Farm to Beach House
From the Outer Banks through Sunset Beach, Vacation Supported Agriculture makes it easy for vacationers to enjoy locally grown produce.
Brian Knowles of Bear Ridge Farms in Maple Hill knows that eating fresh, locally grown produce is a priority for many people, one that doesn’t go on hold when they’re on vacation.
As a fourth-generation farmer on his family’s Pender County farm, he also knows that getting the locally grown produce directly into the hands of the consumer can be challenging. That’s why Bear Ridge Farms participates in the N.C. State Extension’s Vacation Supported Agriculture (VSA) program, which helps North Carolina coastal vacationers enjoy good, healthy food while enjoying their time at the beach. Through the program, Bear Ridge Farms provides their squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, corn, eggplant, peanuts and more directly to visitors.
“The VSA gives local farmers another outlet to move their products,” Knowles says. “It’s been a big benefit to us and very popular with the vacationers.”
A team of specialists from N.C. State Extension and Tourism Extension developed VSA as part of a three-year USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program grant. VSA coordinates the sale of weekly fractions of farm production shares to vacationers over the summer tourism season. N.C. State’s project team and county Extension partners coordinate groups of local farmers in the growing, packaging and delivery of bags of local produce to pick-up locations convenient to vacationers. Each bag contains three servings of produce for four people, and customers can buy as many bags as they like. Local vacation rental companies introduce the program to their clients, who buy the bags through an online platform known as People First Provisions (https://p1provisions.com/)
N.C. State Extension piloted in Ocean Isle Beach in 2018 and expanded in 2019 to other Brunswick County beaches (Sunset Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island, and Bald Head Island), as well as Wrightsville Beach and Surf City. Expansion to the Outer Banks is underway in 2020.
“The growth rate between the first and second year was exponential,” says N.C. State Extension Community Development Specialist Becky Bowen, who manages the VSA program. “Visitors really like the program, especially those people who are traveling from out of state. They enjoy local food in their home state and like the fact that they can acquire local food easily.”
This year, because of COVID-19, Bowen acknowledges that the program was later getting started, but she believes it will pick up as the summer goes on.
Britt Davis, a graduate student at N.C. State who works on the VSA project, coordinates a lot of the details with the realty companies and aggregators from her home in Raleigh. But she says the success of the VSA is very much dependent on the commitment of the people who aggregate the fresh product from local producers.
The largest VSA market is known locally as Vacation Vittles in Brunswick County and has more than 30 participating farmers. Men and Women United for Youth and Families is the aggregator, and Randolph Keaton is its executive director and all-around conductor of all operations for delivery days. Keaton and his team of Youth Ambassadors aggregate the local farm produce and deliver the bags to Brunswick County beaches.
In managing the program Bowen also needed someone to be a program leader and bring in other farmers. She reached out to Knowles, and he agreed to be the program’s Farmer Ambassador. Not only does he aggregate product for the Surf City market, he also speaks to other farmers about his experiences with the project in hopes of bringing them in to participate. More than 40 North Carolina farmers are participating in the program this year. For 2020 Knowles was able to help secure a Tobacco Trust Farm Grant from the University of Mt. Olive to buy bags and coolers for the program. The grant also covered hand sanitizer for each location.
As popular as the program has been with both farmers and coastal visitors, Knowles says he knows the program will continue to grow. The program has been both regionally and nationally recognized as an innovative approach to direct to consumer farm sales.
Want to participate in Vacation Supported Agriculture?
Vacationers can order VSA produce bags at https://p1provisions.com/. This year the program is also open to residents.
To learn more about the program, contact Becky Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (919) 628-4317
A Note about COVID-19
Due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the VSA team is rolling out the program with appropriate safeguards against the spread of the virus, including contactless delivery. Aggregators are being trained in food safety measures, and all customer pick-up sites will have hand sanitizer stations.