ELLERBE — The Sandhills AGInnovation Center isn’t even supposed to run at full speed until April — washing, chopping and engineering the wholesale marketing of fruits and vegetables grown in Richmond County. But demand already has forced center managers to expand their focus and improve their equipment.
“The demand is such that we’ll need larger equipment” and more employees, says Susan Kelly of the Richmond County Extension, who first proposed the idea of such a center to county commissioners. “The processing demand is much higher than we expected.”
The center has two massive refrigerators to store produce and plans to seek a new grant to add a freezer to store strawberries and peaches — some for sale outside North Carolina, which the center didn’t initially expect. A public hearing on that application will take place Feb. 6.
In addition, Kelly said Friday, the equipment the center ordered to wash and chop vegetables for sale won’t be big enough. For example, one distributor has asked the center to process enough carrots to sell to school systems across the state.
When Kelly and fellow Extension employees investigated the idea of such a center for Richmond County, they toured other “food hubs” first, to get an idea of how such endeavors operated. They found that most hubs were huge, processing foods “on a really big scale,” Kelly said — the opposite of what farmers do when they process their own produce for sale at roadside or farmers markets.
No one thought Richmond County could find a niche in the middle of those two extremes, she said.
The unexpected demand will force farmers to think about working “on a bigger scale,” too, planting more and different crops on more acreage, she said. That means more agricultural diversity for Richmond County. Now, its biggest product by far is chickens, not fruits and vegetables.
“We’d like to encourage any kind of (new) agricultural enterprise,” Kelly said, “for those who want to get bigger than roadside (marketing).
“We really need more people to grow more produce.” And, she said, people to run the bigger equipment the center hopes to purchase.
Kelly will meet next Tuesday with one farmer who wants help to expand his business plan so he can increase both production and profits.
She’s hopeful more people will step forward as future farmers because, she said, young people express higher interest in “clean foods” and green practices than the current average farmer, whose age is 58 across the county and the country.
“It’s almost like another ‘back to the land’ movement,” Kelly said. “People are interested in better food, more sustainability.
“There is a movement — or a trend — of younger people interested in growing (their own food) that I’d like to tap into.”
When AGInnovation board members met for the first time in December, they identified the first barrier to increased production in Richmond County: GAP, a U.S. Department of Agriculture certification that guarantees a farm operates with “good agricultural practices.” Such a certification comes only after strict inspections.
Board member and strawberry farmer Lee Berry of Ellerbe said then that “GAP is what buyers want,” because it guarantees the food they buy has been produced, packaged, handled and stored safely, to minimize the risks of unsafe microbial growth.
Becoming GAP certified can be a hurdle for a fledgling farmer, Kelly said. But already, one prospective bulk buyer has stepped forward to assist: Seal the Seasons of Hillsborough, which works with local farmers to freeze and market their produce.
Seal the Seasons is one of a number of buyers who will attend a farmer-buyer event at the center Feb. 13, to match growers with companies that might want to buy and sell their produce.
The Sandhills AGInnovation Center — at 1298 Crawford Road, Ellerbe — comprises 3,000 square feet of concrete and roofing, including 640 square feet of cooler space. It opened in September and is intended to promote farming in Richmond, Moore and six other counties considered part of the Sandhills region of central North Carolina.
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.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]