Tar Heel of the Week

In Pittsboro, Melinda Fitzgerald is spreading the seed of organic farming

CorrespondentMarch 1, 2014 

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Chatham County resident Melinda Fitzgerald, 39, owner of Country Farm & Home Supply in Pittsboro is a former teacher who took over her family’s business in 2008 and has turned the farm store into a hub for supplying a growing number of organic farms in the western Triangle.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Melinda Kay Fitzgerald

    Born: March 31, 1974, Tampa, Fla.

    Residence: Chatham County

    Career: Owner, Country Farm and Home Supply

    Education: B.A. in education, specializing in science, UNC-Chapel Hill

    Awards: N.C. Teaching Fellows scholarship; Disney American Teacher Award, 2006

    Family: Husband, Edward; children Aidan and Summer

    Fun fact: Fitzgerald says that she has little time to keep her own garden or even to visit local farmers markets. Instead, she barters for her produce with farmers who bring some of their harvest to the store when they shop.

— The boxes arrayed on the worn oak floors of Country Farm and Home Supply bear a potpourri of potatoes – rosy-fleshed Mountain Rose, red-skinned Sangres, brown La Rattes the shape of hush puppies.

The organic seed potatoes, now for sale to small farmers or gardeners, are what’s left of more than 5 tons store owner Melinda Fitzgerald bought this year, many already in the ground at the 60 farms across the state that pre-ordered them.

The poundage has more than tripled in the three years Fitzgerald has ordered them from a Colorado farm – not surprising, considering local farmers used to have to place their own catalog orders, pay individual shipping costs and receive the potatoes past the prime time for planting.

The potatoes are just one example of the many ways Fitzgerald, 39, has worked to make her store a mecca for the growing number of organic farms in the western Triangle since she took over her father’s store six years ago.

She takes similar orders for strawberries, garlic and fruit trees, and she keeps other difficult-to-find items stocked year-round: natural fertilizers, pesticides and feed, for instance.

Debbie Roos, an N.C. Cooperative Extension agent who focuses on small and organic farms, says the new offerings have made a huge impact on the growing number of organic farms at the Triangle’s western edges, allowing farmers to plant at more ideal times and slashing the cost of some items.

And that impact is spreading. Roos says that farmers from across the state have started planning visits to the store when they attend her workshops and other events in the area, and home gardeners are gaining access to more varieties of crops.

“It’s a great service she has provided, and it was a smart business move,” says Roos. “Before she started, there just wasn’t anyone carrying these products. There are a lot of ways that it benefits a lot of people.”

Fitzgerald, a former middle school science teacher who emphasized environmental issues, bought the store from her father earlier this year. She says she knew she’d want to put her own mark on it, and focusing on organics has allowed her to continue in her role as an educator and environmentalist.

“I didn’t just want to make money; I wanted to do something that was going to make a difference in some way,” she says. “And this has allowed me to do things to support practices that are environmentally friendly.”

A longtime teacher

Ironically, Fitzgerald despised rural life when she first moved to Pittsboro at the age of 13. The move was an abrupt change from her childhood in suburban Tampa, Fla., where she had a pool in her backyard and walked to school.

After the move, she suffered through long bus rides through the countryside and lived in an isolated home near Jordan Lake. Her clothes and hairstyle marked her as different at a time when suburban development had yet to reach Chatham County.

She says the experience, while painful, helped to widen her perspective.

“It helped me see that there’s something other than my little place in the world,” she says.

Her father, a banker who had been doing some work in commercial real estate, made the move so that he could keep horses. He worked at a bank in Cary until he bought the Pittsboro store, where he used to shop for supplies for his horses.

Fitzgerald says her father noticed inventory was running low and was told the owners were planning to sell it. After crunching the numbers, he jumped in.

In the meantime, Fitzgerald had graduated from Northwood High School and gone on to UNC-Chapel Hill with a scholarship through the N.C. Teaching Fellows program.

She taught middle school science in Chapel Hill schools for 15 years, a job that she found both rewarding and extremely demanding.

Fitzgerald says she’s a natural workaholic who spent her evenings grading papers and preparing for experiments. Her students made models of fuel-cell cars and went on trips to the coast, where they would collect water-quality data.

She earned a prestigious award for her innovative techniques, but as she looked to start her own family, she felt her job was causing too much stress.

She was exploring other career options at the same time that her father was ready to retire from the store. When she mentioned one day what a shame it was to sell it, he asked if she might want to take it over.

Running a feed store was a stretch for Fitzgerald. While her sister had worked there, she had never had much interest in it. An avowed foodie with an interest in organic foods, she wasn’t sure she’d be happy making her living selling pesticides.

But, she figured, focusing on organics could support both her zeal for naturally produced food and the store’s bottom line. And the career change has helped free her to spend time with her two children, now 4 and 16 months old.

Revamping the store

The store was built in the 1950s, for years serving as an exchange where farmers brought grain to be milled and picked up fertilizer and other supplies brought in by train. Its tongue-and-groove floors and faint smell of grain and leather makes a visit there feel like stepping back in time.

In the 20 years her father ran the store, he beefed up the store’s horse supplies and focused on products for lawns, recreational gardens and animals. Horse feed, and increasingly chicken feed for residential customers, is still a major seller.

Most of the old products are still there, but new ones have cropped up since Fitzgerald set about cultivating a new market of organic farmers.

Near the potatoes, a wall of bags hold items used to amend soil in lieu of fertilizers such as feather meal, bone meal and green sand. A sign above the display explains when and how each should be used.

Outside, 275-gallon containers hold a liquid organic fertilizer customers can buy using their own containers. Another wall has equipment for drip irrigation.

In early meetings with Roos and other leaders, Fitzgerald found there was a great demand for such products, and she has worked closely with farmers to stock what they need most.

She has coordinated with the organic farming community to stock the items farmers need most – particularly things such as potatoes that cost a lot to ship.

By consolidating those orders, Fitzgerald pays less for shipping and can pass the savings onto her customers, most of whom sell their produce at local farmers markets.

Fitzgerald says most of her job deals with inventory and accounting, not farming. But come spring, she can claim her own contribution to the bounty of local farms.

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