Fielding New Business: Leaders Seek More Opportunities for Farmers
C.V. Pilson Farm in Cameron was already participating in Sandhills Farm to Table, so selling jumbo sweet potatoes directly to public school systems in North Carolina seemed like a logical next step.
“Local is better. You can’t get any fresher than straight from the farm,” says Cliff Pilson, 20, a third-generation farmer who grows fruits and vegetables with his father, Chester.
A better deal for the consumer — and a better deal for the farmers. Moore County business leaders see major potential for the area’s farmers if direct-from-the-farm can take off.
Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress, believes that the institutional market represents a growth opportunity for county farmers and has formed an Agribusiness Committee to pursue that and other initiatives.
“This is a big deal because direct sales to institutions is not easy and not the norm,” Corso says. “But it would be the most effective way for our farmers to get the best value for their crops.”
As a general rule, farmers receive 70 cents on the dollar when they sell their products directly to consumers, but only about 17 cents when they go through distributors.
Before it could sell directly to institutions, C.V. Pilson Farm had to go through the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program. To minimize the chance of fruit or vegetable contamination, the program was established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to verify that farms are following recommended safe practices.
The program includes a seven-part Audit Checklist, and the audit is performed by a licensed state or federal inspector.
“It’s very tough, but it’s worth it,” Pilson says. “We would never want to put our customers at risk. We are big on keeping our food as healthy and as safe as possible.”
Becoming GAP-certified is expensive — C.V. Pilson Farm invested about $5,000 in the process — which makes it one of several hurdles that must be overcome before the institutional program can be implemented.
“The devil is in the details. We have some homework to do,” Corso says.
Pilson says the farm sold jumbo sweet potatoes directly to the public school systems in Gaston and Chatham counties, but had to go through Laytons Produce in Raleigh to reach Moore County.
“It’s a great idea,” he says. “Hopefully, we can ramp it up a little in the future.”
Corso established the committee earlier this year after talking with farmers during tours of agricultural operations in Moore County. He is trying to find ways to retain and enhance an industry that generates about $200 million annually, making it the county’s largest.
“Farmers are trying to make the transition from tobacco to alternative cash crops,” he says. “Sandhills Farm to Table (SF2T) has been an important first step, but we can do more.”
Corso and other committee members have met with the school system, Sandhills Community College, Pinehurst Resort, FirstHealth of the Carolinas and St. Joseph of the Pines, among others, to generate support for the institutional program.
“First, you have to meet with the stakeholders and get them to agree that this is a good idea, and we’ve done that,” Corso says.
The timing is important because the federal Tobacco Transition Payment Program, which began in 2005, will only continue through 2014 for eligible tobacco quota holders and producers.
“Can we develop an alternate farm economy prior to that? We think we can,” Corso says.
Charles Hammond, who retired as Moore County extension director in 2000, says that he came out of retirement to serve on the committee because he believes in its mission.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for those farmers who want to adopt new ideas,” Hammond says. “We need to make sure that all farmers are given the opportunity to be part of it, because as we grow it will take more growers and acreage to be successful.”
Fenton Wilkinson, a committee member and general manager of SF2T, believes that it will take up to two years to start the institutional program.
“What we’re initially trying to do is quantify the interest of the institutions, the quantities they’re purchasing now and pricing,” Wilkinson says. “It’s a matter of leveraging little steps, just like we did when we started Sandhills Farm to Table.”
SF2T, which began in 2010, currently has about 1,200 subscribers and uses products from 35 farms in Moore and five other counties to fill its baskets for distribution every week.
Corso believes that a multi-county approach will also be needed for successful implementation of the institutional program.
“Moore County farmers can’t grow everything that these institutions need,” he says. “But Sandhills Farm to Table has already shown us that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. As long as farmers can get their products to a central distribution center, we’ll be all right.”
The committee, which has met twice since its founding, is also exploring the feasibility of a consumer-owned food cooperative and establishing a sustainable agriculture curriculum at the college.
“Sandhills Farm to Table has become the seed leading to all these other things, and our goal is to take it to a different level,” Corso says. “The whole motivation behind this is to keep the farm economy alive by seeking alternative sources of revenue for farmers and enticing the younger generation to farm. The average farmer is 57 years old in Moore County.
“We need more young people like Cliff Pilson to carry on the family tradition.”
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 693-2474 or email@example.com.
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