Connecting farm and fork

A new facility has space and equipment to help local farms and food suppliers stay local
By Margaret Buranen
Connecting farm and fork

Thanks to the Piedmont Food and Agriculture Processing Center (PFAP) in Orange County, some happy food entrepreneurs have gotten their businesses really cooking. 

Located in Hillsborough, the $1.4 million facility is for food business entrepreneurs in Orange, Durham, Chatham and Alamance counties. At PFAP they have access to the space and equipment they need to grow their businesses, plus experts for consultation.

Dedicated in October 2011, PFAP contains 10,400 square feet of office space, refrigerated and frozen storage, and food preparation and packaging areas. Funding came from the Tobacco Trust Fund, the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, and other sources.

 “The response to opening the doors to PFAP has been overwhelming,” said Noah Ranells, Agricultural Economic Development Officer for Orange County. “Many people are finally considering how a local farm-to-fork food system can contribute to the region’s economic development.”

Agriculture Extension and economic development staffers from the four counties worked for several years to create PFAP. Ranells said that the hardest part was raising the money to renovate and equip the center. The collaboration succeeded because of “a common motivation to support an innovative [idea] that joins mutual partner county support for entrepreneurship, small business, local farms products and culinary artisans,” he said. 

piedmont food and ag processing facilityThe Piedmont Food and Agriculture Processing facility in Orange County contains 10,400 square feet of office space, refrigerated and frozen storage, as well as food preparation and packaging areas. Local businesses working from here include LunaPops, a frozen treat made here using local ingredients, and the Baguettaboutit sandwich makers. (Photo by David Hunt)

Two of PFAP’s most enthusiastic clients are Jon and Dina Mills, co-owners of LunaPops.

Their frozen treats, made from all natural ingredients, come in such tempting flavors as Raspberry Chocolate Chip, Pineapple Mango, Sea Salt Caramel, and Hibiscus Lemon. 

The Millses opened their first LunaPops store in Wilmington in 2008. They used the kitchen in back of their small shop to produce LunaPops for the store and their second store in Surf City (on Topsail Island). 

To produce LunaPops in 4-packs that would sell to many more customers at higher end supermarkets and natural food stores they needed a much larger production facility. But such a facility would cost them at least $500,000, far more capital than they had to invest. Instead of visiting a bank, they took a tour of PFAP.

“We decided it was the perfect interim space for LunaPops,” Jon Mills said. “It would allow us to grow for the next 18–24 months as we built our brand name and reputation and it would significantly mitigate the risk of a major expansion.” 

Moving their company to PFAP “compensated for one of the biggest challenges to small-mid size business growth: access to capital,” he added. “PFAP already had huge walk in freezer space, a loading dock and much of the other equipment that we would need to go forward.” 

An unexpected bonus to Mills is “the great people that we have met that are also in the food production business. Many of these people are going through or have gone through similar situations as we have in a growing business and thus they have great insight on how to deal with different situations.”

Another advantage to developing a food business in proximity to other food entrepreneurs is the chance to work cooperatively, benefiting both companies. Mills gave an example. 

“One of our most popular summer flavors is Chocolate Fudge Brownie,” he said. “We use all-natural brownies in our pops. Instead of sourcing those brownies from an unknown baker, we are contracting with a baker that bakes in PFAP to make us brownies exactly to our specifications.” 

The Millses will buy fruit grown by local farmers to process at PFAP. Increasing sales of local food ingredients is one of the purposes behind PFAP. This practice reinforces the goals of “Gotta Be NC” and “Piedmont Grown,” state and regional farm-to-fork local food branding programs. 

For more information: (919) 245-2336 or www.orangecountyfarms.org/pfap

About the Author

Margaret Buranen is a writer who lives in Lexington, Ky.

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