A lot of good things are happening with fruit and vegetables and other local products, and if you have suitable land and can develop a sound marketing plan, you can take advantage of them, said Steve Troxler, North Carolina commissioner of agriculture.
“More and more people are paying attention to where the foods they eat are coming from,” Troxler told Southeast Farm Press in an interview at the recent North Carolina State Fair.
“They prefer local products, and they prefer to know the farmers that produce them. As a result, most of our state farmers’ markets are bursting at the seams!”
And just as successful are the many local farmers’ markets, roadside stands and pick-your-own operations, Troxler said.
“Now nearly every North Carolina farmer has the opportunity to be in the fruit and vegetable business,” said Troxler, who for many years raised produce himself near Greensboro, N.C.
Growers don’t always know how much of an opportunity is waiting to be developed.
“I know one Piedmont farmer well who has grown a patch of strawberries for years, just as a sideline,” he said. “Then, just recently, he decided to get serious about it and supplemented the strawberries with other fresh fruits and vegetables. To his surprise, the public poured out to buy his produce. Now, it has become a profit center for him.”
To tap into the growing trend, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA) and Consumer Services operates a Web site — NCFarmFresh.com — to help shoppers find locally grown farm products.
NCFarmFresh.com has been active for around five years and lists more than 1,000 farms, 119 certified roadside stands and 116 farmers markets.
“Farmers who market their products directly to consumers are encouraged to sign up now so they won’t miss this marketing opportunity,” said Troxler. “As our marketing efforts draw more and more shoppers to the Web site, this will be a simple and easy way for farmers to potentially increase their sales. Best of all, it is free and easy.”
Farmers can register their farms by logging on to NCFarmFresh.com and following the links on the home page.
You can increase the income potential of an existing roadside business by extending the marketing window into non-traditional seasons, said Jeanine Davis, North Carolina Extension horticultural scientist.
“In western North Carolina, a number of farmers with weather-sheltered locations are selling from their stands or tailgates all winter,” said Davis, who is stationed near Asheville, N.C. “Besides the normal offerings, you could sell seasonal greenery, wreaths and Christmas trees. Hot mulled cider can contribute to the smells of the seasons, and this is a good time to sell jams and jellies if you have them.”
Another fall suggestion: “Honey goes well with winter squash, nuts and pumpkins,” she said. “If you don’t have your own hives, make arrangements with a local beekeeper to carry honey in squeezable ‘honey bears,’ pint jars and quarts.”
If you’ve got the room, consider selling fall bedding plants, pansies and big pots of colorful fall mums, she said. “Their bright colors attract the eye and complement your other produce.”
There is another advantage to fall and winter flowers, she said. They are an expense people can justify, even in tough times.
“They are an inexpensive treat people can offer each other, and they dress up a home without costing too much,” she noted.
Some other good choices for cold weather:
• Kale and collards will grow well into the fall and get sweeter and better tasting as the cool weather progresses, says Davis. “In eastern North Carolina, these can often be harvested throughout much of the winter,” she said.
Use succession plantings to have crops available over an extended period, leaving about three months from direct seeding or two months from transplants to harvest.
• There are many specialty greens that are well-suited for the fall market, said Davis, including arugula, many Asian greens, upland cress or creasy greens, mustard and turnip greens and mesclun mixes.
• Some new muscadine grape varieties have wonderful fresh eating qualities, she said. “They are large and juicy with thinner skins and smaller seeds, and customers are clamoring for them because they taste good and are good for you. Grape production is a long-term proposition but worth considering.”
• And don’t forget: Bundles of corn stalks and several sizes of straw bales should always be available. “People need props and accessories for their fall decorative displays,” said Davis. “They are also useful for your own displays.”
One other possibility that is gaining popularity among southern farmers: Processing excess fruits and vegetables that you would otherwise have to throw away for sale later as jams, jellies and other products.
Processing gives you a product to sell in the fall or other times when you don’t have much else to sell, said Ron Taylor, a farmer and vineyard owner who processes produce on a contract basis in Elizabethtown, N.C.
“This is just one of many advantages you can obtain,” he says. “Processing adds value to the product, gives an alternate use to the product, and it can add years to the shelf life of the product.”
In eastern North Carolina, grower Charles Tart used to close up the stands he operates in Dunn and in Raleigh in mid-November. But now, he is keeping them open longer and longer.
“This year, I know I will stay in the market at least until Christmas,” he told Southeast Farm Press. “We might stay open all winter.”
He will sell greens, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and acorn squash, and collards from a 20-acre plot he added just to give him an extra product to sell late in the year.
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