+ELLERBE — For four loud hours Tuesday afternoon, the Sandhills AGInnovation Center brought together in its cavernous packing room farmers, buyers and others concerned with profitable agriculture.
Looking a bit like speed dating for farmers, the event aimed to match producers with those who might sell their vegetables and fruit, from a small Durham company named Ungraded Produce that boxes “ugly” fruits and vegetables for individual consumption to a supermarket chain.
“This is expanding our market,” a delighted Truett Buie said after meeting with Krista Morgan of Lowes Foods. At Jep’s Farm in Raeford, Buie and her husband, Jack, grow only strawberries — a fruit that must be marketed as quickly as it matures.
“We’ve talked to two or three people who are being helpful already,” Buie said. “With strawberries, you only have about six to eight weeks (in a selling season). By coming here today, we may send them out to five or six markets” — not just the one or two close to home.
One farm owner, Eric McClam, drove more than two hours to show off the variously colored fungi, aka mushrooms, he grows at City Roots, “your in-town sustainable farm” in Columbia, South Carolina.
Millard Locklear of Robeson County chatted earnestly with Moore County Extension agent Taylor Williams about how to protect his investment in growing tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet corn when someone else took them to market after he sold them wholesale.
“This is a good business to be in,” Williams said, “but you’d better be sure that you’re in control.” Sending your wares off under another’s care before you’ve been paid for their sale can be tricky, Williams said.
Locklear sells much of his produce roadside, he said, but would like for more of it to be sold wholesale, in bigger volume. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has certified him as a producer who uses good agricultural practices — or “GAP,” the most aggravating step” toward going wholesale and the one step the new board of the AGInnovation Center worries might trip up some local farmers.
Elsewhere around the room, clusters of two or three farmers and presenters gathered over brochures or blocked the aisles, too engaged to notice.
Perhaps unaware of her pun, Carla St. Germain of Sandhills Farmers Market in Pinehurst said her purpose Tuesday was “cultivating new farmers.” Her customers, she said, want to know the people who grow their food — “whether they be the chef or the person coming to market.”
“The more produce (her business buys), the more consumers. And the more consumers, the more sales.”
And the more sales, the more profit for local farmers.
Richmond County Extension Director Susan Kelly organized and managed the event and was happy with the results: About 50 farmers and 20 presenters attended.
“We could definitely use more farmers because some of those buyers … were big time,” said Kelly, who introduced the idea of the AGInnovation Center to Richmond County officials. “We’re very excited about the potential deals made today.”
The event Tuesday illustrated the mission of the center, a team effort between Richmond and Moore counties and the N.C. Cooperative Extension intended to offer local farmers the opportunity to sell their products wholesale and encourage those with a love for fresh produce to take up farming.
The center outside Ellerbe comprises 3,000 square feet of concrete and roofing, including 640 square feet of cooler space.
Richmond County has 277 farms, according to the latest figures from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. The AGInnovation Center is meant to serve farmers in Richmond and Moore counties, and six others considered part of the Sandhills region of central North Carolina.
Richmond County owns the center. Moore county paid for its feasibility study. It was built with a $475,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation of Rocky Mount, which promotes the growing of products other than tobacco.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]