The farm-to-fork movement has become trendy in many places around the country, but North Carolina was way ahead of the curve on this. A couple of hundred years ahead.
Our state embraced the idea of eating fresh, local foods from its earliest days. It’s a part of our history and culture that we still honor today.
It’s a history Donovan Watson knows well. Watson owns Perkins Orchard in Durham. With connections to hundreds of farms in our state, Perkins Orchard is connecting its customers with the North Carolina farms that produce some of the world’s finest foods.
“The grocery stores around here have contracts with farms a couple thousand miles away on the West Coast when they’ve got the same or better products growing right here in their own backyard,” says Watson. “I want to have the fastest turnaround of any market you can find. Look around – our stuff is sitting out in the air where it grows, it’s ripening continuously right here. It doesn’t hit artificial air, it’s always fresh. Most of our food doesn’t see the inside of a refrigerator until it gets to your house.”
With a name like Perkins Orchard, you’d expect the operation to be in an isolated location, miles from populated areas. And in fact, back in 1970, Perkins Orchard was in a spot like that.
Today, Perkins Orchard is still in its original location at 5749 Barbee Road in Durham, but that area isn’t so isolated anymore. The original orchard of 400 trees has been whittled down to a couple dozen that supply plums, figs, apples, pears, cherries and even lemons and limes. Perkins Orchard is now an oasis of fresh produce amid a typical residential neighborhood.
“We’ve been here since 1970 when my grandfather started the business with a small fruit stand at the end of his driveway,” Watson says. “There was no one to take the money back then, it was on the honor system. At the ripe old age of 10, I took over daily operations of the fruit stand. Throughout my time in middle and high school, I continued to build the business through each season. A few years ago, I tore down the old fruit stand and moved everything back behind the house.”
Watson, 24, hasn’t simply embraced farm-to-fork as a marketing gimmick
“Farm-to-fork is at the heart of what I’m doing,” Watson explains. “Nearly 90 percent of what I’m selling comes from right here in North Carolina. Small farms know they have a wholesale buyer in Perkins Orchard. As we’ve expanded our business, the farmers are growing more and selling more, so there’s a domino effect. And as much as possible, what we sell is pesticide-free. That’s the kind of food I want to eat, so that’s the kind of food I sell. It’s more affordable for farmers to grow that way. We get families who make their own baby food, they don’t want chemical stuff in there.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) feels very much the same way. Blue Cross NC believes farm-to-fork benefits North Carolina in several important ways. Fresh, locally produced foods are more nutritious, not to mention flavorful. At the same time, supporting our state’s smaller independent farms and food retailers is vitally important to commerce and the quality of life in our state. North Carolina boasts nearly 50,000 farms that generate an estimated $84 billion each year.
Surprisingly, despite our state’s impressive agricultural history and booming restaurant industry, nearly 1.5 million North Carolinians don’t have access to affordable fresh foods. Blue Cross NC is working to address this need on a number of fronts, including organizing Thrive NC. Scheduled for May 10-11 in downtown Raleigh’s City Market, the event will include a series of community activities each day. Events will showcase our state’s culinary talent while fostering conversations around North Carolina’s food challenges like food insecurity and maintaining a healthy diet.
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