Moldova Residents Visit Sandhills Region
BY LINDA S. WALL
Special to The Pilot
The latest group of Cochran fellows to visit North Carolina won't soon forget their first taste of pork barbecue or the lessons learned from visiting local farms and agriculture distribution sites.
Farmers and local food distributors are perhaps unlikely ambassadors, but they represented the Sandhills region with its latest group of international visitors, who came from the Eastern European region of Moldova to see their operations.
Jan Leitschuh and Fenton Wilkinson are co-founders of Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative, and David Sherrill and his wife, Jackie, own David's Produce in Ellerbe. On an ordinary Wednesday, they conduct their regular activities of preparing produce for market or delivery, but on this day, they took time to welcome the eight visitors who had come to learn more about their operations.
The Cochran Fellowship is a USDA-sponsored program designed to promote quality agricultural training and education in emerging markets. Its goals are to help improve systems and enhance trade links with the countries and the United States. There are strong links between North Carolina and Moldova, and the recent group of fellows was the fifth hosted by Dr. Robert Wells and Robert Usry, who are both retired from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University.
"This is a wonderful foreign affairs program, and the Cochran fellows really represent the cream of the crop," said Wells. Those interested in the fellowship go through a thorough application process, which includes an interview with the U.S. Embassy in Moldova. Once the group is selected and scheduled to visit North Carolina, he and Usry help them create the itinerary. This is where Paige Burns, interim county extension director for Richmond County cooperative extension, stepped in.
N.C. State representatives had contacted her and wanted the group to be able to conduct field observation in the area, and after reading bios of the group and learning of their goals for the trip, she recommended David's Produce and Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.
"This was a young, entrepreneurial group coming to visit," said Burns. "They were open to new ideas and learning about how we do things. David's Produce is an excellent example of how a grower has taken stock of their options and totally diversified their business to help it grow. Sandhills Farm to Table has a focus on the regional effort of collecting produce from different growers and getting it to the consumer."
This was of great interest to the group, according to Burns.
"It's great to see new technology and facilities, but you don't have to have capital investment and technology to do what we do here," she said. "All you need are people who know how to grow food, and people who want to eat it. They have both of those in Moldova."
The group, made up of growers and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and a farmer's organization, were taken on a tour of facilities and given samples of local produce. According to Wells, capital investment is a major challenge for the farmers, so they are particularly interested in operations that do not require a great deal of technology. At Sandhills Farm to Table, they witnessed staff and volunteers packing produce in boxes to be delivered to regional pickup sites. At David's, they learned about retail stands, farmers markets and presentation of produce.
Wells, who is a former director of N.C. Cooperative Extension, explained that he and Usry have made numerous trips to Moldova, and many of the concepts of the cooperative environment would be helpful for the growers there. Much of the local produce is offered for sale from a roadside farmer's wagon. Creating roadside stands or farmers markets would be beneficial for the growers and consumers.
The next step is creating a value-added opportunity, as has been done in North Carolina, said Wells. One example is to establish a community kitchen, where locals can come to make jams, jellies and pickles using Moldovan produce.
At the end of their visit to the U.S., the fellows will create a plan of action, and the USDA follows up with them to track what progress they have made since the visit. Two previous Cochran fellows who came to North Carolina returned home to establish a national extension service in Moldova.
While here, their itinerary was an example of "farm to doorstep," and included trips to farmers markets, pick-your-own farms, Mount Olive Pickle Company, grocery stores, cold storage facilities and lectures about sanitary regulations. Wells said that they enjoyed sampling North Carolina produce as well as appreciating the warmth and hospitality of their American hosts. After their visit to David's Produce, owner David Sherrill said that it "meant a lot, and you're always interested in meeting someone who is interested in what you are doing."
Wells said that he maintains relationships with many of the fellows who have come to North Carolina, and they really do benefit from the program. At Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative, Fenton Wilkinson explained that "being a cooperative, we have gotten where we are because of people sharing gifts; we want to be able to share with others."
Andrei Botezatu, coordinator of Moldova's Rural Extension Service Component, said, "I saw many similarities between Moldova and the United States. What we see here, we can observe the same thing in Moldova, but it's good to see what other people are doing. Most agricultural businesses in Moldova are small, family-run operations."
After following the produce from food to table, the group said that they were very impressed with the emphasis on good production and a commitment to quality and the use of cooling. They also said that they were thankful for the opportunity to visit and that they would continue to think about what they learned as they applied it to their operations in Moldova.
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