Got to get local?|State pushes items grown by its farmers

Published 11:34 am Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Daily News Correspondent

Local is in.
As if to prove it, officials with the Got to be NC program parked a huge, motorized shopping cart in front of the Washington Wal-Mart on Friday.
The statewide marketing program promotes the purchase of North Carolina-grown products, said Jeff Thomas, manager of Goodness Grows in North Carolina, an initiative of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The program is free to any farmer willing to go through an application process, Thomas said.
Got to be NC is bigger than “slow foods” or organic growing, though those facets of farming are part of it, he noted.
One of his colleagues agreed.
“It’s much larger than that,” said G.W. Stanley, domestic-marketing manager for NCDACS. “We’re trying to increase awareness to the consumer about buying local. Local right now is really hot. Of course, this is something that the Department of Agriculture has been doing for years.”
It appears those efforts are paying off.
Thomas said 535 produce-only companies participate in Got to be NC. Within those numbers are small farmers and big commercial growers.
“We try to really tailor our promotions to help everybody as it goes,” he said.
The program boasts 1,800 member companies overall, including companies producing everything from jams to frozen foods, according to Stanley and Thomas.
“Why go outside the state for something that you can get that’s fresh?” asked Thomas. “It can come out of the fields that morning and be on the shelves in the afternoon.”
A number of major chains — Wal-Mart included, hence the giant shopping cart — have extended the reach of Got to be NC.
The Washington Wal-Mart stocks North Carolina-made or Tar Heel-grown flour, pastries, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, squash, potatoes, watermelon and more, related Mark Mayo, a market merchandiser for Wal-Mart, and Reed Clark, manager of the Washington store.
Vendors from regional companies turned out for Friday’s promotion to give away free samples ranging from pickles to frozen Popsicles.
The sight impressed Chocowinity resident Hazel Eitel, who said she shops at Wal-Mart once a month and buys most of her produce there.
Of the chain’s stock of local goods, she said: “I think it’s a great idea if it brings prices down.”
Eitel said she would buy more local products if they were available.
Washington’s David Rogers said he would do the same, especially if local produce were more involved.
“I would love it,” he said.
Rogers said that, as a diabetic, he pays attention to where his food comes from. He has to for health reasons.
Despite an apparent interest in home-grown foods, it appears that large-scale, commodities agriculture, not roadside stands, remain the staple of farmers across the state, including those in Beaufort County.
The market value of agricultural products sold in Beaufort County totaled more than $98.7 million in 2007, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture census. Of that figure, more than $65 million was in crop sales with $33.7 million or more in livestock sales.
Broad-based, commodities agriculture probably accounts for “99 percent or greater” of the farm revenue in Beaufort County, related Gaylon Ambrose, a county Cooperative Extension Service agent.
Yet, growers who sell directly to local people — not through chain stores or processors — equal a higher percentage now than in years past, Ambrose said.
“It’s increasing, but still it’s got a long way to catch up to commodity agriculture,” he added.
The Got to be NC program has a wide focus that benefits everyone from wheat farmers to truck farmers, Ambrose said.
“I think it’s good,” he noted. “Anything that we can do to promote the use of North Carolina produce, I think, is healthy for the producer as well as the consumer. Now, is it more on folks’ mind today than it was five years ago? I’d say, yes, both consumer and, probably, the producer.”