North Carolina grower adds value to his peaches

In this sluggish economy, farmers need to wrangle most any way they can to add value to their main products, whether it’s fruits, vegetables, peanuts or some other commodity.

Fall peaches from the 2010 crop hang on the trees at Johnson’s Peach orchard in Candor, N.C.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a value-added product as a change in physical state of the raw product, such as peach preserves, says Blake Brown, an economist at the North Carolina State University research campus in Kannapolis, N.C. It also defines value-added as use of some nonstandard production method that adds value, such as organic. Then again, the USDA defines value-added as physical segregation that is required to add value, such as separation and identity of preserved genetically modified organic crops. However, the USDA also defines value-added as a generation of energy from a farm waste product. Lastly, he says the USDA defines value-added as a product that is grown specifically for local markets. The agency considers locally grown as grown and sold within a 400-mile radius.

Brown says the North Carolina value-added cost-share program follows the USDA’s definitions of adding value to products.

Garrett Johnson, a peach grower in Montgomery County, N.C., says he doesn’t make a lot of money on his value-added peach products, but with the right amount of volume he doesn’t lose any either.

Johnson’s Peaches

A good example of a farm family that follows the USDA’s definitions, unwittingly perhaps, is Garrett Johnson and his wife, Barbara, of Candor, N.C. Garrett grows peaches at his 10,000-tree orchard in Montgomery County, and his wife runs the roadside stand along U.S. 220, 6.5 miles north of Rockingham, N.C.

Johnson grows more than 50 peach varieties. He starts harvesting the last week in May, and the harvest continues through October. From those peaches, they produce peach preserves, jellies, ice cream, butter, cider, pies, syrup, pickles, salsa and dumplings, all sold at the roadside stand. The Johnsons hire D’Vine Foods in Elizabethtown, N.C., to process and package these value-added products. In addition, the Johnsons market their fresh peaches to a local grocery chain called Food King and at farmers’ markets in Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C.

Barbara Johnson holds up a variety pack of the value-added products made from the peaches her husband, Garrett, grows on their farm in Candor, N.C.

The Johnsons rely on fresh, quality peaches and value-added products. As for value-added, “It’s not really a moneymaker for us,” Johnson says, “but we don’t lose money. But with volume, at the end of the day you’ve not done badly. People kind of like to buy it.” He adds, “I wonder why people would buy our peach butter, for example, when they can go to Wal-Mart and save a dollar an item or maybe more. But it’s just something about human nature, I guess. They’ll buy ours, hoping it will be a lot better. They would be getting a North Carolina-grown peach if that was worth anything.”

The roadside stand is an important marketing tool for selling the Johnsons’ peaches and value-added products. The latest is the third roadside stand since the late 1950s. Johnson notes that it captures heavy traffic traveling U.S. 220.

“I’d say 90 to 95 percent of our traffic is beach traffic,” Barbara says.

The majority of that traffic comes from the north – West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other northern states, as well as from Canada. All are headed to the beaches in the Southeast and tourist destinations such as Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., she says.

The two busiest months at the roadside stand are July and August, when people take vacations, and a lot of locals visit the roadside stand so they can purchase fresh peaches in bulk to make preserves or process them for other products. To handle the volume of foot traffic, the Johnsons employ about 20 people for the summer and early fall peak period. Often, visitors will see employees Esmeralda Rodriguez and Evelyn Marsh peeling peaches for the homemade ice cream and dumplings.

Gift shop

Along with their products, the Johnsons sell pottery purchased from Cagle Road Pottery in Seagrove, N.C.; paintings by Johnson’s brother-in-law; and jewelry made by a friend. All three are sold in the gift shop at the roadside stand, in addition to other fruits and vegetables. Barbara says they don’t earn much from the pottery, jewelry and paintings. They can take a lot of time because she has to keep records of what was sold and for how much. That can be challenging in the busy season.

“Record-keeping and paperwork is something I don’t have time for in the summertime,” Barbara says. “It’s all I can do to get the groceries on the shelves. I don’t know if the gift room will ever be self-supporting. With the little profit you make on commission, I don’t know that it would ever pay an employee full-time. And that’s what you need, somebody to be in there wiping the dust, mopping the floor, restocking the shelves. It’s time-consuming.”

Peaches – No. 1

Johnson also grows apples, cantaloupes, nectarines, plums and pears. Even though he grows other fruits and vegetables, he says peaches represent about 98 percent of the produce grown.

Barbara agrees with his assessment, and the same is true at the roadside stand. “We concentrate on peaches,” she says. “Peaches are what we have, and peaches are what we try to move, any way we can move them. Most of the people come here with peaches in mind.”

Barbara says in the summertime tourists stop in at the roadside stand and are in a hurry and don’t have time to look in the gift shop. They want customer service as fast as possible so they can get to the beach or whatever their destination. Usually though, they’re not in too big of a hurry to taste the homemade peach ice cream and dumplings made on-site. They are the two most popular value-added products, she notes, adding that some regular customers making the trip south say they have waited all winter for the trip to the Johnson’s Peaches roadside stand.

“A lot of people have really gotten hooked on peach dumplings,” Barbara says. “Of course, the homemade ice cream is always a big hit.”

When it comes to adding new products, she says the public will generally tell her what they would like. For now, she doesn’t know of anything that they could improve on.

Visitors to Johnson’s Peaches roadside stand can purchase value-added products such as peach cider, salsa and preserves.

Adding more value

What else could the Johnsons do to add value to their peaches? “To answer this question, you’d really need to know more about their business and the resources they can access,” Brown says. “Are there new products that complement what they are already doing that they could sell, even if they were manufactured by someone else.” As an example, he cites biscuit mix for people buying peach preserves and jellies. Peach pie filling he notes as a product the Johnsons could add to their offerings.

“This would also require some market research,” Brown continues. “They could also look at completely different lines of business. For example, if they have a lot of families on their way back from a beach trip stopping to buy products, could they also add some sort of family-oriented agritourism business that might provide some entertainment for kids while mom and dad shop?”

Esmeralda Rodriguez (left) and Evelyn Marsh peel peaches to make homemade ice cream and dumplings sold at Johnson’s Peaches roadside stand.

The Johnson’s Peaches roadside stand along U.S. 220, 6.5 miles north of Rockingham, N.C., offers Garrett and Barbara Johnson a chance to market their value-added peach products and fresh-picked fruit and vegetables to locals and travelers.

Brown says the North Carolina value-added cost-share program – available again in 2011 – could possibly help the Johnsons and others like them to fund ways to add value to their products. He says cost-share opportunities are available to producers so they can hire a professional writer to write a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant. In addition, cost-share availabilities are there to complete a feasibility study of their business. The program can also assist producers with the cost of equipment purchases for value-added operations.

For agricultural processors, Brown says the North Carolina cost-share program can help them purchase much-needed equipment. “Processors must buy at least 50 percent of their raw agricultural inputs from North Carolina farmers,” he says.

To learn more about the cost-share program and value-added products, go to Contact the Johnson’s Peaches roadside stand at 910-997-2920.

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.