Dewain Mackey, a Madison County, N.C., farmer trying to diversify his operation, had just harvested his first crop of the leafy vegetable when an idea struck: take it to the schools. So he tossed a few heads of his hydroponic lettuce into a bowl and hit the road.

After stops at the offices of the superintendent and school board chair, who both supported his idea, Mackey drove to a local high school. The nutritionist evaluated his lettuce, chopped it and put it on the lunch line. It was a hit. And, it was the start of something much bigger.

Mackey’s ingenuity forged the first of a number of new partnerships that would help establish Madison Farms, a non-profit organization that helps local growers bring their produce to market and builds bridges between farmer and community.

Led by the Madison County office of North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Madison Farms gives new meaning to "sustainable agriculture" in a formerly tobacco-dependent community. At the same time, the venture supplies area schools with fresh, healthy foods.

"Our goal is to keep the farmers in business," says Ross Young, director of Cooperative Extension in Madison County.

After the tobacco buyout, Madison County’s annual burley production plummeted from a $10 million business to $3 million, leaving a hole in the local economy and a number of growers in need of new crops.

"Our county once had close to 3,000 burley growers. Now, there are about 350," Young says. "We’re helping farmers focus on other markets that have value here and will be profitable for them."

Madison Farms’ value-added processing center provides growers with the equipment and supplies to clean and package their produce, from potatoes to summer berries. The facility boasts produce washing equipment, walk-in coolers and freezers, produce slicers and an industrial kitchen.

On this particular day, local farmer Owen Ball backs his truck up to the Madison Farms loading dock and, with the help of Mackey and Madison Farms volunteer Aubrey Raper, he gets to work washing and packaging his potatoes.

Madison Farms takes care of the rest, marketing and selling the produce to a growing local customer base.

"We’re trying to fill a gap between farmers and consumers by taking out the middle man," Young says. "A lot of these farmers will make more money selling clean, packaged produce."

Case in point: Ball netted $13 a bushel that day, instead of the usual $8.

Thanks to Mackey’s persistence, the Madison Farms customer base now includes Madison County Schools, Asheville City Schools, UNC-Asheville and Mars Hill College. Mackey himself provides about 1,000 heads of lettuce each week to area schools, while also serving as operating manager of Madison Farms.

Based partly on the model of the national "Farm-to-School" program, Madison Farms aims to restore the connection between farms and communities. "It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved," Young says. "Farmers benefit from the continuous customer base, and students benefit from receiving nutritious food."

Right now, the processing center is available to any farmer, and about 20 local growers regularly take advantage of the services of Madison Farms. Mackey and his team are still ironing out details about how best to manage a membership system. David Kendall, Extension agricultural agent in Madison County, says they’re considering charging membership fees, or perhaps "per bushel" fees. "We’re also exploring the possibility of other groups operating under the auspices of Madison Farms."

Major funding for the project comes from Madison County government, the Golden LEAF Foundation, the North Carolina Rural Center, a local farm organization, and the Appalachian Regional Commission. Other partners include local farmers, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Duke Endowment, Handmade in America, the Madison County Partnership and e-NC, an initiative to link all North Carolinians to the Internet.

Madison Farms also operates a Web site at http://madisonfarms.org/ that provides information to consumers and tourists about Madison County and its farms. The site features "Buy Local" and "Farm Finder" sections that highlight opportunities to visit the county’s family farms.

Gift baskets are another of Madison Farms’ enterprises. Stocked with locally grown or hand-crafted products like jams, soaps and pottery, the baskets cost about $40 each and can be shipped anywhere in the country.

Still settling into their new digs at the Madison County Multiple Use Agricultural Complex, Ross, Mackey and the Madison Farms team recently acquired a small commercial flour mill, as well as two dehydration machines and a vacuum sealer to enable production of dried fruits, vegetables and shiitake mushrooms.

"It was kind of a no-brainer," Mackey says. "Getting fresh North Carolina produce into the schools is such an obvious winning situation. And, supporting local farmers is key to the livelihood of our county."