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July 16, 2010

A berry good experience

Moore County 4-H’ers earn money, gain work skills and learn
about science in one-of-a-kind farm business project

Bryan Blake
4-H Bryan Blake harvests blueberries as part of a Moore County extension project. (Marc Hall photo)

Eight teens and tweens wandered beneath and between the branches of blueberry bushes under a sweltering July sun in Moore County's Cameron community. Some mentioned the careers they'd like to pursue when they grow up: One said a hockey player. Another, an auto mechanic. And yet another, a veterinarian.

Whatever careers they ultimately choose, all of the 4-H'ers were gaining skills that will help prepare them. They were learning what it means to work hard, develop a business plan, put it into action and move on to new strategies when things don't work out as planned.

Since March, with the help of the county's entire North Carolina Cooperative Extension staff and grant funding from N.C. State University's Office of Extension, Engagement and Economic Development, the students have been running a blueberry business.

Landowner Mary McCulloch loaned a quarter-acre patch to the 4-H'ers for three years in return for a fraction of the profits.

County 4-H Agent Linda Gore said that McCulloch's children had previously taken care of the blueberry patch, using the money they earned to pay for college. But with those children grown, the patch became overgrown with kudzu and needed considerable renovation.

McColluch thought 4-H'ers might be interested in taking over, and -- to Gore's surprise -- she was right: Twenty youngsters signed up for the project.

To start getting the patch back into shape, agriculture agent Taylor Williams conducted a March pruning workshop during which some 90 participants learned by doing. Since then, the kids have taken over the operation with the help of Extension Master Gardener Bruce Fensley.

blueberrieslo.jpg
The 4-H'ers learned that when the blueberries are ripe, tickling the berries would make them fall off their stems and into their hands. (Marc Hall photo)

The 4-H'ers care for the bushes, harvest the berries, package them and find ways to sell them. Along the way, they have been getting good exercise, learning some of the science and technology behind organic farming and gaining an understanding of food-safety standards and marketing principles.

But it's at the end of the season when they will reap perhaps the biggest reward: That's when they'll get paid. How much will depend on how much they sell minus the costs they incur.

Williams expects they'll gross $6,000 to $7,000 from the sale of about 2,000 pints of the sustainably produced berries that they harvest through August.

After paying back the costs they've spent on things like packing materials and irrigation, the 4-H'ers will split the profits based on the number of hours each has put in and the pints of berries he or she has picked.

The budding entrepreneurs sell most of the berries they harvest to a cooperative, taking the remainder to two local farmers' markets and also selling them to county employees.

None of the 4-H'ers come from farms, so they've learned a lot, Fensley said. Perhaps the hardest lessons relate to some of the harshest realities that farmers face: the vagaries of weather and of supply and demand.

"One of the times we went to the farmers' market, and it was 101 and we were out in the sun," he said. "It was brutal, so there weren't many people at the farmers' market. They didn't come out. I said, 'This is a good lesson to you, because you see all the other farmers here. They've been growing all season, too, and there's no one here. They are going to have to take their stuff back home.' It was a good lesson that things don't always go your way."

Packaged blueberries
The 4-H'ers designed their own labels and sold their berries to a local cooperative, to farmers' markets and to county employees. (Marc Hall photo)

Already, some of the kids are putting the lessons Extension is teaching them into practice. For example, 13-year-old Eden Holt of Robbins is taking what she's learned about business planning and using it to launch her own company, an egg production business she plans to call Eden's Coup.

Eden and the other participants, Williams said, could one day be at the "vanguard of the local food movement."

"If they want to go into this business, they will know how to do it," he said. "They will know the business aspects, the horticultural aspects, the marketing. They are seeing it all."

Posted by deeshore at July 16, 2010 08:06 AM

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