RALEIGH, NC—North Carolina produce crops brought in $608 million last year for fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries. And sweet potatoes led the way, Kevin D. Hardison is quick to point out. Hardison is a marketing specialist with a 14-year career in the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Raleigh that brings a working knowledge of the 60 kinds of produce grown in the Tarheel State.
“We’re ranked first in the nation for growing sweet potatoes,” Hardison noted, gesturing toward racks of publications touting North Carolina vodka, butter and chips made from sweet potatoes, microwave-ready yams and even recipes for gourmet meals with sweet potato French fries.
The Johnston County native who grew up in Benson, NC, has seen trends come and go since he joined the state ag agency in 2000. They often come back again, like the emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunch programs, which began in Tarheel schools 17 years ago with a farm-to-school program, he recalled. Or the emphasis on locally grown produce, which his agency began promoting 30 years ago.
There are always new developments to keep produce marketing interesting. “Kale, for example,” Hardison said, “is all the rage right now. Five years ago nobody had heard of kale.” One Tarheel grape grower has come up with a muscadine-flavored smoothie drink, he added, “and growers have added all kinds of fruit sauces, jams and jellies.” Another change: other state agencies are stepping up to the plate and pitching in to promote produce.
“In recent years, the state health agency has prioritized fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet,” he said,”while the education department has emphasized them in the school lunch program and the commerce department supports agriculture as a vehicle for rural development.“
The state operates four farmers markets, has 213 independent farmers markets and in the past five years has added 17 food hubs, wholesalers who handle logistics for local growers.
In recognition of ag’s importance as the state’s top industry (tourism is second), Gov. Pat McCrory proclaimed July as Got to Be NC Agriculture Month. “We created the Got to Be NC marketing program almost a decade ago to help consumers identify local products no matter where they shop,” Steve Troxler, North Carolina's agriculture commissioner, said in a statement.
Peach Days and Watermelon Days were featured in July at state-operated farmers markets in Asheville, Charlotte, Colfax and Raleigh, and a restaurant week in mid-July spotlighted restaurants in eight counties using local produce ingredients in their menu offerings.
Total value of North Carolina agricultural exports, including products like tobacco and eggs, exceeded $3.7 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an increase of 189 percent from 2005. “Agricultural exports help boost farm prices and income, while supporting about 68,000 jobs on and off the farm in food processing, storage and transportation,” Hardison observed. Because of its location in the Southeast, North Carolina’s fresh produce can reach 65 percent of the U.S. population within 24 hours.
Food safety is an ever-present issue, Hardison observed, along with federal land use policy and a seasonal labor supply. An estimated 35,000 migrant workers pass through North Carolina each year. “The produce industry needs to keep a watchful eye on policy issues, invest for the crops of the future and strengthen local marketing efforts,” said Hardison.