Kenly, N.C., vegetable grower James Sharp started young in the business. He’s still young, still a successful grower and still looking for newer, more innovative ways to expand his operation.

Sharp grows 300-350 acres of vegetable crops, which in multiple crops per year is equivalent to a thousand or more acres of grain or fiber crops.

How he got to be one of the most innovative and prosperous North Carolina vegetable growers is a model of entrepreneurship.

Sharp grew up on a farm near Kenly, N.C. His family was, and still is, steeped in farming tradition and active in local and state politics. Though working in the family farming operation was an option, he chose to make his mark in agriculture growing vegetables — something he learned at a young age.

His family still operates a highly successful grain and tobacco farming operation. The family farm had an indirect, but significant impact on his now thriving vegetable business.

Sharp started in the vegetable business at the ripe old age of 10. “That first year my family had a big garden area. My father’s farm produced grain crops, sweet potatoes and tobacco, but we had a garden for our family and all the farm workers,” Sharp recalls.

“We had some left over cantaloupes and watermelons and tomatoes. My mom and a neighbor drove me to the local grocery store, and the Red and White grocery store in town bought our farm excess.”

The next growing season, Sharp planted enough extra ground to supply his burgeoning vegetable business.

By the time he was 15 years old, he used the revenue from his vegetable operation to buy a used pickup truck. Still not able to drive legally, he persuaded his mom and a neighbor friend to help him deliver his expanded vegetable production to nine local grocery stores.

In the early years he stuck to what he knew best — not to mention what his family grew in the family garden. Throughout high school his tomatoes, watermelons and cantaloupes were staple items in his network of grocery store customers.

By the time he was 15, Sharp planted his own crops, managed them, marketed his produce and began building the business that was to become Fresh Pik Inc.

His family’s farming was, and is, supportive of his vegetable production business. And, the family farm provided him a few acres of land to grow his produce until he made enough money to buy his own operation.

Despite the support and infrastructure the family provided, the real impetus for what has become one North Carolina’s more interesting farming success stories, is the natural entrepreneurship that Sharp has fostered since childhood.

He took a few years out of full vegetable production to graduate in agriculture business from North Carolina State University’s Ag Institute.

Not long out of college and only 20 years old, he helped establish a grower’s cooperative, Southeastern Growers Association, with several other growers to build markets for their products. Up until that time their marketing was piecemeal at best, leaving them frequently with too much product and too little market or vice-versa.

At its peak the grower cooperative included 12 growers and over 1,000 acres of vegetable crops.

Market network building may seem a bit ambitious for a 20-year old, but by that time Sharp was an established vegetable grower, having incorporated his own company back in 1995, prior to leaving for college at North Carolina State.

Even while attending college Sharp continued to expand his vegetable business. By the time he returned home to start his vegetable business in earnest, he had built a network of 25-30 stores that bought his produce.

“We had a regular delivery route and we provided the grocery stores on our route with high quality fresh vegetables, and that’s what they wanted — it’s still what they want,” Sharp laughs.

Food safety is a No. 1 priority at Sharp’s farm. They strive to get their products out of the field and into storage as quick as possible to lengthen shelf life. Most of his crops are grown on black plastic, using drip irrigation, which keeps plants virtually stress-free, adding to shelf life, Sharp explains.

The black plastic mulch, he says, provides him with consistent high quality produce that is vital in giving buyers what they want, when they want it. “If we had a drought and lost a crop, we would also lose our markets, and we can’t afford that,” Sharp says.

Crops start in December in the greenhouse, with lettuce going in the field first, usually in mid-February. In March they plant cabbage and in April, May and June they plant watermelons.

They plant roughly 260 days a year and harvest from mid-May to Thanksgiving, he says.

In 2000, he built his first packing and cold storage facility. Once he had his own facility, he never looked back and continues to increase his production capabilities.

“One advantage other farmers have over fruit and vegetable growers is lack of need for cooling and refrigerated storage. “Our crop is both labor intensive and equipment intensive,” Sharp says.

One of the biggest problems in producing labor intensive crops is the labor part. Going to the government run and supported H2A program has been expensive, but successful.

“Most of these workers can be here for 10 months and we are fortunate to have work for them year-around, so we can get maximum benefit from the cost of getting workers here,” Sharp says.

“In the past, we would have 40 workers for one crop and have to get a different crew for the next crop.” The H2A program allows him to keep the full-time laborers he needs year-round and to bring in the 35 seasonal laborers he needs to operate his farm.

The H2A temporary agricultural worker program allows American agricultural employers to hire foreign workers to perform full-time temporary or seasonal work on farms in the United States.

H2A workers must be paid at least the highest of the adverse effect wage rate (AEWR), the prevailing wage, or the applicable federal or state minimum wage. The prevailing wage is based on state surveys funded by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The AEWR is based on wage data from the Farm Labor Survey (FLS), which is conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “The H2A program is a sure way to know that your farm labor is legal,” Sharp says.

In 2002, Sharp started marketing some of the cabbage, mustard, cale, melons and other produce he grows through Deans Farm Market. They sell their products locally and ship nationally. He is in the process of developing a Web site to market his produce via the Internet.

In addition to serving as a sales outlet, Deans Farm Market has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. Located near I-95 and I-795, both popular outlets to North Carolina and South Carolina beaches, the facility has a pick-your-own strawberry operation and extensive agritourism activities.

Sharp brings validity to the contradiction in terms — ‘youthful veteran’. Having been in the vegetable business most of his life has not dampened his enthusiasm for his craft.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com