From cut flowers in the Coastal Plain to medicinal herbs in the mountains, the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program takes a statewide, multi-faceted approach to helping the state's farmers diversify into high-value, alternative crops.

A partnership of North Carolina State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Marketing Division, the program has studied dozens of potential fruit, vegetable, herb and nursery crops, sharing the results with farmers, who, in turn, have generated millions of dollars in added farm income from new agricultural crops and enterprises.

The program was established six years ago to identify potential new crops, conduct field research to determine the best varieties for North Carolina's growing and marketing conditions and develop the most efficient production methods. In addition, the program works to create post-harvest handling and packaging systems, and it researches and develops markets.

"Buyers from national supermarket chains, regional farm markets and specialty food markets are ready to support local producers who can grow better tasting fruits and vegetables," said Jeanine Davis, an associate professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State. "And North Carolina has the right climate and soils to produce some of the world's finest strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupes, melons, squash, and a variety of culturally diversified crops. Consumers are also looking for exciting new nursery crops and interesting value-added products."

If results of production and marketing tests are promising, the program gets the word out through workshops, grower meetings, field days, publications and its Web site (www.ncspecialtycrops.org).

The program, with headquarters at the R.P. Cunningham Research Station near Kinston and the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center near Fletcher, is guided by Davis; Bill Jester, a horticultural science associate with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension; and Nick Augostini, an NCDA&CS marketing specialist.

The program claims red seedless watermelons as its first success. Before 1997, none were commercially produced in North Carolina, but years of research and educational efforts led to a crop now worth an estimated $3 million for eastern North Carolina producers.

Production and marketing studies show that other unusual melons hold commercial promise, and so Todd Wehner, a horticultural breeder, is developing yellow seedless watermelons especially suited for North Carolina. Meanwhile, work is under way to develop a replacement cultivar for Sprite, an Oriental melon that also was the focus of North Carolina Specialty Crops Program work.

In western North Carolina, efforts center on crop mazes, heirloom vegetables, nursery crops and native plants with commercial value. Davis' work at Fletcher involves goldenseal, ginseng, black cohosh and other plants used as medicinal herbs and in other products.

"By developing economically feasible cultivation systems for native plants that are currently harvested from the wild, we help reduce pressure on wild populations," Davis said. "At the same time, we provide landowners with economic opportunities."

The program's work with the Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association is exemplary. The association includes farmers, wildcrafters and herbalists from the far-western part of North Carolina. Their common interests: earning extra income by collecting, growing, processing and selling native plants; preserving the plants in the wild; and educating others. This year, the association launched its first commercial product: a cornmeal made with ramps.

Beverly Whitehead, part of the association's 16-member Ramps Team, attributes the product launch, in part, to the support of the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program.

"If it weren't for people who helped us like Jeanine Davis and the Specialty Crops Program, we wouldn't have done it," Whitehead said.

The native plants association began its work about three years ago with a project to create test plots for cultivating different herbs and plants. It has also started a farmers market, holds a spring plant sale, maintains gardens at the county courthouse and hosts speakers on native plants and economic development.

Recognizing that they could make more money by developing and selling products based on native plants, some association members formed a team to explore value-added products. Ramps, a wild leek, seemed a logical place to start.

"Nationwide, ramps have become increasingly popular in the gourmet food industry," Davis said. To tap a growing market, the Ramps Team came up with the idea of drying the leeks and mixing them in cornmeal.

"Our bear hunters came up with the idea," Whitehead said. "They traditionally

take dried ramps and mix them with cornmeal to make cornbread in their camps. It's a local idea, based on an old local tradition."

Work proceeded quickly, because ramps only show above ground for four to six weeks. Team members got two kitchens certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and collectors gathered wild ramps in early spring. The ramps were dried, mixed with cornmeal stone ground by a local miller and then put in bags that carried local recipes.

The team finished its work just in time for the April 27 Ramps Festival in Robbinsville, where "people were snapping up" the $7 bags, Whitehead said.

Next up: The Smithsonian Institution's annual Folkways Festival in Washington, D.C., where they were invited to sell the ramp cornmeal and another cornmeal product over the July 4 weekend.

In all the group produced 2,000 bags of cornmeal and 1,196 bags of the Rampmeal, and they are gearing up for another production season.

"Right now, we are looking into selling the product in gift baskets, but we are having a hard time finding locally made baskets at an affordable cost," Whitehead said. "Our intent is to keep the money local.

"A lot of us live close to the edge — we don't always have money to go to the doctors or replace the furnace or see the dentist," she added. "Now we have a team of folks working together to establish a locally owned source of income and community pride. Everything in our Smoky Mountain Native Plants products, but the paper in the bag, is from North Carolina.

While Whitehead and others in the association search for ways to broaden their market, Davis conducts research designed to help insure they don't deplete the wild ramps supply.

"We currently have four years of research on best propagation and cultivation practices," she said. "But we don't have good information on how much you can harvest and still have a ramp patch come back."

To find out, the native plants association's Ramps Team set up four harvest research plots — one where the entire plants are harvested, one where bulbs and roots are left but all leaves are harvested, one where two leaves from each plants are harvested, and one where one leaf is harvested.

"We want to develop products and jobs that nobody can take away from us," Whitehead said. "And we need to do it in a way that will benefit us and future generations."

Rampmeal and Stone Ground Cornmeal are available for order by phone (828.479.8788) or mail (Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association, P.O. Box 761, Robbinsville, N.C. 28771).