Farmers in eastern North Carolina knew they were in trouble. Tobacco was falling out of public favor, and prices for cotton, peanuts, and soybeans were sagging. So they asked NC State, the Cooperative Extension Service, and the NC Department of Agriculture to find some alternatives to agricultural mainstays in the state—crops that offered a decent value and had good growth potential. A decade later, the NC Specialty Crops Program has farmers statewide cultivating everything from melons to mushrooms to medicinal herbs, and reaping millions of dollars that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

James Sharp’s family had grown tobacco for generations in Wilson County, but he wanted a way to diversify beyond the golden leaf. Now, he has some 300 acres planted with green leaf—lettuce and cabbage—as well as cantaloupes and sprite melons. The guidance Sharp received from the Specialty Crops Program made the switch possible. “Tobacco farmers can’t afford to take on a lot of risk,” he says, “and they eliminated most of that for me by finding crops that would grow well in the area and that would be good sellers.”

That’s exactly how the program is supposed to operate, says Program Coordinator Dr. Jeanine Davis, an associate professor of horticultural science located at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher. Advisory boards of farmers and produce buyers suggest crops that are needed on the market and should grow well in North Carolina, such as mushrooms, blackberries, and wild leeks known as ramps. “We’re not necessarily looking for what’s hot today,” Davis says. “We’re looking for high-quality niche crops that will provide a strong market and good value for growers.”

Before farmers get a crack at the crops, University researchers spend a couple of years experimenting in trial beds—measuring yields, studying disease resistance, testing consumer tastes, and addressing potential shipping problems. County extension agents help recruit growers, and the Department of Agriculture provides marketing assistance. Larger farms in the eastern half of the state are better suited for commodity crops like cantaloupe and lettuce, Davis says, while medicinal herbs like Echinacea and ginseng can be grown on smaller plots in the mountains. “We want to give farmers a good reason to stay on their land, and show them their work and their land can still produce a good return,” she says.

Diversifying North Carolina’s produce also makes North Carolina more attractive to agribusiness companies, says Bill Jester, an extension associate in the Department of Horticultural Science. State agricultural officials routinely meet with representatives from global produce suppliers, he explains, and one has even suggested building a plant near Charlotte to produce bags of pre-cut lettuce. “North Carolina wasn’t known for quality produce before,” Jester says, “but we’re changing that image for a lot of people—good for farmers and the state.”

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