Special Issues » Dish

Wake farmers growing an organic industry

By setting up a separate distribution business, farmers can plan crops--and profits


The stand at Hilltop Farms in southern Wake County is a converted tobacco barn. Taller than it is wide, its dark brown exterior streaked with gray, the barn once stored flue-cured leaf. Today it's filled with farming tools, cardboard boxes and seeds trays. A recently built pine shed roof skirts the structure at about eight feet, creating cover for people who come to buy organic vegetables. Every Saturday morning, farmer Fred Miller is there, weighing out his produce and bagging it up for customers to take home.

Tanned from days spent working in the sun with a full head of silver hair and an easy smile, Miller is a former office equipment salesman who operates the only certified organic farm in Wake County. He and his wife, Virginia ,own 30 acres that are part of J.C. Rowland Farms, land that has been in Virginia's family since the 1600s. For generations, the soil here has yielded mostly tobacco. Now Miller grows strawberries, potatoes, bok choy and roma tomatoes in the fallow fields.

Although he is new to farming and to organics, Miller operates a thriving Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business in which customers buy shares of Hilltop Farms' crop at the beginning of the season. Often he hears from customers who tell him that his produce is the best they've tasted. Yet, despite this success, he is facing a struggle familiar to many small North Carolina farmers who have been in the agriculture industry for years. "I want to run my own business and make it sustainable," he says. "I want to be able to actually make a living on this land and pass it on to my kids."

One way Miller hopes to achieve this goal is by tapping into the organic wholesale market. In recent years there have been few relationships between local buyers and growers in the wholesale market, making it hard for small farmers like Miller to break in. For him, an organization that's made a real difference in closing that gap is Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO). Launched with tobacco trust fund money, ECO helps farmers zero in on an often-overlooked part of their work--marketing to natural food stores, co-ops and restaurants.

Miller spent almost 20 years selling business machines before becoming an organic farmer. In 1990, he and Virginia moved from Greensboro into the house Virginia's grandfather built in 1921. For her, it was coming home. She grew up on the farm, in Willow Springs, just northeast of Fuquay-Varina.

For Miller it was a chance to have a second career.

"I wanted to get off the road, but wasn't sure what to do next," he says. "Then I saw this newspaper article describing organic farms that offered CSAs, and I said, 'This is it, this is what we need to do.'"

Miller started farming on nights and weekends in 1997, and Hilltop Farms started its first CSA the next spring with just two members. Seven families joined the second year, then 16 joined the third. By then, Miller was growing for his CSA as well as selling to restaurants, the Fuquay-Varina farmers' market and health food stores.

"I was burned out on office sales, just fed up," he says. "I'd see the fields every day and know they needed work. It was hard to leave them. In January of 2002 I took a leap of faith. I quit my day job to be a full-time farmer."

He immediately became a member of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), a nonprofit that promotes organic agriculture in the Carolinas. "It was the smartest thing I ever did," he says. The day after he joined, the newspaper ran another story on CSAs, and Hilltop Farms was listed as the only one in Wake County. Their CSA membership grew from 16 to 64 within weeks.

Since then it has held steady at around 80 families, and this spring he turned more than 25 away. "But even with 80 or so people in my CSA, I'm not making enough," he says. "I've got to expand the business to keep it going, and I'm looking to the wholesale market to help."

The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association launched ECO to help new organic farmers and organic tobacco farmers grow more produce, thus increasing the supply of locally grown organics.

"Our goal is to create a community-based food system where food is grown and sold locally," CFSA Executive Director Tony Kleese says.

ECO Manager Sandi Kronick began connecting growers with buyers in 2003. By the end of 2004, ECO had hired a second staff person, former Carolina Inn chef de cuisine Todd Dumke, and generated $248,000 in sales. Looking ahead, knowing that growers and buyers were interested in ECO's services, Kronick and Dumke made plans to become an independent business.

"We gathered 13 of our core growers, together with lawyers and accountants, to decide how to structure it," Dumke says. "We chose an LLC, not a pure co-op model, which means the farmers can grow produce and leave the management to us."

The growers understood the distribution business and the challenges associated with it. Many of them had been part of a similar organization, Asheville-based Carolina Organic Growers, which operated across the state in the 1990s but has since stopped serving the Triangle. By the end of that meeting 15 people had invested in ECO's future: Dumke, Kronick and 13 farmers. Miller is one of them.

"Knowing organics and the demand for it, I saw it as a minimum investment for the longterm potential it holds," Miller says. "It gave me chance to get in with an organization that deals with big suppliers like Earth Fare and Whole Foods Market. They won't deal with me individually, but they will deal with ECO."

This ability to build relationships with buyers is one of ECO's biggest assets. Every fourth quarter, Kronick meets with the produce buyers at Whole Foods Market, Weaver Street Market and Earth Fare. "We sit down and map out what they think they can sell, from apples to zucchini, during each month of the next year," she says.

Then she shares this information with ECO farmers individually, helping them determine what they can grow. Kronick asks them to think about their production costs, what they delivered to ECO last year, and what they would like to grow this year. "We also encourage them to think about new crops and higher-dollar specialty items like arugula and heirloom tomatoes," she says.

Last December Kronick drove to Hilltop Farms, showed Miller the amount of green beans her buyers wanted to purchase and asked him how much he could grow. "It was very inspiring to have someone telling me 'I can buy this amount,'" he says. "I could see right there how I could double my income."

Each week, ECO produce gets delivered to restaurants that are known for cooking with local produce, as well as some that are not. Cisco Systems in Research Triangle Park contracts with Bon Appétit, a food service company committed to offering healthy food and seasonal menus, to run its three employee cafeterias.

"We pride ourselves on using regional produce," General Manager Michael Brownlee says. "We've been using ECO since they started. They give us fresh produce, just out of the fields, with a quick turn around time. We love 'em."

In the western part of the Triangle, many restaurants have longstanding relationships with local farmers who are not part of ECO. "We make sure we never jeopardize these relationships," Kronick says. "We want to be a back-up plan for the chefs." Often these restaurants rely on their regular growers during the spring and summer, then call on ECO in the fall and winter to order items like apples or sweet potatoes grown in other parts of the state.

"The biggest thing is that Sandi and Todd share the growers' philosophy." Miller says. "We all care about providing local food that's grown organically, so it's sustainable for the environment and the farmer."

Now in his fourth year of farming, Miller still feels like a beginner. "Wholesale, retail--which is better? I'm still trying to figure it all out," he says.

With 20 years of sales experience, he has found marketing his CSA to be easier. An attractive Qeb site and an e-mail address have proven to be all the advertising he needs. "It's the growing part I'm having to learn," he says. "If I could grow more, I could sell more."

Miller must balance what he can grow with the number of CSA members he takes on, all the while being aware that he has no control over the weather and how that will affect his harvest.

"Yet there's nothing like the exhilaration of bringing in a crop," he says, "taking it from a seed in tray all the way to market, then looking back, knowing you faced all those challenges and won."

Miller's goal is to grow enough produce to stock his CSA and give his overflow to ECO. He earns a higher profit selling directly to his customers, but finds that can be more stressful than growing wholesale. "They pay me up front so I have a commitment to give them produce for six and half months," he says. "I make a commitment to Sandi, too, but I don't have to sell to her every week."

Selling to ECO saves Miller time and gasoline. He can make one delivery to ECO instead of several to different businesses, and he doesn't have to spend a morning packing up delivery boxes for the CSA. "Another big benefit of wholesale is volume," he says. "You can make up in volume what you lose in retail sales."

Stefan Hartmann, another ECO investor, owns Black River Organic Farm near Wilmington, where he grows greens, squash and cucumbers. He now sells most of his produce wholesale through ECO, but he used to sell it himself, dealing directly with the produce buyers and chefs.

"I know what it takes, and I'm thrilled to have Sandi do it," he says. "I couldn't reach the amount of accounts on my own that she reaches for me. You have to stay on the phone all day, and I can't do that."

Hartmann also values ECO's pricing system, pointing out that he found it difficult to be sure of market prices even when he subscribed to a pricing service.

Kronick works to keep ECO prices stable at levels that yield a fair return for the farmer. She encourages farmers to be aware of their expenses--"not only does it help us with the bottom line," she says, "it helps us align the cost of food with the cost of production"--and asks them to think about how much of each crop they want to grow. By growing a diversity of crops with small yields, farmers can attract retail prices from restaurants looking for just-harvested produce. Or they can grow larger amounts of fewer crops that sell for lower wholesale prices.

"If something is in high demand, we can get a good price for it," Kronick says. "We have a loyal customer base of chefs dedicated to high-style cuisine. The farmer who grows for this market is different from the one who grows 10 palettes of something. By choosing to grow a lot or a little, the growers can self select one of the target markets--or ideally have a mix of both--based on their production style."

In southern Wake County, Miller is surrounded by conventional farmers, many of them long-timers who grow tobacco, corn and soybeans. One, Miller's contemporary, raises chickens with his father, who has been a cattle farmer all his life.

"They've all welcomed me with open arms and helped me with everything I've asked for," Miller says. "They've been part of my learning curve."

Miller has tried to convince the father and son to get into organics, to raise beef and poultry he can sell in his CSA. So far they're not interested, but they're watching to see how things go for him.

"Everyone is curious about alternatives to tobacco, what I'm doing and how I'm doing it," he says. "They ask me lots of questions; they're looking to see the difference."

The green fields that surround Hilltop Farms may soon disappear. Some of the bigger tobacco farmers in Willow Springs have recently gotten out of the business; one is building houses now, another is bailing hay. While none of Virginia's family land has been sold, the drumbeat of development is not far away. Miller can point in each direction and tell me the number of homes that will soon be built: 180 houses less than two miles away; 1,100 less than a mile away.

One of his favorite books, Michael Ableman's On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm, shows an aerial photograph of the author's 12-acre California farm, bought in 1954, when it was bordered by thousands of agricultural acres. By 1998 it was surrounded by houses, strip malls and highways.

"That could be me out here," Miller says. "I don't want it to be, but if it is, I'll set up my farm stand here every week and sell produce to all of them."

ECO: An organic N.C. network
Now in its third year of operation, Eastern Carolina Organics expects to generate sales of close to $600,000 this year. Eighty percent of that money will go back to the farmers. By keeping expenses low, ECO covers staff salaries as well as operating expenses with the other 20 percent.

ECO makes at least three deliveries each week, one to the Triad and two or three to the Triangle. Farmers call its manager, Sandi Kronick, to let her know what they can harvest, and she sends out a price list to her customers who then place their orders. The farmers bring the produce directly to ECO, and staffer Todd Dumke delivers it the next day. Every Monday, the cycle begins again. Kronick manages the entire operation from the office with a telephone and a huge spreadsheet while Dumke delivers the produce.

This summer ECO started selling at the Raleigh Farmers' Market, offering the only organic produce there. They don't sell at any other local farmers' markets.

ECO is now working with about 28 farmers who grow everything from brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes to honeydew melons and cilantro. "Our growers farm from Elizabeth City to Asheville," Dumke says, "so we're able to take full advantage of all 11 months of the North Carolina growing season."

For example, in September ECO was able to sell broccoli grown in Western North Carolina for less than the price of California broccoli. "And it tasted better!" Dumke says.

Add a comment