Thursday, May 30, 2024

Farming NC: Farm-to-consumer selling, heirloom rice, an innovation center and agricultural initiatives

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Farmers find a profitable business model selling directly to consumers, while raising the agriculture sector’s profile.

In a state where tobacco, sweet potatoes, and poultry are king, a new generation of farmers is creating niche markets on a smaller scale and selling directly to consumers on their home turf.

People traveling the state’s backroads recall stopping at roadside farmers markets for juicy homegrown tomatoes, watermelons, sweet corn and other seasonal delights. If you got there early, you might see dew on produce picked that morning.

Now there’s a movement of farmers selling directly to consumers on their own farms. Part of this change was born from necessity when COVID-19 forced some farmers to find new ways to reach a different category of customers as the pandemic shut down restaurants, limited grocery store sales and kept people off the highways.

The N.C. Department of Agriculture supports efforts to draw consumers directly to farms through a “Visit NC Farms” agritourism app. It lists 1,893 active farms in 91 counties across the state, offering everything from info on farmers markets and pick-your-own farms, to special events and overnight accommodations.

In 2019, Austin and Christina Wrenn bought the Zebulon farm that had been in Austin Wrenn’s family for three generations. It started as a tobacco farm, but his father and grandfather switched to growing tomatoes years ago. The farm eventually went out of business and  fell into disrepair.

Direct sales to consumers spur revenue at a strawberry farm in Seagrove and a pumpkin farm in Valle Crucis.

After taking over, the younger generation of Wrenns refurbished the farm and created a boutique marketplace specializing in strawberries and cut flowers.

“I think it was the spring of 2019 when we had our first strawberry crop on one acre, and it was terrible,” Christina Wrenn said, laughing. “We had no idea what we were doing.”

But by 2021, they had doubled their strawberry acreage, added their flower-growing operation, and business boomed. Best of all, the Wrenns have created a community around their business.

“I love coming face to face with the people who eat our strawberries and enjoy our flowers,” she said. “It gives our customers a sense of connection when they can visit our farm and see where our fruit and flowers come from.”

Farms selling small harvests directly to consumers on location is a growing trend across North Carolina. But still, the state maintains its top ranking in tobacco, sweet potatoes and poultry production. According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, more than $92.9 billion of the $589 billion gross state product comes from food, fiber and forestry industries. These industries also accounted for 668,000 of the state’s 4.3 million employees in 2020. 

It’s big business, yet 85% of all North Carolina’s farms are owned by families or individuals. Half of the farms are less than 50 acres in size.

With an average age at 58, N.C. farmers are an aging population so there is plenty of room for Millennial and Gen Z farmers to put their own spin on farming directly to consumers.

The Pace family has been farming in the Johnston County community of Archer Lodge for six generations, said Michelle Pace.

“We were traditionally a tobacco and row-crop farm, and in 2017 we started growing strawberries and welcoming guests and visitors to pick them,” she says.

By 2018, the Pace family farm had transitioned completely out of tobacco to focus solely on growing produce and selling directly to consumers.

“We sell everything 100% on site, and if you want to purchase products from us, you have to come to the farm,” she says.

Like the Wrenns, the Pace family’s goal is to demonstrate the connection between food and the farmers who grow it.

“We want people to come to the farm, see where their produce was grown, and have conversations with us,” she says, “and really add that personal connection with what’s on their plate at their table when they get home.”


A duck hunter’s accidental discovery revives a prized heirloom rice.

What do you get when you blend NASCAR, duck hunting, and agricultural innovation? The answer is Carolina Gold rice, a prized heritage crop that’s growing in popularity. 

Tommy Wheeler, a retired NASCAR manager with Roush Fenway Racing, calls his resurrection of Carolina Gold rice a happy accident, which came about during his pursuit of a crop he could grow economically to attract the ducks he hunts in Pamlico County.

Wheeler, who grew up in Oriental, and his lifelong friend and farmer, Al Spruill, formed the Killing Cans Hunt Club for their friends and family years ago. “Cans” is a nickname for canvasback ducks.

“At the time we maintained an impoundment where we would grow corn in the spring and summer to attract ducks and then flood the area in the fall and winter,” he said in a phone interview from a food trade show in Chicago.

Over time, the small hunting club had doubled in size and associated costs grew as well.

“It became so expensive that suddenly we were going to have to take on more members or raise hunt club dues to make this financially work out,” Wheeler says. He and Spruill began seeking types of crops to replace the corn.

It was on duck hunting trips to Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana where the two friends spotted rice growing operations. Intrigued, Wheeler learned that North Carolina had been a major rice producer centuries ago, but the crop had died out over time.

He started researching the possibilities of reviving the crop with experts from North Carolina State University. Along the way he learned that while growing rice for ducks would be more expensive than corn, it could be a profitable product to market.

After consulting with the Carolina Gold Foundation, Wheeler and Spruill decided to grow Carolina Gold rice, a heirloom variety highly sought after by restaurants and foodies. They formed the Tidewater Grain Co. in 2018.

Today, the company is going strong, selling Carolina Gold rice by the bag and the bucket online and in a few restaurants and retail outlets across the state.

While Spruill continues farming in Pamlico County, Wheeler lives in Rowan County, where he set up the company’s milling, packaging and distribution facility.

“We do the milling and distribution here to manage the risk associated with maintaining our harvested rice crops out there in hurricane county,” he said. “And Rowan County is a better (location for a) distribution center, located along major highways leading to East Coast markets and North Carolina’s metro areas.”

North Carolina is the third-most diverse agricultural state in the country thanks to its wide range in soil types and climate, agriculture experts say. Rice adds to that important diversity, and revitalizing heritage crops that once grew here is a goal, says Ron Fish, assistant director for industry development at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

It’s not just good for the state. Farmers benefit from specialty crops too, said NCSU extension specialist Angela Post in a 2022 episode of the podcast “NCSU Farms, Food and You.”

She calls a specialty crop a “value add” for farmers and predicts rice farming could potentially grow to as many as 5,000 to 10,000 acres in eastern North Carolina.

“That’s a long projection, and it’s not a lot of acreage but when you’re talking about a higher value crop. It makes a big difference for a grower to grow something they can sell at a higher price,” she says.

As for Wheeler and Spruill, they have big plans.

“We are going to be the grower that takes heirloom rice nationwide, and we have good traction already,” Wheeler says. “Here we are in Chicago at an international food show, a long ways away from sitting in a duck blind in Pamlico County.”

Agricultural initiatives

Jessica Monserrate

Jessica Monserrate is the head of sustainability at BASF Agricultural Solutions North America based in RTP. She previously led its Microbiome Discovery and Trait Engineering teams. She talked with Business North Carolina about BASF’s agricultural initiatives.


As the head of Microbiome Discovery and Trait Engineering, what were some of your findings to improve pest management?

My main focus was to streamline operations and focus on quality rather than quantity. This meant implementing an innovative new process that resulted in higher quality data allowing us to focus earlier on leads with the highest chance of success. Our R&D process has a timeline of 18 to 20 years before we commercialize a product. Efficiency is essential.

What are the challenges and obstacles to growers implementing these practices?

At BASF we like to say that farmers have the biggest job on earth because they are growing food, fuel and fiber for a growing population. Growers are having to consider new practices without certainty of yield, while facing changes in policy, climate and new markets such as carbon that have specific agronomic protocols.

We are investing more in localized research trials to better recommend practices and products based on the unique soil and climate challenges across North America as well as to support the goals of the various growers.

Can you name ways BASF is developing programs or products that make agriculture more sustainable?

An important focus is on soil health. What are the attributes needed to maintain soil fertility through successive rounds of production and how do our products support this? 

We also want to help growers achieve any goal setting for monetization efforts which will in some instances take into account Scope I and III (carbon) emissions. To this end, we:

  • Host events at the Center of Sustainable Agriculture in RTP to discuss the
    challenges we all face toward sustainable agriculture and build alignment
    on ways forward.
  • Pilot carbon farming globally.
  • Support no-till and cover crop adoption. Because we have the largest
    herbicide burndown portfolio, in the next five years we are committed
    to launching new solo and pre-mix products to reduce use rates compared
    to current products in the marketplace. This means less plastic waste for
    our customers.


N.C. A&T State University lands an agriculture business innovation center with a $1.9 million USDA grant to enhance food-related businesses for underserved communities.

On a chilly morning in January, the warm, humid air inside a greenhouse beckons a visitor to New Ground Farm, a multi-generation farm in Pembroke.

Connie Locklear pulls a handful of rainbow-hued carrots from the long rows that stretch end to end.

Her husband Millard Locklear explains the crop of rainbow carrots are part of a profitable niche farming model the couple has created on a portion of the 100 acres of land that has been in the Locklear family for five generations.

“When we looked at farming this land, we learned the profitability of crops like squash is in the pennies, but the profitability of multi-colored carrots is over a dollar a pound,” he said. “We stay up-to-date on specialty crops, and we have talked with chefs who deal in flavor, so flavor is what we go after.”

The Locklears produce gourmet vegetables for chefs across the state and beyond. In addition, Connie Locklear crafts homemade jellies, jams, pickles and herbal teas and tinctures (herbal extracts) to sell to local customers. The couple also teach classes about the value of growing and eating fresh foods.

As members of the Lumbee Tribe, preserving the past and embracing the future is the Locklears’ north star. They are North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University’s 2022 Farm Family of the Year.

After retiring from earlier careers – she was a teacher’s aide and he was an engineer – the couple began farming about 10 years ago. They say they benefited from their relationship with N.C. A&T and its programs, including the Small Farm Leadership 360 Initiative, a hands-on, in-depth learning experience designed to help small farmers build a profitable business.

The school’s long history of effective education is one reason it was awarded a $1.9 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to establish an Agriculture Business Innovation Center. 

The center will enhance agriculture-based business development opportunities nationwide. It will primarily focus on outreach to socially disadvantaged populations and historically underserved communities.

“The center’s primary goal will be to increase the number of successful agricultural businesses through tailored training and incubation of startups,” Mohamed Ahmedna, dean of the college stated in a press release.

The Agriculture Business Innovation Center will assist farmers in various ways including:

  • Providing technical assistance to food and agricultural producers, offering production scale assessments, market planning and development, business planning and other advisory services.
  • Assisting startups in agribusiness including planning and obtaining funding.
  • Providing workforce development and educational experiences for students interested in careers in agriculture business.
  • Offering outreach services and activities such as training, workshops and dissemination of information and materials.

The university will lead a partnership with Kentucky State University, Alabama A&M University and West Virginia State University to provide both virtual and in-person technical assistance for business and workforce development training, according to Kenrett Jefferson-Moore, chair of the Department of Agribusiness, Applied Economics and Agriscience Education. She’s also a project leader for the new center.

“We have two objectives,” she says. “One is to develop an entrepreneurial academy that will provide professional development certificates in areas such as business, finance, and marketing, and the other is a continuing education program for anyone contributing to the agricultural supply chain and defining themselves as a food or agribusiness.”

Jefferson-Moore anticipates working with as many as 800 participants at the new center.

“Not only our students, but those across other HBCUs will benefit from this, and it’s powerful for us to be able to reach all those individuals,” she said.

For Jefferson-Moore, whose agricultural education and career span 30 years, helping small farmers and students build sustainable businesses is personal.

“What attracted me to this field in the first place was knowing there weren’t a lot of women and underrepresented populations in it,” she said. “And I would say out of almost everything that I’ve ever done, this holds a great deal of meaning to me.”

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.

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