ROCKINGHAM — Board members for the fledgling Sandhills AGInnovation Center have identified at least two things they need to work on ASAP: buying expensive cooling equipment to store produce before sale and making sure local producers are certified in good agricultural practices, or GAP.
Earlier this week, Richmond County commissioners gave the 11-member board permission to seek a grant for $200,000 worth of equipment to chill and process fresh produce before sale. Making sure farmers know how to implement GAP may take a little longer.
“GAP is what buyers want,” said Lee Berry, owner of the Berry Patch in Ellerbe and a board member. “I’m working on mine now. I hope to have my certificate by February.”
Farmers seeking GAP certification undergo voluntary audits by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make sure their fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stored safely, to minimize the risks of unsafe microbial growth.
“The wintertime’s a good time for farmers … to start the process,” Berry said. “I don’t think we’re going to come out of the gate wide open” and begin to snare larger sales. But, he added, GAP is a step in that direction.
County Extension Director Susan Kelly said she was cheered that during their recent initial meeting, board members “cut right to what clearly is one of the biggest problems (local producers) are facing” — a lack of GAP certification. Kelly was the main driver behind the AGInnovation Center and is an ex-officio board member. That means she has no vote but will serve as an adviser.
As for the potential grant money: It would come from the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program as part loan, part grant.
Officials with the program “already have expressed interest” in the AGInnovation Center, Kelly said, so while the grant isn’t guaranteed, board members are hopeful. And they’ll get the chance to say whether they like the terms of whatever Rural Development offers.
Richmond County has 277 farms, according to the latest figures from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. Those include 17 fruit, nut and berry farms, and 19 melon, vegetable and potato farms.
Some area farmers sell direct to consumers, on the roadside or at farmers’ markets.
But better money can be made in selling wholesale — something that can be beyond a smaller farmer, who may not have access to capital to advertise or the equipment to keep produce cooled and fresh until it is sold.
The AGInnovation Center is intended to broker arrangements between farmers and buyers, to help farmers choose profitable crops, and provide education and equipment to boost production.
As far as selling local produce to larger outlets goes, Berry said he thought local producers had a leg up: Produce grown in the Sandhills is sweeter. That, he said, could be the seed for a marketing campaign.
“The hotter it is, the drier it is, the sweeter everything is,” said Berry, who is known for strawberries but also has grown peaches. “The Sandhills is known for that.
“We need to brand ourselves and distinguish ourselves.”
Smaller crops and farmers also don’t necessarily mean smaller profits, he said.
“Smaller crops and more unique crops (grown in the Sandhills), it’s a lot more work,” he said. “But you don’t need volume” to harvest sweet rewards.
Kelly of the Extension concurred.
“The Sandhills has the capacity to distinguish (itself),” she said. “We can grow a lot of things” on a small but lucrative scale.
Board members besides Berry represent a blend of producers, target markets and local industry. They are Brian Baucom, First Bank; John Blue, Highlander’s Farm, Carthage; Don Bryant, Richmond County commissioner; Martie Butler, Richmond County economic development coordinator; Pat Cordo, Moore Partners in Progress; Wayne Crawford, FirstHealth; Jed Lambeth, Triple L Farms, Ellerbe; Herb Long, Richmond County commissioner; Krista Morgan, Lowes Foods; and Dena White, God’s Garden/United Methodist Church, Norman.
Ex-officio members are Paige Burns and Kelly, Richmond County Extension; Bryan Land, Richmond County manager; and Taylor Williams, Moore County Extension.
The board will meet quarterly.
The AGInnovation Center, now 3,000 square feet of concrete and roofing near Ellerbe, opened in September. With assistance from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, it is intended to aid farmers in Richmond, Moore and six other counties considered part of the Sandhills region of central North Carolina, and to recruit those interested in taking up farming.
Richmond County chipped in $150,000 for the project, which makes it the center’s owner. Moore County paid for a feasibility study. And the Golden LEAF Foundation of Rocky Mount contributed a $475,000 grant.
Golden LEAF finances grants to promote the growing of crops other than tobacco by attempting to “grow new markets (and) keep people on the land.”
Davon Goodwin, a board member of the National Young Farmers Association, is center director.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]