NC project helps food go from farm to table by smoothing out supply-chain

relder@newsobserver.comMarch 15, 2013 

Customers are clamoring for North Carolina-grown food – from sweet potatoes to strawberries to steaks.

But getting local vegetables, fruit and meat into stores and onto tables can pose major challenges for small farmers, who find it hard to compete against large-scale producers with more resources and marketing savvy, said Ariel Fugate, the locally grown accounts representative for Lowes Foods.

“Most retailers work through larger farms – people who already have a lot of experience in retail,” Fugate said. “They have the volume and the trucking capacity that a lot of these smaller farms don’t have.”

Locavores – consumers interested in eating food locally produced – may be encouraged to learn that a recent $3.9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant is being used to help North Carolina’s small-scale farmers develop a supply-chain system of their own.

The five-year project, led by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. State University – includes participation by Lowes Food grocery chain, Fort Bragg and others who can offer input on what larger retail and institution-based consumers need, Fugate said.

Elements in the supply chain will include warehousing facilities, small processing plants, and better methods for marketing and distribution.

Looking beyond traditional

Traditionally, local growers have found their customers at farmers markets, roadside stands and the occasional grocery store, according to Casey McKissick, a farmer and a staff member at N.C. Choices, a CEFS initiative supporting small farmers of cows, sheep and other food animals.

Increasing demand for local fare provides both opportunities and challenges, he said.

“When we started seeing demand from the larger-volume buyers, like Lowes, demand outstripped supply because of supply-chain problems,” he said. “They need to be connected to the right people.”

Solutions for local farmers will likely include finding ways to delegate duties and to combine resources with similar agriculture producers.

Services such as those provided by Farmhand Foods in Durham are being developed to take over some of the non-farm duties many corporate farms already have in place, such as processing and distribution. Considered an aggregator or “food hub,” these companies handle those duties for dozens of farmers at once.

“It takes a lot of energy and effort just to be a farmer, and many of them already have second jobs,” said Jennifer Curtis, who founded Farmhand two years ago. “Plus, no one else really wants to buy a whole animal. And farmers want to sell whole animals whenever possible.”

Curtis buys pasture-fed pork and beef from about 30 small farmers and sends it to a small processing plant near Wilmington. From there, it is shipped back to the Durham warehouse and can be on the market in a matter of days.

The packaged steak, sausage and ground beef is then purchased by restaurants, food trucks, and smaller grocery stores. The meat is more costly than traditional farm products because of smaller, more personal scale of the operation, Curtis said.

“We pay our farmers living wages,” she added. “We couldn’t be in business if we didn’t treat our farmers with respect.”

Among those selling to Farmhand is Johnny Rogers, whose cows, chickens, lamb and turkeys are grown on 400 acres in Person County.

Along with raising and caring for the animals daily, Rogers and his wife often spend weekends hawking steaks and other individual cuts of meat at farmers markets in the Triangle.

It’s not an easy life, Rogers said.

“That’s why agriculture has become so segmented; it’s hard to do everything,” he added. “By selling through Farmhand I can operate at a higher margin, even without being a huge producer. I can be a small farmer and have a better income.”

Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burgers and Brewery, said his restaurant specializes in locally sourced and made-from-scratch foods.

“Interest in local food has grown tremendously; people want to learn more and more about how food gets to the table,” Gross said.

At more than $6 a burger, the Bull City menu can seem a little pricey, but customers say the better taste and reassurance of knowing where the beef came from is well worth the cost, he said.

Knowing that serving locally raised food helps farmers is another plus, Gross added.

“Farmers have come to us, saying: ‘You are helping save family farms.’ ”

Elder: 919-829-4528

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