New Bern, NC – Organic farming is popular, its being practiced now in all 50 states, where it generates over 41 billion dollars. The USDA began issuing organic certification in 2001. However, in recent years, the demand for organically grown food has risen sharply and the number of organic farmers in eastern North Carolina is proof. Some of the popular crops in eastern North Carolina include lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, and sweet potatoes just to name a few.
"Organic grain has come a long way in the last five years, so there is some really large organic grain farms popping up" Ceo of Eastern Carolina Organics in Pittsboro, Sandi Kronick.
"there is also organic cotton being grown in the state which is a tremendous success for low pesticide use. We're a strong part of the organic vegetable production and fruit production that is increasing tremendously"
Eastern Carolina Organics is a grower and also manager of NC organic produce. They work with whole sale distributors and retailers, buying clubs, and restaurants that want to sell or use organic produce.
"North Carolina organic farms are now shipping product up and down the east Coast. This has been going on for several years. The quality on many items is highly competitive with any national or global organic source."
There are nearly 8,000 organic farms across the state, with a vast majority of those being one to ten acres in size. The number of organic farms in North Carolina, and specifically eastern North Carolina will continue to grow according to Brian Busha Green, a 7th generation farmer and the Assistant Director for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
"in the 2007 census, in terms of acreage, I think we have something like 77-hundred between 7,500 and 8,000 acres of land. we had another 7,000 acres that was being converted to organic production. So that's a good indication that this is a very fast growing market place, creating lots of potential for our wonderful farmland in eastern North Carolina. "
Green manages a 30-acre farm in Goldsboro that is owned by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, North Carolina A&T and NC State University for research purposes.
"We grow about 40 varieties of vegetables, we also have small fruits, brambles, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and also have laying chickens, also raise some steer, beef steer, and also have honey bees. It's a pretty diversified farm." There are some major differences between organic farms and conventional farms. Organic farms are typically smaller in acreage, but they have more diversity in the crops they grow. Organic farming is hands on- unlike large scale conventional farms, which use large farm equipment.
"It doesn't make economic sense to invest in large farm equipment that's automated on a small piece of property. So it is possible where actually more labor is needed on smaller farms because they aren't being handled with that same type of automation that you see on the larger conventional farms."
According to a report by Organic Farming Research Foundation, organic agriculture can have a strong positive impact on the economy and is good for job creation. To look even further into organic farming and its practices, we traveled to Scott Farms along Highway 17 in Rhems, about 5 miles south of New Bern. Trent Scott, the farm's current owner maintains the 7-acre organic operation with help from his wife Rebecca and his mother. Scott's great, great grandfather started the family owned farm business in 1835. But it wasn't until 2007 that they decided to make the transition to growing sustainable food. As we traveled to the fields in his pickup, Scott pointed out several bat and bird houses surrounding the site.
"We've got bat houses and bird houses scattered about the fields to help out attracting animals that would help minimize insect problems. They're always looking for things to feed on and this is a great place. And so you try to enhance the habitat for them by providing homes for them."
As we drove further up the dirt road, the fields came into view. Bordering each were crude fences made with a single piece of string, set about waist high. Plastic bags and aluminum cans were tied to the string. Scott explained this is his way of keeping deer away.
"Cans, bags, anything to make some noise to essentially scare the deer or deter them from coming into the fields. We got some scent glands along the perimeter as well. Deer is real sensitive to smell so there are certain odors in the scent glands to deter them as well."
On the field, each row was covered in white plastic, which Scott explains cuts down on the amount of weeds and it keeps the produce clean.
"we've got swiss chard, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, sugar snap peas, radishes, turnips. "this looks like corn, right?" It is, it is corn." "What is this right here?" "this is romaine, green romaine "
A very important part of growing organic food is making sure the plants have enough water. Scott Farm uses direct irrigation, which puts water to the root of the growing plants. Scott says its the most environmentally conscious way of hydrating plants.
"You're not wasting water. The water is going directly to the root source of the plant. With the fertigation system we have, we can actually put fertilizer directly into the irrigation system and that is carried right directly to the root source of the plant too. So you're maximizing your effort and very little waste in fertilizer and water alike."
There are limits on how much and what kinds of fertilizers Scott can use, but they all must be from natural sources. Growing organic crops can be challenging, not only because of the strict guidelines that regulate the industry, but because there is such a diverse assortment of crops being grown at once. Scott says he prefers organic farming because it helps him meet the demands of his customers. In addition to selling organic produce at the local farmers market, Scott Farms also supplies organic produce to restaurants in eastern North Carolina, including Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, and 247 Craven and Persimmons in downtown New Bern, which is less than 10 miles away from where the product was grown. They also maintain a customer base online. Whether it's from roadside stands or farmer's markets, organic produce is becoming more readily available. To keep up with the increase in demand from consumers, large grocery store chains have added sections in their produce isles specifically to showcase organically grown foods. Ceo of Eastern Carolina Organics Sandi Kronick says to beware, just because something is labeled organic, doesn't mean its local.
"It's really important for consumers to ask farmers at the market exactly where that product was grown to confirm that it is in fact from a local farm, and also about their production practices involved with raising that food. What kind of soil amendments they used to grow their produce, how they fertilize, how they control weeds Getting to know the farmer is absolutely the best way to be connected with their food, and know that they're really supporting a local organic economy."
As the demand for organic foods continues to escalate, Kronick believes North Carolina's organic foods industry will continue to experience growth.
"What many of our farmers where telling us when we first got started in 2004, was that farming was too hard and they didn't want their children coming back to the farm they wanted a better life for them. That's something that anecdotally right now we're really witnessing a really nice change not only hearing them advocate for their next generation to come back and take over the farm, we're actually watching it happen, the next generation is deciding that they want to move back from the city to the farm because they see there's a living to be made there and it's a great choice for their families and being able to spend more time with their children."
The future of organic farming in eastern North Carolina looks bright. As the demand increases, new eastern North Carolina organic farming operations will start up. And that's a good thing, because for organic food to be truly sustainable, it should be purchased and produced locally. If you want more information on where you can find organic foods in eastern North Carolina, go to our website, publicradioeast.org. I'm Jared Brumbaugh.