PERSPECTIVES Summer 2000: Inside Story
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Photo by Sheri D. Thomas

Fresh Markets


Photo by Sheri D. Thomas

or four generations, the flat lands of eastern North Carolina have provided a way of life for David Lancaster’s family. The farm stretches across vast, sandy fields along N.C. 43 — a quiet haven between the bustle of New Bern and Greenville.

It’s easy to see why Lancaster calls the three-county farm “Peace & Plenty.”

And yet, during the times when the bottom has fallen out of the market for the cotton, wheat and soybean crops that traditionally have been the farm’s mainstay, Lancaster has had his doubts about the Plenty part of the name. To survive wildly fluctuating markets, he has turned to alternative crops and markets —and to the guidance of North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service agent Bill Jester.

For the past decade, Jester, an area specialized agent for commercial fruits and vegetables, has been on the front line of efforts by Cooperative Extension and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to help farmers like Lancaster diversify. He is co-chair of Cooperative Extension’s major program to help farmers select and implement alternative enterprises to increase their income, and he has been instrumental in the College’s Specialty Crops Program, headquartered at the Raymond P. Cunningham Research Station in Kinston.

The Specialty Crops Program was born through a grassroots effort that began in the early 1990s. A group of farmers from nine eastern North Carolina counties came together to develop a plan for helping corn, soybean and tobacco farmers begin producing high-value crops, such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and other specialty items and value-added products.

Jester was part of the group from its start.

The farmers’ committee helped secure legislative funding to install irrigation and other specialized equipment at the Cunningham station. Meanwhile, the College and the state agriculture department formed a specialty crops team to develop new specialty and value-added markets for fresh produce in 13 eastern counties.

The team, which includes Jester, evaluates varieties to determine which are best adapted to the region and best meet market needs. It also demonstrates production practices to farmers and develops marketing information to help them enter the competitive fresh market produce industry.

The research-based information generated and disseminated by the Specialty Crops Program is useful not just to individual farmers but to groups. For example, in 1999, 29 growers formed a cooperative, the Southeast Growers Association, and sold about 180 acres of produce —cantaloupes, watermelons, tomatoes, squash, lettuce and greens — mainly to supermarkets. The growers grossed nearly $1 million, and the endeavor generated another $100,000 of business for local truckers and $70,000 for box companies.

At the same time he was helping the cooperative get off the ground, Jester worked with the mayor and a group of growers in the Wayne County town of Seven Springs to launch a farmers’ market. The market not only gives growers a place to sell their crops, it has been a source of community pride in the wake of flooding that devastated the town last fall.

Following Hurricane Floyd, the market, along Main Street at a small Civil War battle site, was swallowed by the Neuse River. It reopened in mid-May, and organizers plan to keep it going through the first frost.

Each Saturday, the market becomes a gathering place for local growers and other vendors. Church groups come to sell ice cream and baked goods, while the town sells T-shirts, hats and even videos of the flood.

Thirteen-year-old 4-H’er Ashley Price is usually there selling pork skins — Piggy-Pops, she calls them — to make money to go on vacations and pay for college. And growers like Kelly Griffin market whatever nursery crops, vegetables or fruits are in season.

Photo by Sheri D. Thomas

Griffin, who runs a plant farm and serves as the market’s president, said she enjoys the fellowship the market provides as much as she does the income it generates. “I was born and raised on Main Street, and this is a good social event for me — a chance to see friends and maybe get some spending money,” she said.

Jester, she said, was instrumental in “steering us in the right way. We just didn’t know how to get started, and he helped us with by-laws.”

After helping with the organizational meetings, Jester stepped back and allowed the group to develop the market in a way that benefits the members and the community.

With Lancaster, though, Jester’s involvement has been ongoing. With each crop and each growing season, Lancaster turns to Jester for all sorts of production and market advice for his 2,000-acre farm. When Lancaster was first mulling the idea of new marketing strategies, Jester provided him with a packet of educational materials that he gives to all growers who are looking for ways to sell their products directly to customers rather than to processors.

“Processors of cotton, tobacco, etc., make more money than the growers do, and we are limited by what they will pay,” Lancaster said. “And we producers are so production-oriented that when the market gets bad, we try to grow more, more and more, and that’s contributing to the problem of oversupply and low prices.

“Instead of producing more per acre at a cheaper cost, I wanted to find a way that I could sell what I grow for the price I wanted — of course, a price that the market would bear. I wanted to get to where I had a sense that I was not at the mercy of so many things I couldn’t control.”

So Lancaster began growing strawberries and other horticultural crops alongside his traditional cotton, tobacco, soybean, corn and wheat crops. Then in the spring of 1999, he opened a roadside market in Vanceboro, near where Craven, Beaufort and Pitt counties meet. He’s been so successful he was recently named Entrepreneur of the Year in Craven County.

He attributes this success, in part, to Jester.

“This is my second year in horticultural crops, and everything is so different than with traditional crops,” Lancaster said. “It requires a lot of forethought and planning. And this is where Bill has been really helpful. You can’t just plant this stuff and forget it. I’m not familiar with the inputs, and this is another area that Bill has helped me out.”

Photo by Sheri D. Thomas

Unlike most of the roadside markets that Jester has helped get up and running, Lancaster’s is open year-round. The enclosed store sells convenience-store-type items — sodas, snack foods and gasoline, for instance — alongside his colorful produce bins and locally made jams, jellies and sauces. As the seasons change, so will Lancaster’s stock: Chrysanthemums were sold in August, followed by snap beans, okra, squash, onions and collards in the fall, then poinsettias and Christmas trees for the holiday season.

The year-round approach wouldn’t work for all farmers, Jester said, but it suits Lancaster’s business style — he wants to make the most efficient use of labor and land at all times. And such a tailored approach to marketing and production is what diversification is all about.

“We know that consumers, national supermarket chains, regional farm markets, and specialty food markets are ready to support local producers who can grow better tasting fruits and vegetables,” he said. “We have the right climate and soils to produce high-value horticultural crops. Where I come in is helping farmers figure out whether there is — or can be — a market for a particular product and how their operations can meet the particular needs of that market.”

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