On Feb. 29, Hillsborough hosted the 18th annual Orange County Agricultural Summit, revealing Orange County’s startling success in direct farm to consumer sales. County officials and farmers believe the growth stems from a change in consumer culture relating to food.
“There’s been a huge shift. Now, consumers want to know the story about the food,” said Mike Ortosky, Orange County agricultural economic developer. “We want (our food) to be local, no pesticides and organic.”
Now, Orange County is the second largest county in agricultural sales in North Carolina, even though it does not have the most farms. Wake County, with 143 farms, made $654,000 in farm to consumer sales, while Orange County made more than double that with only 120 farms.
Ortosky, who organized the February summit, said he was happy with the large turnout and interest from participants. Those who have farmed their entire lives were able to talk to county newcomers who are just getting into the local farming business.
“This year, the title for the summit was ‘Growing Family Farms.’ We were trying to get as much info into the hands of farms and help them with their business and their farms. The best way to help a farm is to help them make money and provide as much tools and opportunities as possible,” Ortosky said.
Others said the increase in the popularity of farms is because land in Orange County is cheaper and more rural than its neighbors.
“The thing about Orange County is that it has diversity in its landscape and has less developing pressures,” said Noah Ranells, a member of the board of Piedmont Grown, a regional farming organization headquartered in Hillsborough.
The availability of this cheap rural land close to progressive areas, such as Chapel Hill and the Triangle, has helped the resurgence of locally bought foods. Food markets have grown in popularity, helping small farms sell their products.
“In Chapel Hill they’re interested in healthy eating, good foods and an interest in health,” said Ortosky. “College towns are always on the cutting edge.”
The Orange County government has also done a lot to encourage this trend.
“In Orange County there was an initiative by the county government that increased awareness of the local agriculture. It’s great for folks who wanted to stay in farming,” said Carl Matyac, director of the Orange County Cooperative Extension.
Orange County was among the first in North Carolina to create an office of agricultural economic development, said Matyac, giving its small farms more resources and opportunities than other counties.
“People can have culture and still live in a rural area,” Ortosky said. “That’s what I feel special about.”