Co-op provides marketing strength

From the beginning, Tom Elmore had leaned toward organic production. In the last nine years, however, that preference has turned into more profit and increased market share since a small group of organic producers formed the Carolina Organic Growers (COG). The group of 20 growers is expected to do $1 million in business this year.

Members of the farmer cooperative sell organic fruits and vegetables to 80 stores and chains across North Carolina and South Carolina, in addition to selling at roadside stands. He is president of the North Carolina Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association.

On the norm, Elmore can expect a 25-percent to 30-percent premium for his organic greenhouse tomatoes. Some of his customers will pay $2 a pound for tomatoes in mid-summer as opposed to $3 per case for conventionally grown tomatoes.

“Being members of a cooperative gives us more market share,” says Elmore, who with his wife Karen Thatcher and daughter, Elizabeth, run Thatchmore Farms, a greenhouse tomato operation in Leicester, N.C. “Otherwise, each of the 20 growers would have to make the individual contacts with each account.”

The cooperative came on line during an expansive growth period for organics and greenhouse-grown vegetables during the 1990s. Greenhouse consumption increased during the 1990s. “Before 1990, less than 4 percent of the tomatoes were grown in the greenhouse,” says Mary Peet, North Carolina State University professor of horticulture. Now, greenhouse tomatoes make up 30 to 40 percent of the market.

Peet says each North Carolina County has at least one greenhouse grower. Sampson County, N.C., has about 15 greenhouse growers.

Those growers trade on taste. “Quality is actually higher than the field tomatoes,” Peet says. But typically, what the consumer buys in the supermarket is a tomato cultivar designed for shipping and not ripeness. That's because many of the tomatoes are imported from Canada or Mexico. “The produce that is grown locally tends to have a better taste than the ones that are in the supermarket,” Peet says.

Freshness is a big draw for members of COG, the North Carolina farmer-owned cooperative.

The group employs a marketing agent and a trucking office in Asheville. The growers list what's available for sale on Sunday; the business agent takes orders on Monday; and deliveries are made on Tuesday. “Our truck is picking up and delivering as we're picking,” Elmore says.

Sales are made to three groups of buyers: grocery stores, high-end restaurants and buyer clubs. “All three of those groups receive a notice of what's available and by Monday evening know what to harvest. The crop is still in the ground when it's purchased.” The co-op has growers ranging from sweet potatoes on the coast to greenhouse tomatoes in the mountains to lettuce and greens.

For Elmore, organic production has been the way to go. He pays about $500 per year for certification. For insect control, he relies on beneficial insects. Whiteflies and aphids are two of the major pests. Occasionally, he'll have major crop losses due to insects.

Elmore manages diseases with a climate-controlled greenhouse. He keeps the greenhouse at or above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and uses fans to decrease the humidity level in the greenhouse. “I got into greenhouse production seven years ago because of disease pressure,” he says.

Peet, who serves as an advisor to the North Carolina Greenhouse Growers Association, says a lot of tobacco growers are interested in getting into greenhouse production. “Tomato is related to tobacco and the two crops have similar growing characteristics,” she says.

Tim Bass, a greenhouse grower in Nash County, N.C., says there's a demand for greenhouse tomatoes, but imports from Canada, Mexico and other countries are flooding the market.

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