Richmond County’s AGInnovation Center, opened in September in the wilds of Ellerbe, is important less for what it is than what it will be: a place that can grow area farmers’ income by introducing them to large markets.
Richmond County owns the center, whose board comprises local farmers, government officials, agricultural buyers and others. The board first met a few weeks ago to identify some of the things farmers must do to be more attractive to large buyers. The first priority: ensure the use of good agricultural practices, or GAP.
Being GAP certified takes some work. Farmers who aspire to the designation must 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 massive new coolers coming to the ag center will help ensure farmers meet the tail end of that process.
“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.
“I don’t think we’re going to come out of the gate wide open” and snare large sales, he added; but GAP is a step in that direction. Berry also suggested that Sandhills farmers market their produce as sweeter than others’.
The center’s next step is seeking a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for $200,000 worth of equipment to chill and process fresh produce before sale. Officials with the USDA’s Rural Development program program already have expressed interest in the center, so board members are hopeful.
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.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]