Organic farming: Way of life, business draw or both?

Mar. 02, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

Organic farming has become all the rage in many parts of Central Carolina, although the trend seems to have skipped Lee County.

"In the Sandhills region there's increasing interest, for sure, in organic production," said Debbie Roos of the Chatham County Cooperative Extension. 'We don't have a lot (of organic farming) in Lee County, but we do have some people (from Sanford) come up for workshops. ... It's catching on in Moore County, but not so much in Lee County."

Roos, as the extension center's agent for sustainable/organic production, would know. She started her career with the Cooperative Extension in Lee County but moved to Chatham County shortly afterward, when her organic-focused position was created. It's one of the first such positions in the state, and there still isn't an equivalent in Lee, Moore or Harnett counties.

And while organic and sustainable farms have popped up in many areas of Chatham County, the trend has centered around Pittsboro in particular — both for commercial enterprises and hobbyists.

People proved that earlier this month when Country Farm and Home Supply took in record-high profits the day it got a shipment of organic seed potatoes. Locals, as well as people from as far away as Charlotte and Wilmington, pre-ordered 11,000 pounds — 5.5 tons — of the potatoes.

"I have a lot of things here that you can't find other places," Fitzegerald said. "But that's because people want to buy those things here in Pittsboro."

Roos said demand in Chatham County is high and is even still growing. She said easy highway access to the Triangle has helped a lot, as have local organizations focused on agriculture such as the extension, Central Carolina Community College and various agriculture-focused nonprofits.

"We've got a reputation," Roos said. "People move here because they've heard of that organic farming community and want to be part of it."

CCCC offers a degree is sustainable agriculture and holds classes — both on how to farm and how to make money farming — on its Pittsboro campus, which includes farmland as well as a a greenhouse, a pole barn, a packing shed and more.

"Some students use their education to build sustainable farms, while others seek employment at established sustainable operations," the college says on the program's website. "Employment opportunities are found elsewhere through schools, parks and environmental centers. Jobs are available with non-profit organizations focusing on farmer advocacy. The sustainable agriculture degree is also useful for persons desiring to serve in the Peace Corps or other volunteer agencies."

And although it might seem odd that so much of Central Carolina's organic agriculture base is located in tiny Pittsboro — farmers from in or near the town of just 4,000 people are ubiquitous at markets in Carrboro, Durham, Raleigh and elsewhere — Roos said it makes sense that it hasn't caught on in areas like Lee County, with a strong agricultural history.

"Lee's got a more traditional agricultural base and was always big in tobacco and things like that, even if it's not as big anymore," Roos said. "Chatham's always attracted a more alternative base, I guess. And a lot of the people that move here are first-generation farmers."

So that explains the supply side. But farmers also have to focus on demand.

"There's not as much of the population in Sanford who wants to purchase organic food, either," Roos said. "You need both pieces of the puzzle."

In Pittsboro, on the other hand, Roos said organic is a key part of many people's entire philosophy. Fitzgerald, a self-described "tree-hugger" who transitioned Country Farm and Home Supply's products from traditional to organic when she took over from her father about five years ago, agreed.

"I've always been a consumer of organic food and have always been concerned about what I put in my mouth," she said. "So I love that I know my farmers and I know what they're growing. ... I said I'm not going to come in here and just sell chemicals to people. I want to sell things that are healthy."