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History of the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program

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The North Carolina Specialty Crops Program (SCP) was a statewide, multi-agency program dedicated to new crop development. The main headquarters was located at the R.P. Cunningham Research Station, just north of Kinston, NC. The satellite headquarters was located at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center near Asheville, NC. The SCP had the ability to study various crops on any one of the many research stations located throughout the state.

How did the N.C. Specialty Crops Program develop?

It started as a grassroots effort. In 1992, the Alternative Crops Diversification Committee, comprised of fourteen farmers from nine Eastern North Carolina counties, formulated a blueprint to aid farmers in diversifying into high-value crops. They sought the help of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, the N.C. Agricultural Research Service, N.C. State University, and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

It was the program’s premise that North Carolina farmers who then grew conventional commodities, such as tobacco, cotton, corn and soybeans, should consider diversifying by also growing and marketing high-value crops such as fruits, vegetables, industrial crops, niche crops, herbs, and other specialty items along with value-added products.

The Alternative Crops Diversification Committee played a crucial role in obtaining support for the N.C. Specialty Crops Program. The Cunningham Research Farm was donated to N.C. State University in 1985 and had no facilities to conduct high-value crop research. Through the efforts of the committee and other supporters legislative funding was obtained in 1995 to install irrigation and buy some specialized equipment on the farm. For the last five years of the program, the Golden Leaf Foundation provided major financial support for the program.

In July 1997, a team from NC State University and the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was assembled to give leadership to the N.C. Specialty Crops Program at the Cunningham Research and Extension Center in Kinston. From 1997 to 1999 the program was led by Dr. Barclay Poling in the Department of Horticultural Science. In 1999, the N.C. Specialty Crops Program became a state-wide program. From 1999 through 2007, the program coordinator was Dr. Jeanine Davis, NC State University Associate Professor and Horticulture Specialist. Her management team consisted of Don Thompson (1999-2000) followed by Nick Augostini, N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Marketing Specialist, and Bill Jester, Extension Associate, N.C. State University. The last year of the program, 2008, was led by Bill Jester.

Why did we focus on specialty crops?

Consumers wanted a wide selection of good tasting fruits and vegetables, which are nutritious and fit into their busy lifestyles. The buyers from national supermarket chains, regional farm markets, and specialty food markets were ready to support local producers who could grow better tasting fruits and vegetables. North Carolina has the right climate and soils to produce some of the world’s finest strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupes, melons, squash, and a variety of culturally diversified crops. Consumers were also looking for exciting new nursery crops and interesting value-added products.

Why weren’t more growers producing those crops then?

Know-how! Growers and their advisors did not know which varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and nursery crops were best adapted to a region and which varieties best met market needs. Also, new varieties needed to be developed, specific for our environments, soils, and markets.

How were new crops developed?

Advisory committees, growers, county agents, researchers, and the general public were always coming up with new crop ideas. We determined which looked to be best suited to the state and that we thought had the best chances of success. Researchers were then recruited to initiate field, greenhouse, or laboratory studies. At the same time, market studies were started. If the new crop or product looked promising after the first stage, on-farm studies were initiated in cooperation with county extension agents. Taste-tests, market analyses, and test market sales were then started. If those efforts were successful, a grower education program was launched consisting of workshops, training sessions, presentations at growers’ conferences, leaflets, and the website.

The projects funded by the NC Specialty Crops Program:

Here is a link to the reports from most of the projects funded by the program:

Reports from the NC Specialty Crops Program

Key to success

Marketing and field research were closely linked. One major advantage to our program, compared to many other new crop programs before that was that marketing research was initiated at the same time as the crop production research. Information is power, and well-informed growers can better position their products and services if they have the “right” information about the needs of buyers and consumers. Successful products tend to be those that respond to real consumer and trade needs.

Training growers and county agents

This program demonstrated the latest methods of growing crops in the field and greenhouses, post-harvest handling, and packaging. Field days, workshops, and intensive training sessions were held regularly, to pass on the information we gained to growers and the county agents working with them.

Why did the program end?

To put it simply, funding ran out.

Supporting New Crops & Organics Program

Our NC Alternative Crops and Organics program is almost completely funded by grants and gifts. If you value this program, we would appreciate your financial support. To become a Friend of the NC Alternative Crops and Organics Program, you can donate online here or print out this form and mail it in with your check. Thank you for your support!

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Jeanine Davis, NC Alternative Crops & Organics Program, Department of Horticultural Science, NC State University (reviewed 6/20/2022).