School nutrition directors get to see Farm to School produce up close

by | May 1, 2013

Three child nutrition directors who serve on the seven-member Farm to School Advisory Committee recently toured farms in Nash and Wilson counties to see the operations of Fresh-Pik Produce, owned by James Sharp, and Spring Acres Sales Co. along with some of the fresh produce soon to arrive at schools across the state.

The group saw the packing houses for Fresh-Pik Produce and Spring Acres, plus one of Fresh-Pik’s greenhouses full of watermelon seedlings. Visitors learned more about these two family farms and what is involved in growing produce that is part of the Farm to School program.The child nutrition directors asked questions about food safety, company history and size, and production costs.

Sharp explained that he has 16 full-time employees and 70 seasonal workers on his farm. Much of his seasonal help comes through the H-2A worker program, which allows foreign nationals to enter the United States for temporary agricultural work. The workers are critical to his farm, he said.

“Ya’ll would not get anything from this farm without this program,” Sharp said.

Watermelon planting 1

Workers at James Sharp's farm plant watermelons.

Jobs must first be advertised locally and must be offered to any American worker. Sharp said he has few local takers each year and those who do seek employment with him typically do not stay for the whole season.Farmers can request workers from a previous year if they are still in the program, and Sharp said his farm has about a 95 percent return ratio.

Food safety is a top priority in all aspects of the farming operation, from the field to the packing house. “With food safety, every employee has to be trained before he can even go into the field,” he said. In addition to worker training and traceability through detailed record keeping, in-plant testing is also now part of his regular operation.

Nutrition directors were able to see the fields where Sharp raises strawberries and Romaine lettuce that are featured on school lunch menus in April and May. Both crops are grown on rows of black plastic.

While the strawberries still needed more time to ripen, the cheery bright green Romaine lettuce looked salad-ready, bunch after perfectly shaped bunch.

Lettuce Romaine here

Rows of Romaine lettuce will be harvested and shipped to schools as part of the N.C. Farm to School program.

One of the interesting stops was at a greenhouse full of watermelon plants in small float trays. Sharp expected those watermelon plants would plant a 50-acre field.

Watermelons whereever the eye can see

Farm visitors check out a greenhouse full of watermelon plants at James Sharp's farm.

Spring Acres Sales Co. in Spring Hope is one of the Farm to School program’s sweet potatoes providers. Clay and Dianne Strickland started the company in 1973 to sell products for their farm. Their youngest daughter, Cindy Joyner, is now president of the farm and sales company.

During the visit, the nutrition directors saw sweet potatoes moving through the packing house on various conveyors where they were washed, sorted and packed. During harvest, workers pre-grade potatoes in the field into canning, Number 1’s and Jumbos.

Sorting sweet potatoes

Workers sort sweet potatoes at Spring Acres Sales Co. in Spring Hope.

In the past, school systems have ordered Jumbos, but have found that Number 1’s are better suited for school lunches. Some canning potatoes are planted for next season’s sweet potato crop, while others could end up in baby foods or other processed sweet potato items.

One field near the business is where sweet potato plants were growing under clear plastic sheets in an almost greenhouse-like environment. Workers will come back through the field and clip off the green growth, and those rootless cuttings will eventually grow into plants.

box o taters

Sweet potatoes from Spring Acres Sales Co. are ready for shipment.

In 2012, the Farm to School program topped $1 million in sales for the first time, featuring fruits and vegetables from the mountains to the coast. Apple slices, strawberries and blueberries are among the most popular offerings.

Strawberry fields forever

Farmer James Sharp, right, answers Alison Francis' questions about this year's strawberry crop. Francis is the child nutrition director with the Haywood County School System.