What is in this article?:
• In Surry County, like other parts of North Carolina, former tobacco growers are seeking new ways to diversify production.
• Pilot Mountain Pride helps local farmers to earn a living raising produce, while establishing the organization as a regional model for produce sales.
Markets for smaller growers
“Pilot Mount Pride is a venue for accessing markets for smaller growers,” said Tony Cave, a Surry County PMP grower and board member, no relation to Bryan Cave.
The program was developed through the efforts of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s Surry County center, along with support from county government and granting agencies.
As early as 2003, PMP was just an idea shared by Bryan Cave, then a livestock agent, and Chris Knopf, then a county planner, now assistant county manager.
Agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of the county’s economy. Bryan Cave and Knopf knew that many of the county’s tobacco farmers were retiring, had decided to leave farming or were looking for crops to diversify their production. At the same time, there were few younger growers coming into farming.
In 2006, the idea for a shared marketing facility emerged when three Surry County communities — Pilot Mountain, Dobson and Elkin — received a North Carolina STEP grant for Small Town Economic Prosperity, which included plans for some type of value-added agricultural center.
Two years later, Surry County government provided funding to study the concept. The study found a strong desire for local foods, and Winston-Salem — less than 30 miles away — had no coordinated local food marketing operation, Bryan Cave said.
Potential clients didn’t show a preference for organic over conventionally grown produce but had a strong interest in buying locally.
Though Surry County has two farmers’ markets of its own and others nearby, Extension found the growers in those direct sales markets wanted to stay there, while newer produce growers weren’t interested in getting into direct sales, Bryan Cave said. They wanted someone to market produce for them.
With the help of Golden LEAF funds, Pilot Mountain Pride renovated and moved into an old textile facility that provided space for a grading and packing line and large storage coolers. In addition to Golden LEAF and North Carolina STEP, grant funding has come from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tobacco Trust Fund, the North Carolina Rural Center and the local Farm Bureau board.
In addition, the Wake Forest University law school proved to be an invaluable resource, helping PMP to establish itself as a single-member LLC, under the county’s economic development agency. That legal status allows PMP to operate as a non-profit for the benefit of receiving grants, while still earning money to operate and pay the growers for produce.
When the facility needed a system for cooling produce quickly, Mike Boyette of North Carolina State University’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department came to the rescue, developing a simple, large, forced-air cooler that can cool large amounts of produce at one time.
Pilot Mountain Pride held its grand opening on May 20, 2010, with more than 350 people in attendance.
“There was excitement in the air that day,” said Bill Imus, (then) PMP facility coordinator. Imus, a grower and former chef, has been a real asset to the project, said Bryan Cave, because he knows quality produce and is good at marketing it.
“Bill’s background as a farmer and chef has just really paid dividends for us,” Knopf said. Imus spent a great deal of time between growing seasons seeking new markets for PMP produce.
Last spring, Lowes Foods, a grocery store chain, came to Pilot Mountain Pride, asking to buy produce to distribute to its stores. The stores even provided photos and descriptions of Pilot Mountain Pride growers whose produce they now sell.
In addition, higher end restaurants in Winston-Salem also buy from PMP, as well as several universities and school systems in Surry and Stokes counties.
Institutions like area hospitals also have expressed interest in sourcing produce from PMP. PMP even holds a community market on Fridays, selling whatever produce it has on hand. Still, new clients would help PMP diversify its marketing, Bryan Cave said.
In its first season, PMP received produce from 84 growers in seven counties adjacent to Surry County, including two in Virginia. Broccoli was a big seller, along with fall cabbage and greens, squash and cucumbers.