Specialty crops finding high-value niche

From cut flowers in the Coastal Plain to medicinal herbs in the mountains, the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program takes a statewide, multi-faceted approach to helping the state's farmers diversify into high-value alternative crops.

A partnership of North Carolina State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Marketing Division, the program has studied dozens of potential fruit, vegetable, herb and nursery crops, sharing the results with farmers, who, in turn, have generated millions of dollars in added farm income from new agricultural crops and enterprises.

The program was established six years ago to identify potential new crops, conduct field research to determine the best varieties for North Carolina's growing and marketing conditions and develop the most efficient production methods. In addition, the program works to create post-harvest handling and packaging systems, and it researches and develops markets.

“Buyers from national supermarket chains, regional farm markets and specialty food markets are ready to support local producers who can grow better tasting fruits and vegetables,” said Jeanine Davis, an associate professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State.

“And North Carolina has the right climate and soils to produce some of the world's finest strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupes, melons, squash, and a variety of culturally diversified crops. Consumers are also looking for exciting new nursery crops and interesting value-added products.”

If results of production and marketing tests are promising, the program gets the word out through workshops, grower meetings, field days, publications and its Web site (www.ncspecialtycrops.org).

The program, with headquarters at the R.P. Cunningham Research Station near Kinston and the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center near Fletcher, is guided by Davis; Bill Jester, a horticultural science associate with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension; and Nick Augostini, an NCDA&CS marketing specialist.

“A lot of us live close to the edge — we don't always have money to go to the doctors or replace the furnace or see the dentist,” she added. “Now we have a team of folks working together to establish a locally owned source of income and community pride. For example, everything in our Smoky Mountain Native Plants products, but the paper in the bag, is from North Carolina.”

(Dee Shore is news editor/department Extension coordinator at the North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Adapted from an article in Perspectives, the quarterly magazine of North Carolina State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.)

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