Buying Local Comes Natural When You Know Your Farmer

— Written By and last updated by
pigs in a field with a rainbow in the sky

Slow Farm, Cameron NC. Photo by Rachel Herrick

For generations of farmers in the North Carolina Sandhills, tobacco was the king crop. Today, however, the landscapes of Moore, Lee, and Richmond counties look quite different. More and more farmers are cultivating smaller acreages with specialty crops, which they market and sell directly to consumers. For this model to succeed, farmers and consumers need to connect on a personal level. When consumers are aware of products being grown nearby, their investment in supporting the farm community grows.

Knowing that nothing connects folks more than a personal tour, Extension Master Gardener℠ volunteers in Moore County reached out to area farmers. They proposed a tour during which visitors would be welcomed onto farms to meet the farmers and learn about their production methods and products. As a result, the Sandhills Farm Tour was born. And its mission was clear: build the public’s trust in the burgeoning local food economy.

Starting in 2017, Master Gardener volunteers identified farmers who were excited about hosting a tour and could offer engaging educational opportunities for visitors. The selection of farms was based upon a farm’s location, size, agricultural products, history, and its unique characteristics. The tour is now in its third year.

farmer in front of rows of crops

The Sandhills Farm Tour included a visit to Olde Carthage Farms. Photo credit: Claudia Watson

“The tour is no small undertaking,” shared Master Gardener volunteer Claudia Watson, who knows a successful event requires careful planning and many dedicated hands. “Our event planning committee provides the leadership needed to coordinate tasks which include farm selection, safety, traffic control, parking, health/sanitation, ticketing GIS mapping, and publicity,” shared Watson. “Meetings over many months, close communication with the farmers, and training the Master Gardener volunteer teams were the keys to success.”  

For the Spring 2019 Sandhills Farm Tour, the event planning committee recruited and trained over 60 Master Gardener volunteers for the big day. Teams of volunteers met with the farmers in advance of the tour and used a farm orientation questionnaire, developed by the event planning committee, to collect information such as the farm’s history, products, and methodology. They also surveyed the farm for parking areas and demonstration sites while identifying any potential hazards. Using this information, the Master Gardener volunteers created a handout for visitors that included information about each farm, a listing of the demonstrations planned, and a tour map.Plants, vegetables, and farm animalsWithout a doubt, their hard work paid off. The Spring 2019 Sandhills Farm Tour attracted over 1,000 visitors. This represented a 265% increase in attendance over the previous two years. Survey results showed that the tour increased awareness of the value that local farms and their products supply to our food system. Many attendees were unaware of the specialty crops being grown nearby. From asparagus and berries, to hydroponic greens and tomatoes, visitors learned that high-quality vegetables are available just down the road. Attendees learned about the various methods for growing fruits and vegetables (greenhouse, hydroponic, field-grown, and veganic), while demonstrations included practical tips on sustainable farming on a small-scale that many found adaptable to their residential plots.

man in front of brick kiln

Mark Epstein, the owner of Flow Farm in Aberdeen, NC, showed tour attendees his biochar kiln. Photo credit: Claudia Watson

Strengthening the local food system has been a long-standing initiative of the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Moore County Center. For over a decade, they’ve worked with farmers, restaurants, local government, and the tourism industry to increase local food consumption. Thanks to the Master Gardener volunteers’ effort, the Sandhills Farm Tour has been one successful result of this ongoing initiative.

man with tomato plants

McNeill Farms, Lemon Springs, NC. Photo credit: Claudia Watson

In recognition of this important work, the Master Gardener volunteers in Moore County have been awarded the 2020 Search for Excellence Award in the community service category. This award recognizes outstanding Extension Master Gardener volunteer educational, group projects that result in significant learning.

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Congratulations to Master Gardener volunteers on the event planning committee, including Janice Hiltner, Lisa Laidlaw, Diane Innes, Cheryl Stuckey, and Claudia Watson. Many thanks to retired N.C. Cooperative Extension Horticulture Agent Taylor Williams and the over 60 Master Gardener volunteers who made the tour possible. 

To learn more about the Extension Master Gardener program in Moore County, contact Savanah Laur, N.C. Cooperative Extension Horticulture Agent, 910-947-3188.

About the North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Program

NC State Extension Master Gardener volunteers connect people to horticulture through science-based education and outreach that empowers North Carolinians to cultivate healthy plants, landscapes, ecosystems, and communities. To learn more about the NC State Extension Master Gardener program in your community, contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension center.