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Farmers plant seeds for local growth: Orange County farms’ direct-to-consumer sales are part of a national trend

Jonathan Ray is the owner of Cates Corner Farm which supplies produce to many local restaurants and farmers markets.
Jonathan Ray is the owner of Cates Corner Farm which supplies produce to many local restaurants and farmers markets.

As one of more than 100 local farmers in the Triangle who sell directly to consumers, he’s also part of a growing trend.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007’s and 2012 Censuses, the number of Orange County farms that sell straight to consumers has increased by 54 percent since 2007.

“The area is constantly growing,” Ray said. “There’s a high demand for sure.”

Ray has been selling locally at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market for the past six years. He said he is meeting new growers all the time and seeing an increase in the variety of products.

“We’ve been able to keep growing and keep expanding,” he said. “Every year we’ve been doing a little more. We seem like we can keep growing.”

Ray isn’t alone. Direct-to-consumer sales across the county are up 108 percent since 2007.

Board of Aldermen member Bethany Chaney said Orange County has been making an effort over the past couple of years to grow the local agricultural sector.

“In Orange County, it’s been a really big focus of a lot of work at the county level, and in Carrboro specifically,” Chaney said. “Our farmers’ market is renowned across the state and it’s something that has taken years and years to build, and to grow and sustain.”

Chaney said it’s taken a lot of will on the part of the town government to make that happen.

“The farmers’ market is a consorted effort to get local producers directly to markets,” she said.

Chaney said local farming in Orange County is getting harder with each passing year, so the community is trying to figure out the best way to support local agriculture.

“The acreage of farming in Orange County is on the decline and the average size of farms is on the decline,” she said.

“But the number of farms in Orange County is actually on the rise. So that means what we are seeing is more people farming, but farming smaller acreage.

She said the question is whether or not they can farm in a sustainable fashion.

Yet, many farmers are starting to look outside of the farmers’ markets.

Emily Edmonds, the extension and outreach program manager for N.C. Growing Together at N.C. State University, said demand for locally-sourced and produced products is spilling over from the farmers’ markets into grocery stores, restaurants and food service companies.

“The growth in demand for local foods is creating opportunities that just didn’t exist before,” Edmonds said. “So the food system, on the local level, is playing catch-up, to some extent.”

Edmonds said there are real opportunities for local farmers once they understand the potential economic success of local products.

“Many wholesale distributors and produce buyers are adjusting their volume and sales requirements to help support moving more local products into mainstream markets, eliminating some of the previous barriers for smaller farmers,” she said.

Ray said he is keeping his farm small for now, but may expand to another farmers’ market in the future. For Ray, it is all about providing the best quality goods and helping out local business like his by shopping local.

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“As a small business owner myself, I always try to buy or shop local,” he said.