Chapel Hill News

Orange County ag summit preaches innovation

“Right now, farmers are rock stars,” says Annie Baggett, a state agritourism marketing specialist. “We can take advantage of that.”
“Right now, farmers are rock stars,” says Annie Baggett, a state agritourism marketing specialist. “We can take advantage of that.” File News & Observer photo

UNC senior Patrick Mateer wants to stock local shelves with North Carolina-grown collard greens and strawberries year-round – by chopping and flash-freezing them at his new venture, Seal the Seasons, LLC.

Mateer and co-founders Daniella Uslan and William Chapman aim to freeze their first collards this month. They’ll lease space at Hillsborough’s Piedmont Food & Agriculture Processing Center, boosted by $50,000 from the 2015 State Employees Credit Union Emerging Issues Prize for Innovation.

The trio has pinpointed a gap in the local foods market: frozen and pre-prepped produce.

“Currently we have a lot of farmers that are growing high-quality food, but it’s really hard to aggregate that and sell it,” Mateer said.

“We think we’re in the right place at the right time,” Chapman added.

Mateer and Chapman found their market forecast reaffirmed at the 2015 Orange County Agricultural Summit last month. Themed, “Increasing Farming Profits with Agritourism and Local Food Systems,” the summit explored how farmers can grow through innovation.

James Watts, merchandise manager at Weaver Street Market, described the prime business opportunities he sees, including frozen local produce, while agritourism veterans offered tips on marketing the farm experience.

“It’s all about creating markets for growers, and then growers can feel more comfortable getting into farming,” said Mike Ortosky, Orange County’s agriculture economic development coordinator, said.

Gaping holes

Watts pointed to some gaping holes in Weaver Street Market’s local offerings (“local” meaning groceries produced in North Carolina). While local beer and meat fly off the food co-op’s shelves, with local beers representing 44 percent of all beer sells, only 12 percent of Weaver Street’s fruits and vegetables sold are locally grown. Part of the problem lies in the scale of the supply, Watts said.

“I can’t deal with a basket of squash,” Watts said. “I can’t deal with 50 farms.”

“I need aggregation. I need consistent practices at post-harvest. I need to make sure that you are providing quality .. .and consistency.”

Many customers – including Weaver Street’s own kitchen – also want summertime produce year-round and vegetables prepped and ready to cook, Watts explained.

“I sell hundreds of packages of cleaned, washed, skinned winter squash each week, but none of it’s local,” he said.

‘Underutilized capacity’

Ortosky offered a vision for the county: clusters of innovative food businesses. From Maryland to Indiana, other regions have branded economic development projects specifically as “food enterprise districts.” They can include retail space, event centers and hubs for collecting and redistributing food.

“What we want to do is attract entrepreneurs and businesses who want to capitalize on local agriculture,” Ortosky said.

“We’ve got this great underutilized capacity for food production in this state,” he said.

Local consumers could also benefit, ultimately, from new infrastructure like cost-effective cold storage and more food processing centers, Watts said

“If we can add some collaboration ... then we can start doing things we need to scale, which means bringing down the cost.”

County Oommissioner Bernadette Pelissier said she took to heart the appeal for food business innovation and noted the county has already designated three zones for economic development.

“We have three major zones for light industrial, but maybe we should re-think some of it and target it specifically for food,” she said.

Plop to crop

Touting agritourism as another profit-boosting farm business, Jeff Manley, founding president of the Georgia Agritrousim Assocation, pointed a photo of a cow plop – then a dollar sign

“How do you take that cow pile and turn it into money?” he said. “That’s really what agritourism does, is turn it into a crop. You’ve got to consider people coming to your farm as a crop.”

Orange County has 61 farms open to public tours, according to Annie Baggett, agritourism marketing specialist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and owner of Sunshine Lavender Farm. Baggett pointed to the potential of investing in the “invisible crop” of farm tourism.

“Right now, farmers are rock stars. Local food is trending,” Baggett said.“We can take advantage of that. We can capitalize on that and turn it into community vibrancy.”

With his own business just weeks from launching, Mateer said the summit only reinforced the need for more creative food businesses – especially with frozen foods.

Seal the Seasons will make its first sales to Farmer FoodShare’s POP Market, which supplies daycare centers, backpack programs, and food pantries. The co-owners also aim to use 10 percent of profits to subsidize their products in corner stores, making the healthy, locally grown offerings more accessible.

Initially inspired by a research paper on food insecurity, Mateer said he hopes the frozen options will ensure that local produce can go to those who most need it – conveniently, affordably and year-round.

“With a shelf-stable product, we think that will be easier than trying to coordinate fresh produce,” Mateer said.

Chapman hopes to grow the business, to offer ready-to-eat vegetables and fresh local juices.

“(We’ll take) as many opportunities as we can see are viable.”

Sendor: julia.b.sendor