Vacationer Supported Agriculture Has Huge Impacts Beyond Sales of Local Food to Tourists
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It’s been five years since local food advocates first sat around the library table in the Brunswick County Extension Office to conceive of what would become Vacationer Supported Agriculture (VSA). At the table were staff of Brunswick and Bladen County Extension, an NC State Extension community economic development specialist, and a representative of Feast Down East, a Pender County-based nonprofit focused on strengthening healthy food access. The question posed by the NC State specialist was simple – if we could find a way to connect weekly summer vacationers with fresh, local produce at one or more of the Brunswick County beaches, who would supply and deliver it?
Brunswick County Extension suggested the team reach out to Men & Women United for Youth and Families, a nonprofit job development and resource center located in neighboring Columbus County. In addition to job skill development trainings that target both area youth and adults, disaster recovery programming, and parenting classes, Men & Women United was already very active in supporting food access efforts and establishing community gardens throughout its tri-county region. NC State Extension reached out to Men & Women United to partner on the VSA pilot in Ocean Isle Beach in 2018. That partnership and the VSA program have grown exponentially ever since. With the help of first, a USDA grant, and second, funds from the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, the VSA program has plans in 2022 to continue to expand its markets and food selections to accommodate growing demand from tourists. In 2021 the VSA program was offered in 11 NC beach communities and two mountain communities.
But sales of local food to vacationers through an online ordering system is not the only impact of the Vacationer Supported Agriculture initiative. From new CSA connections to budding restaurant affiliations, farms and nonprofits who collaborate with VSA as aggregators and distributors, experience other, sometimes unexpected, benefits from that relationship. To illustrate, below are summaries of the growth in programming and offerings of the two longest serving partners of the VSA initiative – Men & Women United in Columbus County and Bear Ridge Farms in Pender County.
Men & Women United for Youth and Families
Since 2018, Men & Women United has empowered its “youth ambassadors” to take ownership of the VSA operation (known as “Vacation Vittles”) in Brunswick County markets (Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island, and Bald Head Island). Youth pack the produce bags, fill the coolers, and deliver them to designated pickup sites up and down the Brunswick County beaches for the 12-week VSA season. But that’s not all they do. Youth also deliver food bags throughout the year to needy families through area faith-based initiatives. They tend, manage, and sell at their own community gardens, as well as offer their harvests at area farmers markets, including the Bladen County Farmers Market in Elizabethtown, the Community Support Agency in Whiteville, and Frankie’s Outdoor Market in Wilmington. They have also developed relationships with and supply produce to farm to table restaurants in the Wilmington market and are active in the development of the Northside Food Co-op.
Men & Women United’s Executive Director, Randolph Keaton, and its board have provided strategic direction to the non-profit organization. Their facility is now functioning as a small food hub for the community, as well as a WIOA training site for agriculture and food service. They have built a pipeline of young talent to area employers, universities, and community colleges, and for the VSA program, have gathered a group of over 35 farmers dedicated to providing quality produce and eggs. At an individual level, Keaton is recognized as a statewide advocate of rural communities, most recently having joined the Board of the NC Rural Center.
Bear Ridge Farms
Bear Ridge Farms joined the VSA family in 2019 when the VSA program expanded from the pilot in Ocean Isle Beach to include five tourist destinations in Brunswick County as well as Surf City in Pender County. Brian Knowles, one of the younger members of the Bear Ridge Farms three-generation family operation, took a chance at trying on the VSA aggregator and distributor hat for the Surf City market. He hasn’t looked back from that decision and now serves both the Surf City and N. Topsail Beach markets.
Knowles states that acreage devoted to vegetable production has doubled since starting the VSA program in 2019. Already known locally for their u-pick strawberry and peanut operation, Bear Ridge Farms received a lot of media attention as a result of their VSA connection and have since developed their own CSA for locals. In addition, in 2021 they opened up a roadside stand on Highway 50. Business in just one year of operation has been growing by leaps and bounds, and they are excited to offer their customers a “grocery box,” filled with fresh produce, meat bundles, baked goods, and other value-added products.
Bear Ridge Farms also grew and sold pumpkins and gourds in the Fall of 2021 and see an opportunity to expand their agritourism potential in 2022 to include a corn maze and hayrides in addition to the pumpkin patch. They have also seen sales to local restaurants in Surf City, Snead’s Ferry, and North Topsail grow as a result of their VSA participation.
In 2021 VSA expanded to include Carteret Local Food Network as the aggregator and distributor for Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach, and Thomas Midgette as the aggregator and distributor for Ocracoke Island. These new VSA markets performed well in terms of sales in their first year of operation, and the VSA team is working hard to ensure that they grow even more in 2022. Since 2021 the NC State University-based VSA team and their County Extension colleagues have conducted regular trainings with their aggregators and other farmers participating in the VSA initiative. These trainings range from proper food handling and storage instructions, to COVID safety protocols, to customer service processes. These trainings allow the farmer and aggregator groups from all of the VSA markets to meet, collaborate, and learn from each other.
The VSA team is also working hard in 2022 to develop markets in the Northern Outer Banks and a few mountain destinations to bring fresh, local food to vacationers there. For more information, contact Becky Bowen at email@example.com.