Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Farming NC: Agritourism and exporting spurs Tar Heel growth.

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A fast-growing niche market, agritourism is credited with propping up struggling farms and connecting farmers to their communities

After a spring frost took every burgeoning peach in early 2023, Ramseur farmer Beverly Mooney is fervently hoping Mother Nature will be kinder this year.

“We had a warm spell in late January and our peaches started blooming,” she says. “But the end of February brought a hard freeze, and we lost 100% of our crop.”

The freeze also cost the 84-acre Randolph County farm other varieties of fruits and berries.

“It was truly a catastrophic year as far as food production went,” she says. “Thank goodness for agritourism.”

Mooney is a second-generation farmer whose father started Millstone Creek Orchards as a retirement job. For the past 20 years, she has invited the public to visit, pick produce and enjoy the events the farm has to offer. In addition to peaches, Mooney grows a variety of berries, grapes, apples, pumpkins, pecans and fresh flowers.

Lee Rankin founded Apple Hill Farm in mountainous Banner Elk and invites visitors to connect with the alpacas, llamas and angora goats she raises.

“I have a little store, a bakery and a small cannery,” she says. “I also have a cider mill and produce my own apple cider.”

Mooney’s cider mill is one of just a few operating in North Carolina. She produces 300 to 400 gallons of apple cider a week from September until Christmas, selling it fresh. In the winter, she freezes a batch to concoct cider slushies during the summer.

Admitting she is not a natural-born farmer, Mooney says her role included managing the public-facing aspects of her family’s farm business, organizing special events and working in the farm store. She enjoyed working alongside her father, but he died in 2015, leaving her at a crossroads.

“I didn’t even know how to start a tractor,” she says. “Agritourism saved my farm.”

Mooney eventually became a proficient farmer but still depends on agritourism to prop up her business.

Agritourism on the rise
When it comes to depending on agritourism, experts say Mooney is not alone.

The latest statistics date back to before the COVID-19 pandemic, but according to N.C. State Extension, in 2020, more than 1,000 farms offered agritourism activities in the state.

Further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports farm agritourism revenue in North Carolina grew from $704 million in 2012 to almost $950 million in 2017, showing how much the public appreciates local food and enjoys outdoor experiences.

North Carolina statutes define agritourism as “any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, to view or enjoy rural activities, including farming, ranching, historic, cultural, harvest-your-own activities, hunting, fishing, equestrian activities, or natural activities and attractions.”

In a video produced by N.C. State University for its Women in Agritourism project, Carla Barbieri, an N.C. State professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management, says there are two criteria for a commercial operation to be considered agritourism.

“It must take place on a true working farm operation,” she says. “And it must also offer educational or recreational activities.”

The N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services launched its Visit NC Farms app in 2018 as a pilot program which has expanded statewide to connect millions of residents and visitors with local farms, food and drink, farmers markets and pick-your-own produce venues and other special agriculture-related places and events.

Goats and roosters are among the menagerie of animals at Spring Haven Farm in Chapel Hill where they welcome visitors to enjoy farm life. Photos courtesy of Spring Haven Farm.

Playing with goats
On an unseasonably warm January morning at Spring Haven Farm, Cullen Crihfield is preparing for Valentine’s Day, one of the most popular days of the year for his family’s 1
0-acre farm, located just off I-40 in Chapel Hill. The farm offers visitors an opportunity to pet and play with goats, pigs, rabbits and assorted chickens.

“For Valentine’s we are planning to decorate the farm with hearts, and create spots for people to take pictures,” he says. “And we put cute outfits on all the baby goats.”

Crihfield’s father, Andrew Crihfield, bought the farm in 2002 and started growing organic vegetables.

“We planted about two-and-a-half acres, and it was fun, but growing and selling organic vegetables wasn’t making enough money to support the farm and our animals,”
Crihfield says.

Then the Crihfields spotted an ad for goat yoga at another farm. It sparked an idea. They contacted a local yoga instructor who got on board and planned an event to see if anyone would show up.

She posted it on her website, and it sold out in less than two hours, and that introduced us to agritourism,” Crihfield says.

Spring Haven Farm has become a popular destination for families of all ages. On its busiest days, the farm sees as many as 600 people, including students on field trips, Crihfield says.

“We’re trying to improve our field trips by creating better educational programs for school kids when they come out here,” he says.

For Crihfield, being part of the local community is the most valuable aspect of running the business.

“It’s about getting people out to see what makes us special,” he says.

When the owners of Deans Farm Market in Wilson decided to retire, James and Courtney Sharp took it over and in addition to actively farming the land, they created a popular agritourism destination. Photos courtesy of Deans Farm Market.

Fostering community

Agritourism builds a sense of community in a business sector where proprietors learn to lean on each other and their neighbors for support.

Mooney, who is on the board of directors of the 300-member N.C. Agritourism Networking Association, says agritourism farms form their own tight-knit community and help each other when the going gets tough.

She turned to sunflowers when she learned the significance of her crop damage last year, even though she had never grown a single bloom.

“I ordered 7,000 sunflower seeds, and through the Agritourism Networking Association, I connected with a flower farmer in Kernersville,” she says. “She came down, mentored me and showed me how to grow sunflowers.”

Lee Rankin, president of the Agritourism Networking Association, believes inviting the public to local farms helps build valuable connections and knits her business to her community.

“Agritourism links people to farms by giving them unforgettable experiences and helping them understand where their food and products come from,” she says.

Two decades ago, as a single mom, Rankin bought a 43-acre abandoned apple orchard on a mountaintop in Watauga County and created Apple Hill Farm, a fiber farm where she raises angora goats, alpacas and llamas for knitting yarn.

“Our original intention was to breed, sell and show alpacas,” Rankin says. “However, when people began to come by and ask to see the farm, we would spend hours showing them around and sharing our story. That prompted us to venture into agritourism.”

Today, Apple Hill Farm hosts a variety of events throughout the year, including public and private tours, barn quilt painting classes, knitting alongside alpacas and more. In addition to hosting events on-site at the farm, she also travels to craft shows showcasing her fiber products and runs an agritourism consultancy.

Rankin also believes small farm ownership is perfectly suited to offering opportunities for adventurous entrepreneurs eager to create a
family business.

“I have seen farms that have started with one or two people who decide to start an agritourism business,” she says. “And then their kids start coming home to help out.”

Taking kids of all ages on tractor tours is one way Millstone Creek Orchards introduces visitors to its “pick your own” farm in the Randolph County town of Ramseur. Photo courtesy of Millstone Creek Orchards.

Agritourism is also a way for non-farmers to be part of the land and introduce future generations to farming.

“Not everybody wants to farm the land, but there may be some family members that would love to manage a farm store, and others who are interested in creating educational programs,” she says.

That concept appealed to Courtney Sharp, a teacher who found her niche at Deans Farm in Wilson. Her family decided to take over when the original farm owners decided to retire. They left behind a farm market that has been operating since 1965 and fields that grow a variety of crops including strawberries, watermelon, lettuce, corn, peas, tomatoes and butterbeans.

“My husband James is from a farm family, so they asked him if he would be interested in taking over their farm, and that’s how it all began,” Sharp says. “I have a master’s degree in special education, so it took a while for me to come on board.”

She found her passion in agritourism by expanding the existing Deans Farm Market into a full-fledged business, which has been great for the Sharps’ family, the community and for local tourism in Wilson County.

Since taking over the farm, the Sharps have added hayrides, summer camps, vendor markets and Christmas activities.

A few years ago, the Sharps added a commercial kitchen and a team of chefs who create complete meals-to-go from produce grown on the farm.

Sharp has also found a way to incorporate her education and teaching skills to bring the classroom to the farm, benefiting teachers and students alike.

“Each season we have an indoor agriculture classroom where kids can learn about what we grow, and how we grow it,” she says. “We offer activities and lessons linking to their science curriculum, and we choose books to base their lessons on.”

Apple Hill Farms owner Rankin says not only does agritourism benefit children and adults alike, it supports farm operations, and brings people in.

“Now is a fascinating time to be a farmer and to be in the world of agritourism because the culture is ever changing,” she said.

Rankin, a first-generation farmer who moved to the North Carolina mountains to start an alpaca farm, has written a book about her experiences titled “Farm Family: A Solo Mom’s Memoir of Finding Home, Happiness, and Alpacas.”

“I was a single mom with a 2-year-old, and I didn’t know anybody,” she says. ”And when I look back, I always ask myself, ‘oh my gosh, what was I thinking?”

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.


North Carolina A&T University Professor Osei Yeboah leads the university’s International Trade Center, which introduces graduate students to foreign trade.


North Carolina is ranked 14th in the country for agricultural exports

Statesville’s Southern Distilling made news last month as North Carolina’s 2024 Exporter of the Year. N.C., announced during the 19th Annual Agricultural Development Forum.

The distillery has plans to expand its portfolio globally, distillery co-founder Vienna Barger said in a press release after accepting the award at the event hosted by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Spirits are among North Carolina products on the rise across global markets, particularly in Europe, says Cathy Ma, assistant director of international marketing at the North Carolina agency. Southern Distillery worked closely with Ma and her team to create export opportunities. “We’ve been on trade missions to Germany, and you can see that’s paying off,” she says.

After participating in North Carolina and Tennessee Spirits Week in Berlin in 2023, Southern Distillery began exporting three Southern Star whiskeys to Germany, its first step in a global market.  According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, U.S. spirits exports totaled $2.06 billion in 2022, a 30% increase over the previous year.

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition has called North Carolina a “major player” in the world’s economy. The USDA estimates that the state ranks 14th nationally in agricultural exports. Its five top global commodities — pork, broiler meat, tobacco, soybeans and other
plant products — are valued at nearly $4.5 billion.

In addition to these traditional products and distilled spirits, sweet potatoes and cotton seeds are gaining traction. The N.C. Agriculture Department estimates that North Carolina exported more than $150 million in sweet potatoes in 2020. Cotton seeds demand is also increasing, both for human consumption and animal feed, says Ma.

“Cotton seeds are a rising star,” she says. “I took three local growers to South Korea and Japan on a trade mission last summer, where buyers were keenly interested in our soybeans and cotton seed.”

Minnesota-based Northwest Grains International installed a transload facility at the inland port of Dillon, South Carolina, and added cotton seeds along with soybeans to its inventory, Ma says. The cotton seeds, sourced from farms along the North Carolina-South Carolina border, travel to Asia by way of the Port of Charleston. South Korea is a top importer of the seeds.

North Carolina benefits as an ag exporter because of its favorable business climate, a long growing season, quality products, and its proximity to ports. The ever-expanding Port of Wilmington is a strong partner with North Carolina’s global trade.

“The port has grown so much and by introducing traders to our office, they help us connect the growers with the importers to get products moving,”
Ma says.

She points to Omaha, Nebraska-based Scoular, a global trading company that established a transloading facility at the Port of Wilmington in 2021. That helped open new Asian business for North Carolina soybean producers.

The state is also taking advantage of the Regional Agricultural Promotion Program, a $1.2 billion program that makes grants available for expanding U.S. goods into emerging markets including Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

For small producers interested in exporting, Ma says the first stop is at the N.C. Department of Agriculture, where they can learn about potential markets and best sales strategies.

“Learning about their business and their products will help determine their ideal markets,” she says.

It’s also a good time for young professionals interested in entering the export industry. North Carolina A&T University oversees the L.C. Cooper International Trade Center, established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expose graduate students to issues related to foreign trade. Professor Osei Yeboah leads the program, which was established in 2003 and is part of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

“We expose students to global trade, international agribusiness, and marketing,” he says. “We also conduct research on international trade theory, policy, free trade agreements, and we do outreach.”

The center is working with nine agribusiness students pursuing master’s degrees in international trade and business marketing. The federal agency is constantly seeking ag school graduates to work in overseas markets, he adds.

Yeboah recently returned from Ghana, where he is working in international development, focusing on global food security. Food insecurity remains a major problem in west-central Africa.

“It puts a strain on the U.S. government if these countries are not able to produce and feed themselves, because it leads to starvation, wars and other problems,” he says.

A significant portion of United States commodities end up overseas. “Without international trade in this country, some producers would not have a market,” he says. “International trade helps rural communities increase jobs, income, and other benefits, because if they produce food and don’t have a market to sell into, they may not survive economically.”

In 2022, Yeboah received three years of funding to work with ranchers and novice farmers in North Carolina.  He assembled a team of professors, animal scientists and engineers to help farmers create irrigation systems.

He also works with individual farmers, including a producer who needs help forming a cooperative to help local farmers produce in bulk.

“For any farmers needing assistance, we will be there for them.”

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.

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