When Pilot Mountain Pride opened its doors in May 2010, organizers of the produce marketing initiative were conservatively hoping to bring in $30,000 to $50,000 in sales for the first year.
But last year’s sales greatly exceeded those expectations, coming in at more than $250,000.
Bryan Cave, Surry County Extension director, was heavily involved in getting PMP off the ground. Like others, he was pleased and surprised by the first year sales.
In early June, PMP was off to a somewhat slower start in its second season, due mainly to wet, cool conditions that had kept farmers out of the fields in the spring.
In Surry County, like other parts of North Carolina, former tobacco growers are seeking new ways to diversify production. Pilot Mountain Pride helps local farmers to earn a living raising produce, while establishing the organization as a regional model for produce sales.
Cave described PMP as an “aggregation center,” where growers bring produce to be washed, graded, packaged, marketed and delivered to buyers.
Markets for smaller growers
“Pilot Mount Pride is a venue for accessing markets for smaller growers,” said Tony Cave, a Surry County PMP grower and board member, no relation to Bryan Cave.
The program was developed through the efforts of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s Surry County center, along with support from county government and granting agencies.
As early as 2003, PMP was just an idea shared by Bryan Cave, then a livestock agent, and Chris Knopf, then a county planner, now assistant county manager.
Agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of the county’s economy. Bryan Cave and Knopf knew that many of the county’s tobacco farmers were retiring, had decided to leave farming or were looking for crops to diversify their production. At the same time, there were few younger growers coming into farming.
In 2006, the idea for a shared marketing facility emerged when three Surry County communities — Pilot Mountain, Dobson and Elkin — received a North Carolina STEP grant for Small Town Economic Prosperity, which included plans for some type of value-added agricultural center.
Two years later, Surry County government provided funding to study the concept. The study found a strong desire for local foods, and Winston-Salem — less than 30 miles away — had no coordinated local food marketing operation, Bryan Cave said.
Potential clients didn’t show a preference for organic over conventionally grown produce but had a strong interest in buying locally.
Though Surry County has two farmers’ markets of its own and others nearby, Extension found the growers in those direct sales markets wanted to stay there, while newer produce growers weren’t interested in getting into direct sales, Bryan Cave said. They wanted someone to market produce for them.
With the help of Golden LEAF funds, Pilot Mountain Pride renovated and moved into an old textile facility that provided space for a grading and packing line and large storage coolers. In addition to Golden LEAF and North Carolina STEP, grant funding has come from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tobacco Trust Fund, the North Carolina Rural Center and the local Farm Bureau board.
In addition, the Wake Forest University law school proved to be an invaluable resource, helping PMP to establish itself as a single-member LLC, under the county’s economic development agency. That legal status allows PMP to operate as a non-profit for the benefit of receiving grants, while still earning money to operate and pay the growers for produce.
When the facility needed a system for cooling produce quickly, Mike Boyette of North Carolina State University’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department came to the rescue, developing a simple, large, forced-air cooler that can cool large amounts of produce at one time.
Pilot Mountain Pride held its grand opening on May 20, 2010, with more than 350 people in attendance.
“There was excitement in the air that day,” said Bill Imus, (then) PMP facility coordinator. Imus, a grower and former chef, has been a real asset to the project, said Bryan Cave, because he knows quality produce and is good at marketing it.
“Bill’s background as a farmer and chef has just really paid dividends for us,” Knopf said. Imus spent a great deal of time between growing seasons seeking new markets for PMP produce.
Last spring, Lowes Foods, a grocery store chain, came to Pilot Mountain Pride, asking to buy produce to distribute to its stores. The stores even provided photos and descriptions of Pilot Mountain Pride growers whose produce they now sell.
In addition, higher end restaurants in Winston-Salem also buy from PMP, as well as several universities and school systems in Surry and Stokes counties.
Institutions like area hospitals also have expressed interest in sourcing produce from PMP. PMP even holds a community market on Fridays, selling whatever produce it has on hand. Still, new clients would help PMP diversify its marketing, Bryan Cave said.
In its first season, PMP received produce from 84 growers in seven counties adjacent to Surry County, including two in Virginia. Broccoli was a big seller, along with fall cabbage and greens, squash and cucumbers.
Training in GAPs
To meet the produce standards for Lowes Foods and other commercial buyers, PMP decided to have all its growers receive training in GAPs – good agricultural practices. GAPs training focuses on strategies that growers can use to ensure that their produce is safe for consumers to eat.
Agricultural Extension Agent Joanna Radford helps arrange the GAPs training for growers. Beyond the training lies GAP certification, where a third-party auditor visits a farm to check on how GAP strategies are being implemented.
Produce growers have to plant crops in succession, so the crop is ready to harvest at intervals, not all at once. Access to labor for harvesting produce is another big issue, Radford said.
Growers struggle with weed and pest management, particularly whether to rely on conventional controls or try new strategies like growing under plastic.
Grower Tony Cave agrees that transitioning from tobacco to produce is a challenge. “I’ve farmed all my life, but this produce farming is a whole new thing,” he said recently while showing his potato crop to Radford and Bryan Cave. “Everything is brand new here.”
Tony Cave is experimenting with a new tractor that will create plastic-covered rows, complete with drip tape for irrigation. He will try it in his home garden this year, hoping to use it for commercial crops next year. He hopes the equipment — though expensive — will help him to better manage weeds and provide water for thirsty plants.
“You’re pretty much limited by how much you can afford to lose,” Tony Cave said.
In spite of the newness and challenges, Tony Cave is committed to Pilot Mountain Pride as both a board member and grower for the organization. “We’re in the second year, and it’s already mind-boggling what we’ve done. Who knows what’s in store for this year?”
Bryan Cave said, “Pilot Mountain Pride has re-energized this community. It’s given Pilot Mountain a lot of hope.”