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Entrepreneur Profile: Cheryl Ferguson and Ray Tuegel
Entrepreneur Organization: Plum Granny Farm
Plum Granny Farm is a small USDA certified organic family farm located in North Carolina’s piedmont region. The farm is just south of Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County.Plum Granny Farm primarily produces brambles (raspberries and blackberries), heirloom, and other specialty crops, such as asparagus, artichokes, garlic, ginger and potatoes. The mission of Plum Granny Farm is to produce good food in an environmentally sustainable way, while also preserving the family farm.
Cheryl and Ray took over Plum Granny Farm after Cheryl’s father passed away. At that time the farm was in some disrepair and they wanted to prevent further deterioration. Previously a tobacco farm, Cheryl and Ray began transitioning the farm to an organic fruit and vegetable operation in 2008 and attained organic certification in 2010.The couple’s current goal is to establish the farm as a sustainable business, which could be nourished into the future.
Plum Granny Farm participates in two local farmers markets, seven farm-to-table restaurants, food cooperatives, and also hosts their own “pick-your-own” events at the farm allowing visitors to engage in the process of harvesting their own food. For some of the events at Plum Granny Farm, Cheryl and Ray invite additional farmers and food vendors to help enhance the experience for guests and to support other local businesses.
Plum Granny Farm’s USDA organic certification speaks to the quality of food that Cheryl and Ray strive to produce on their farm and their goal of holistic farming systems. The couple also focuses on growing specialty crops that are not being produced in surrounding farms in order to increase the diversity of local food available in their area. Additionally, they endeavor to keep historic food processes alive by making jams and taking classes to learn traditional food preservation techniques such as pickling and canning.
Cheryl and Ray have chosen to carve out a niche for themselves by growing specialty crops instead of the more conventional staples grown on surrounding farms. It is Cheryl and Ray’s focus on producing quality products and customer satisfaction that they feel sets them apart, along with the desire to broaden their knowledge of agriculture by attending conferences, receiving newsletters, and continuing to learn new skills. They bring a strong set of business skills to the enterprise including analytical, financial, marketing and organizational skill that are essential tools for any entrepreneur.Cheryl and Ray are great at networking with local farmer’s markets and restaurants, and finding new outlets to sell their produce. They believe that establishing solid working relationships with these businesses, and other farmers is an integral part of Plum Granny Farm’s survival. If questions arise about business operations, the couple enjoys researching the answers on their own. However, they are supported by an extensive network of experienced farmers and professionals who offer guidance concerning many aspects of farming, business, and marketing.
The couple is inspired by the legacy of Cheryl’s family farm, the connection they feel to the land, the positive environmental changes they have seen, and the appreciation of quality organic food. They hope to impart that connection and appreciation to everyone who visits and buys from Plum Granny Farm. When a customer comes to the farm with questions, Cheryl and Ray enjoy talking to them about what they grow, walking with them in the fields, and demonstrating how to pick their own fruits and vegetables. By building relationships and interacting with the customers on a personal level they hope to get more people interested and involved in local, healthy food.
Cheryl and Ray are excited to see what the future will bring. They have been encouraged by the increase in awareness and support for the importance of local food in their area since they began attending farmer’s markets four years ago. They appreciate the support they receive from local government agencies, such as the county economic development office, local agricultural extension offices, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, in helping the couple run and grow their business. There is always a person or department that is able to assist the couple with questions that arise. The couple also enjoys giving presentations to civic and social organizations, such as the local Rotary and Garden clubs or organizations such as Old Salem Museums and Gardens, as a way to bring attention and awareness to their business and to the local food movement, as well as fostering a sense of community and inclusiveness.
When they started selling their produce, they found their customer base was predominantly in Winston-Salem and other nearby larger towns. Their networking skills allowed them to establish partnerships with local farmer’s markets and restaurants. Now Plum Granny Farm sells to seven restaurants in the region, participates in two farm-to-table cooperatives in Forsyth County and in Rockingham/Stokes Counties, as well as two commercial farm-to-table enterprises (The Produce Box and Carolina Grown) and sells their own produce online and direct from the farm. Plum Granny Farm markets through their website, customer emails, Facebook, flyers, and tickets for special pick-your-own events. Cheryl and Ray are pleased with the diverse group of customers they now have from their own community and beyond. They have had Spanish, Asian, Norwegian, and Russian families come out for pick-your-own events. The couple enjoys having their customers come out to enjoy the beauty of the farm and to better understand how food is grown.
The heat has caused some problems for their crops in recent years. Uncontrollable weather events, along with the innate trials of growing a business within the agritourism industry, can be challenging. Cheryl and Ray would love to see more bike lanes and lodging options built in their area to help tourism, and feel that these additions would bring in visitors and help the county and their business thrive. They are still trying to establish a solid foundation and acquire the needed infrastructure to make the farm a sustainable operation. Initially, they found it difficult trying to balance the increasing number of farmers markets in the region with the time and resources they had available to participate in them. Cheryl and Ray currently have one woman with a Masters degree and one recent high school graduate working on the farm, but say they would really like to grow their labor pool. The couple says it is difficult to find people to do the labor-intensive berry picking.
Cheryl and Ray are looking ahead and have started to focus on value-added products such as jams made with their raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. They work with YMCA Camp Hanes, which allows them to use their kitchen to make their assortment of jams. They hope to expand their partnership with the YMCA in the future by providing opportunities for youth agricultural education programs and a community garden. Cheryl and Ray also hope to start their own on-farm market, or a multi-farm market with all produce labeled where it was produced. They would also like to include “specialty days” which would focus on attracting people out to the farm to celebrate specific products, such as their garlic, raspberries, ginger or heirloom tomatoes