Growing green

Marketing arrangement bolsters market for Madison County Christmas trees

The loss of burley tobacco production and a glut in the Christmas tree market delivered a one-two punch to rural Madison County in recent years, but North Carolina Cooperative Extension and partner Madison Family Farms are helping the agricultural industry rebound through a grant-funded project aimed at opening up retail markets for locally produced Christmas trees and wreaths.

The project’s success is evident at Whole Foods stores throughout the Southeast this holiday season: After buying a smaller number of trees from Madison County farmers over the past two years, Whole Foods agreed this year to buy some 5,000 Madison trees and wreaths for its 26 stores in the region, and that has meant more than $150,000 in income for Frosty Mountain Christmas Tree Farm and five other farms that are filling Whole Foods’ order through Madison Farms.

Madison Farms is a nonprofit agricultural products distributor that was born of the efforts of local farmers, with Cooperative Extension’s support. Aubrey Raper is president of the organization, and he serves as a go-between for buyers and the farmers. Madison Farms has been selling produce to Whole Foods for years, and Raper thought that expanding the arrangement to include high-quality Christmas trees would benefit all parties.

“Whole Foods pays a premium for the trees,” Raper said, “because they want to support local growers and family farms.”

And small family farms are, according to the local Chamber of Commerce’s website, “the backbone of Madison County.” That backbone had been weakened in recent years. Madison County, which lies along the Tennessee state line, once sold $10 million worth of burley tobacco a year, but the tobacco buyout program that began in 2005 opened the way for production in other areas. That cut Madison’s burley production to a fraction of what it had been.

Then, said Madison County Extension Director Ross Young, came the glut that resulted from a massive increase in Christmas tree planting about eight years ago. “As a result, wholesale tree prices plummeted, forcing many of the smaller tree growers out of business all over Western North Carolina,” he said.

Farmer Donna Jones — who co-owns Frosty Mountain Christmas Tree Farm with her husband, Chipper — recalled that the market for Christmas trees “became so flooded that I heard of people selling trees for $3 each. It was very tragic.”

But, she added, “Madison Farms helped us get a decent price, and that has helped a lot of people in our area, not just us. … At first I was a little bit overwhelmed (by the big order), but my husband helped me see how many people’s lives this is touching.”

Jones estimated that the marketing arrangement has provided short-term jobs for as many as 20 people who’ve helped with such tasks as tagging the trees, making garlands and preparing the items for shipment.

The jobs and the income generated from the project far exceed the $29,000 N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ specialty crops grant that got the project started.

Instrumental from the beginning have been Cooperative Extension’s Ross Young and specialty crops agent Jenn Beck. Beck and Young were on the Jones’ porch on the June day when the farmers, Raper and the Whole Foods buyer agreed to this year’s marketing arrangement.

Beck helped arrange for the design and printing of a waterproof tag that carries each tree’s UPC as well as information about Frosty Mountain Farm and about Madison Family Farms.  She also serves as a second set of eyes when it comes to helping Raper go over Whole Foods’ purchase orders.

Meanwhile, Young has helped by educating growers on how to grade the trees according to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards related to the height, color, density and shape of the trees. Whole Foods only wants trees of the highest grades.

And producing those high-quality grades is what Jones considers her niche.

“We cannot compete with huge plantations, but we can offer freshness and service,” Jones said. “I can’t stand to put a shoddy product out there. I’ll knock myself out to get them what they want, when they want it.”

Having growers as conscientious and committed to quality as Donna and Chipper Jones will go a long way, Raper said, in perpetuating Whole Foods’ interest in Madison County trees. “We insist on working with growers who really do a good job, whether it’s potatoes or slicer tomatoes or shiitakes,” he said.

“We build relationships with accounts, such that if the customers open the box and aren’t tickled about what they see, they call me,” Raper added. “What we want from our accounts is they can count on us, and we can count on them.”

Beck and Young said that having someone like Raper to find markets for locally grown products frees up farmers to do what most do best – which is to grow their crops. The project also was designed to help growers understand what it takes to get into retail markets.

“It’s challenging for small farmers like we have in Madison County to secure large corporate markets without the help of a comprehensive program like this one,” Young said. “I am very excited to see all the hard work result in significant income for our tree growers.”

And it’s not just one-time income, Beck said. The knowledge producers gained from the project should help them in future marketing efforts.

“This experience taught our farmers how to collaboratively work together to provide volume required in the retail market,” Beck said. “It also provided them with the experience of expanding their market and learning how to meet the needs of retailers and to appeal to customers wanting to support local agriculture.”

-D. Shore

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