When Nick Augostini came south from Allegany, N.Y., he knew he would be working with produce — that's what he had done for most of his professional life. He didn't know he would be a key player in a unique program geared to help the farmers who grow the crops he had spent a lifetime selling.

If all that sounds confusing, it's not. Augostini owned and operated a wholesale produce business in Allegany, N.Y. for over 25 years. He came to Wilmington, N.C., primarily to escape the harsh northern winters and secondarily to find a job.

After a couple of tries at the job market, he was hired by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to work with North Carolina State University as the fruit and vegetable marketing specialist in a three-tiered program officially called, North Carolina Specialty Crop Program.

Started in 1997 to help eastern North Carolina vegetable growers identify, grow and market new vegetable crops, the program went statewide in 2001. In that same year grower and marketing advisory committees were appointed to ensure both short and long-term goals of North Carolina growers are met.

Headquartered at North Carolina State's Cunningham Research Center in Kinston, N.C., the program works closely with researchers at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, N.C.

The Specialty Crops Program (SCP) looks at crops that may be feasible, both agronomically and economically, to grow in North Carolina.

Once potential crops are identified, these are grown under research conditions at one of 18 research facilities located through out North Carolina. If the crops look promising from a production standpoint, Augostini begins his work with buyers and consumers to determine how well the product will be received by wholesalers, distributors and consumers.

If there is an interest, the Extension component begins an educational program to help growers understand how to grow the crop. Often, small acreage tests are placed with growers and the product is promoted and test-marketed by Augostini. After there is positive feedback from consumers and buyers, growers begin investing in production and start producing the crop.

“In effect, we are taking the risk out of developing new crops for farmers. It typically takes 5-6 years to find a new product, grow it and test-market it sufficiently to recommend that growers plant it on a large scale. If the farmer did this on his own, it would take too much time and money, with too little chance of being successful,” Augostini says.

For the Specialty Crops Program, even failures are positive, Augostini contends. If a crop doesn't grow well in North Carolina or has disease or pest problems that push the price of growing it above the expected return, that's a positive, because the farmer hasn't lost a dime in this process, he claims.

“We have had some failures on crops that looked good, and grow well in our area,” he says. Greenhouse strawberries, he cites, look good growing, plants produce nice looking strawberries, but couldn't get the yields high enough to be feasible to grow. Growers couldn't make money growing the crop, so we didn't pursue the development of a market for them, he explains.

Recognizing that fruits and vegetables may not be fitted to all North Carolina growers, in 2000 the SCP began working with other commodities. Pyrethrum, a natural insecticide, looked promising, but hasn't worked out for farmers because of production problems. A super hot pepper and a number of medicinal herbs also are being looked at by researchers in the program.

On the other hand, the program has generated some real success stories that are paying off big time for farmers right now. “Our objective is to find niche crops, develop these niche crops, build acreage until these crops become commodity crops for our farmers,” Augostini explains.

One of the biggest success stories has been the growth of red, seedless watermelons. Once a specialty crop, a summertime trip to the grocery story is evidence that the smaller, seedless varieties are at least as readily available as the larger, seeded varieties. In some areas of the country, particularly the East Coast, seedless watermelons are the dominant varieties sold.

Currently, the ‘hot’ crop that has been generated by the Specialty Crops Program is the Sprite Melon. About the size of a softball, with a slightly oblong shape, sprite melons are combination of a honey dew and watermelon, with a little cantaloupe thrown in for sweetness.

In 2004, eastern North Carolina growers produced over 300 acres of the crisp flesh melon, generating sales of over $3 million.

Grape tomatoes are another success story generated by the North Carolina facility. Once a niche crop, the small, grape-shaped, tomatoes, which come in multi-colors have just about replaced cherry tomatoes in North Carolina production.

From wholesale grocer in upstate New York to Pied Piper of North Carolina produce, Nick Augostini is a marketer and marketing expertise, he says, has long been a missing component in the arsenal of most farmers.

“For one thing, most farmers don't have time to do a good job of marketing their products,” he says. Being an agronomist, pathologist, entomologist, ag engineer and financier are usually enough to keep most farmers busy, he explains.

“Today's farmer understands better than his father or grandfather the importance of growing crops that make the consumer happy, not the ones that grow well and make the farmer happy,” Augostini says. Still, he contends, most farmers are more likely to be motivated by the science of growing crops than the art of selling them.

Augostini has put his years of marketing expertise to good use in the SCP. One of the programs successes is selling North Carolina grown produce to schools in the state. “We typically start out the school year with melons, then apples and tomatoes, then cabbage, sweet potatoes and end up the next year with strawberries,” he notes

“We feel by starting these kids out eating North Carolina grown produce in school, they will continue to do so through adulthood. Hopefully it will help kids learn to eat more nutritious foods and it is one way we work to bring the people of the state and the farmers of the state together,” he explains.

Augostini heads the marketing component of the Specialty Crops Program for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Jeanine Davis, an associate professor of horticulture at North Carolina State University heads the research component of the program and serves as overall coordinator. Bill Jester, Extension associate in the Department of Horticulture at North Carolina State, heads the Extension component of the school.

“The inner agency program is like a three-legged stool,” Augostini says. “Without any one of the three legs of the program, the stool would collapse,” he explains.

Funding for the SCP is augmented by Golden Leaf Inc, which is a foundation dedicated to promote economic development. The Bright Leaf Program, is funded by revenues from the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission which administers funds generated by the national law suit settlement with the tobacco industry.

One goal of the Bright Leaf Program is to find alternative crops or enterprises for tobacco farmers looking for alternative crops to replace tobacco.

Collectively the Specialty Crops Program brings together the Land Grant Institution (North Carolina State) and the Department of Agriculture and a wide variety of funding to provide the research, outreach and marketing needed to give North Carolina farmers a reduced risk options for growing nutritious, consumer-desirable crops.

e-mail: rroberson@primediabusiness.com