Fruit, vegetable tour showcases operations
As demand grows for locally grown agricultural products, Louisiana fruit and vegetable growers are exploring production and marketing options for expanding their operations.
The North Louisiana Spring Field Tour, sponsored by the Louisiana Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and the LSU AgCenter, was held May 3. The tour included stops at the Rayville High School hydroponic greenhouses, Curry Farms agritourism attractions in Start and Robertson Produce Inc. wholesale distribution in Monroe.
Another tour set for May 16 in south Louisiana will highlight different types of farming operations and practices, including strawberries and mixed vegetables, high-tunnel vegetable production and sustainable agricultural practices.
AgCenter fruit and vegetable specialist Kiki Fontenot said the on-farm field tours were developed to encourage growers to share experiences and learn from each other.
“It’s a great networking opportunity for farmers, hobby gardeners and others interested in growing fruit and vegetables to learn about new varieties and production practices, share contact information and establish working networks to enhance their farming operations,” Fontenot said.
Rory Gresham, manager of the Rayville High School greenhouse operations, showcased three hydroponic growing systems that produce about 400 heads of lettuce, 200 pounds of tomatoes and 30 to 40 pounds of cucumbers per week.
“Everything we grow is planted by hand from seed,” Gresham said.
The greenhouse operation was started three years ago when the Richland Parish school system was awarded a Walmart Foundation grant as part of the National Farm to School Network initiative.
“We serve 2,800 students in 11 schools and have salad every day,” said Beverly Gresham, who is the field manager for the Richland Parish Food Network Service and Rory Gresham’s wife.
The greenhouses provide 90-95 percent of the fresh lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers consumed in the schools, and nothing goes to waste, she said. During holidays and breaks, excess produce is sold to the public and local restaurants, with proceeds going back into the food service budget to serve students.
“We were spending a lot of money on lettuce and tomatoes before the greenhouses, and it has cut our costs tremendously,” Beverly Gresham said.
Bentley Curry and his wife, Sandy, established their Christmas tree farm in 1981 and have since added seasonal attractions to draw more visitors.
“You don’t want to have secrets in this business; you want to share ideas because others will share with you,” he said.
The farm is open to the public for about 90 days from September to December and draws close to 30,000 guests, including 10,000 school children from Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, he said.
Curry also operates a three-acre pumpkin patch and a corn maze and offers 34 fun youth and adult activities on-site, including a giant swing, roller slide, tractor swing, hay barn, pedal carts and live farm animals.
Curry, who produces 700-800 trees and about 8,000 pumpkins annually, shared information related to risks and liability insurance for agritourism operations, variety selection and crop management.
Eric Barker, who is working to start a U-pick operation in Melville, said he hopes to learn all he can from the tour. He plans to develop a similar agritourism property that will host school trips and offer a fun place for families to enjoy fresh, locally grown food.
AgCenter extension associate Sydney Melhado, who works with the Farm to School program, said the farm experience was both an appealing playground for adults and children and served as a train-the-trainer opportunity.
“We want to connect farmers to schools,” Melhado said, adding that the tour was important in helping people make valuable connections.
Dan Robertson, owner and manager of Robertson Produce Inc., led the group on a tour of the Monroe-based facility and discussed challenges his company faces in providing locally sourced produce for local restaurants and markets.
“One of our biggest struggles is finding GAP-certified local farmers,” Robertson said.
Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs, are U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations for the safe production, packaging, handling and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The LSU AgCenter has funding to support GAP training, AgCenter food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari said.
“Even small growers selling in farmers markets have to have a food safety plan,” Adhikari said, adding that developing a food safety plan is part of the one-day training workshop provided by the AgCenter.
Any farmer growing produce that is consumed raw must also meet mandatory federal requirements according to recent Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, he said.
The focus now is on preventing contamination, minimizing microorganism growth and maintaining sanitary conditions from grower to consumer, Adhikari said.
Adhikari said the tour provided a valuable link so producers could see different farming practices to help them identify the food safety issues that could affect their growing system and aid in developing their food safety plan.