food and environmental sustainability hallmarks of his own franchise. Yet, according to his bio on the Food Planet website, Bergfors realized that these values he had embraced were woefully absent from the “global food system.”

“Curt acknowledged that our current ways of producing, distributing, and consuming food are causing significant damage and that we must urgently and drastically change our modus operandi to save both human and planetary health,” the site’s bio contends. “The Food Planet Prize rewards innovative initiatives that will improve the global food system within a ten-year period while supporting a resilient biosphere and feeding a growing world population.”

With a goal this ambitious, the Food Planet Prize has tended to favor large, globe-striding organizations that have well-developed procedures to offset the ills of industrial food production. By this standard, Transfarmation was something of a long shot for this year’s award, although the stark odds against them didn’t prevent Whitley and his associates from giving their all to the contest.

As one of this year’s seven finalists, Transfarmation was invited to visit Sweden’s capital city to make an in-person pitch for the award. Whitley ultimately embarked on this odyssey with Katherine Jernigan, Transfarmation’s farmer outreach director. Together, the pair prepared a five-minute presentation, which they pitched to an international jury composed of experts from as far afield as South Africa and China.

“They were saying that we should reapply or have somebody nominate us again in the future. They said ‘we want to see you when your project is further along.’ Right now we work with about a dozen farms. They said ‘we want to see you when you have 100 farms enrolled in your program.’”

– Tyler Whitley on the reaction he got from the adjudicators of the Food Planet Prize

While he and his colleagues were ultimately unable to win over the jury, Whitley insists that this panel of specialists was still enormously supportive of Transfarmation’s work.

“They were saying that we should reapply or have somebody nominate us again in the future,” he recalled. “They said ‘we want to see you when your project is further along.’ Right now we work with about a dozen farms. They said ‘we want to see you when you have 100 farms enrolled in your program.’”

Whitley added that the award’s organizers were equally gracious to all of the finalists once they had announced this year’s recipient.

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

With the pressure of the award behind him, Whitley remained in Sweden for another couple of days so that he and his wife, Rachelle Leckie, could take in the sights. Among the highpoints of their whirlwind tour were Stockholm’s interactive ABBA museum and the historic Vasa – an ornate, 17th Century battleship which was so overbuilt that it sank on its maiden voyage. This Swedish “Spruce Goose” was eventually retrieved from the frigid depths of the Baltic in a remarkably fine state of preservation.

Rather appropriately, gustatory experiences rank among some of Whitley’s most vivid recollections of his visit to Sweden. In fact, the quality of the cuisine was even apparent in the hotel breakfasts that he enjoyed on the prize committee’s krona.

“Everything was fresh and as local as possible,” he recalled. “They had great local breads and cheeses. The strawberries were in season. They even have a narrow window for growing peaches, which we were there for.”

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