Jun 23, 2008
Project Creates New Vegetable Growers in North Carolina

North Carolina’s Onslow County is not the easiest place to start a commercial vegetable farm. The obstacles are many.

First, there’s the limited availability of land. Located in the southeastern part of the state on the Atlantic coast, Onslow and the counties surrounding it are growing rapidly. Subdivisions are going up all over, which drives up the price of land dramatically. There are big farms, certainly, but most of them focus on traditional crops like tobacco, corn, soybeans and cotton. The growers, most of whom are getting up there in age, are used to farming with heavy equipment and aren’t interested in raising labor-intensive vegetables.

When added to the pest and disease problems caused by the area’s high heat and humidity, such obstacles make growing vegetables a difficult job.

Difficult, but not impossible. That’s the assessment of Mark Seitz and Larry Kent, who are teaching Onslow County residents how to be successful vegetable farmers. Seitz, an area commercial horticulture agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, and Kent, manager of the Onslow County Farmers’ Market in Jacksonville, see a lot of potential for vegetable growers in the region, despite all the obstacles.

Population growth, though it has its drawbacks, has increased the demand for local produce. There’s also Camp Lejeune to consider, a Marine Corps base that houses about 100,000 people. The Marines and their families are a highly transient population, but their world travels have given them a taste for exotic produce, a taste that isn’t completely satisfied by eastern North Carolina’s traditional vegetable crops, which include collard greens, cabbage, turnips, beets, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, Seitz said.

The growing demand for local produce led Kent, Seitz and other Extension educators to create the Horticulture Enterprise Leadership Project (HELP), a class for aspiring vegetable growers.

Kent came up with the idea for HELP after three of the biggest produce vendors at the Onslow County Farmers’ Market retired about three years ago. As the market manager, Kent had to figure out how to fill the shortage (a common problem in area markets, he said). He thought educating new growers might do the trick, so he approached the local Extension office for help.

Eight or nine people signed up for the first class, held in spring 2007. Seitz and Kent teach the class with help from Extension agents Robin Taylor, who teaches produce handling and food safety, and Jeff Morton, an expert on soil sampling. The classes are held on a half-acre plot of land donated by Kent, who used to be a grower. He also gives access to a 20- by 100-foot high tunnel so students can learn the difference between growing outdoors and growing in a controlled environment.

There are two HELP classes per year, one in spring and one in fall. For 14 to 16 weeks each season, aspiring growers learn the particulars of growing vegetables in their region – everything from production to marketing. The cost to take part is $25 per person, which covers the cost of fertilizer, seed and other materials, Seitz said.

Classes are held Friday evenings, for about two hours. The first half hour is dedicated to education and the rest of the session is dedicated to garden work such as planting, weeding and harvesting. When the vegetables are ready for harvest, two or three students sell them at the Onslow farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. Each student is expected to volunteer one day a month at the market, which gives him or her experience selling and promoting a product. The market’s board donated booth space to HELP and pays for the required product liability coverage up front. The class repays the insurance fee from the money it makes selling produce at the market. Whatever money is left over is divided among class participants, he said.

The class is open to anyone in Onslow County. (Seitz hopes to have similar programs in neighboring counties one day.) To date, participants include retirees from the Northeast who are unfamiliar with eastern North Carolina’s climate, military families, kids, high school students, teachers, people looking for second careers, salespersons and farmers, according to Seitz.

“We’re trying to get the group to realize that to be successful, you have to have something unique on the market, have a product that nobody else has,” he said.

For example, this spring the students experimented with pak choi, an Asian vegetable. They grew about 200 heads and sold them all in one day, he said.

HELP is starting to make an impact. Twenty-two people signed up this spring. The project also has created two new vendors for the Onslow market, which now has six produce vendors – with room for more, Kent said.

One of the new vendors is Cheryl Davis. Her family owns a hog farm in Richlands, which gave her an advantage over other aspiring vegetable growers: She already had access to farmland and a small greenhouse.

Davis raised and sold pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn and mums on the farm before she and her husband signed up for HELP last fall. They saw an opportunity to tap into the demand for locally grown vegetables but wanted to gain a fundamental knowledge of raising produce before they really dived in, she said.

HELP taught them the fundamentals of harvesting, marketing, seeds, soil, nutrients, weed control, safe handling practices and much else. Davis also learned a bit about organic farming, which she might look into one day.

She joined the Onslow market last fall, where she started selling her pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn. She anticipates good sales from the crops she learned to grow at HELP, including lettuce, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes and cucumbers. The class also inspired her to look into purchasing a high tunnel to help with season extension, but she needs to generate more cash flow before she can do that, she said.

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