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N.C. marketing effort helps farmers transition from tobacco to produce

08/18/2011 @ 10:17am

When North Carolina's Pilot Mountain Pride opened its doors in May 2010, organizers of the produce marketing initiative were conservatively hoping to bring in $30,000 to $50,000 in sales for the first year. But last year’s sales greatly exceeded those expectations, coming in at more than $250,000.

Bryan Cave, Surry County Cooperative Extension director, was heavily involved in getting PMP off the ground. Like others, he was pleased and surprised by the first year sales. In early June, PMP was off to a somewhat slower start in its second season, due mainly to wet, cool conditions that had kept farmers out of the fields in the spring.

In Surry County, like other parts of North Carolina, former tobacco growers are seeking new ways to diversify production. Pilot Mountain Pride helps local farmers to earn a living raising produce, while establishing the organization as a regional model for produce sales.

Cave described PMP as an “aggregation center,” where growers bring produce to be washed, graded, packaged, marketed and delivered to buyers.

“Pilot Mount Pride is a venue for accessing markets for smaller growers,” said Tony Cave, a Surry County PMP grower and board member, no relation to Bryan Cave.

The program was developed through the efforts of the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Surry County center, along with support from county government and granting agencies.  As early as 2003, PMP was just an idea shared by Bryan Cave, then a livestock agent, and Chris Knopf, then a county planner, now assistant county manager.

Agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of the county’s economy.  Bryan Cave and Knopf knew that many of the county’s tobacco farmers were retiring, had decided to leave farming or were looking for crops to diversify their production. At the same time, there were few younger growers coming into farming.

In 2006, the idea for a shared marketing facility emerged when three Surry County communities — Pilot Mountain, Dobson and Elkin — received an N.C. STEP grant for Small Town Economic Prosperity, which included plans for some type of value-added agricultural center. Two years later, Surry County government provided funding to study the concept.

The study found a strong desire for local foods, and Winston-Salem, N.C. – an urban center less than 30 miles away – had no coordinated local food marketing operation, Bryan Cave said. Potential clients didn’t show a preference for organic over conventionally grown produce but had a strong interest in buying locally.

Though Surry County has two farmers’ markets of its own and others nearby, Extension found that the growers in those direct sales markets wanted to stay there, while newer produce growers weren’t interested in  getting into direct sales, Bryan Cave said. They wanted someone to market produce for them.

With the help of Golden LEAF -- a foundation that supports economic development in rural North Carolina -- Pilot Mountain Pride renovated and moved into an old textile facility that provided space for a grading and packing line and large storage coolers. In addition to Golden LEAF and N.C. STEP, grant funding has come from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, North Carolina's Tobacco Trust Fund, the N.C. Rural Center and the local Farm Bureau board.

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