By Steve Huffman
PITTSBORO – Sandi Kronick, chief executive officer of Eastern Carolina Organics, admitted her company’s top selling point can on rare occasions become its biggest headache.
The business, located in Pittsboro, markets and distributes wholesale organic farm produce to retailers, restaurants and buying clubs. Those in charge of the operation believe a sustainable food system is based on providing the best local fruit, vegetables and herbs, all while protecting the environment.
Everything sold through Eastern Carolina Organics is fresh and organically grown, usually on family farms. In this operation, there is no such thing as the stockpiling of produce for future distribution.
Which leads to that occasional problem. There have been times, Kronick acknowledged, when a product that was pre-sold wasn’t available for delivery. It doesn’t happen often, Kronick said, but occasionally a farmer won’t be able to provide the quantity of produce he or she anticipated.
“Our greatest asset can be our biggest handicap,” Kronick said. “We have no warehousing. Our customers base their menus on the orders they place with us.”
Big selling point
And so, every once in a while, when the produce isn’t available in the quantity expected, Kronick or one of her workers have to explain as much to their customers.
Most are understanding, she said, and realize it’s a risk they take. Besides, Kronick said, the customers with whom Eastern Carolina Organics work believe in the operation and the value of the freshest of produce.
“Our quality is much more consistent,” Kronick said, comparing her operation to more large-scale distributors. “The fresh component is a big selling point.”
Support for organic farmers
Eastern Carolina Organics was born in 2004, a project of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and recipient of a $48,000 Tobacco Trust Fund Commission grant. The goal of the association today is the same as it was in 2004 – to support emerging organic farmers and organic tobacco farmers while improving the supply of local organic produce.
In 2005, Eastern Carolina Organics became a private grower-and manager-owned LLC with 13 growers and two staff owners. Today, Eastern Carolina Organics works with more than 40 growers and about 120 customers.
Growth has been phenomenal. In its first year of operation, Eastern Carolina Organics sales totaled about $240,000. Last year, the figure was almost $3 million.
The company has never failed to grow at least 14 percent in a single year. In 2011, sales increased by 46 percent.
“We’re grown tremendously,” Kronick said. “Not just us, but the farmers have also done a great job. They’ve done well with us.”
'Quality is a big point for us'
Eastern Carolina Organics trucks its food as far west as Hickory and Charlotte, and east to Raleigh. Through other distributors, the produce is transported to customers as far north as Montreal and south to lower Florida.
Eastern Carolina Organics has eight employees who work with the distribution of hundreds of types of items including just about every piece of produce imaginable.
Kronick said customers can buy cheaper produce from others. They can’t buy better.
“Quality is a big point for us,” Kronick said. “We’re more expensive than major retailers, but the difference in quality is obvious. Our customers are committed to our mission.”
Kronick said most of the items on the availability list at Eastern Carolina Organics are still in the fields when customers place their orders. Growers are then notified and told what to harvest.
“What we need is what we order,” Kronick said.
Making a difference
The produce comes to the company’s headquarters where it’s quality-checked and stored in one of three temperature zones. It’s on its way to customers within one to two days of arrival.
Kronick said Eastern Carolina Organics enables participating organic growers the opportunity to profitably sell their products. The business also offers a way for conventional growers to enter the expanding organic market, including assistance in the transition to organic farming.
Richard Massey is a Caswell County farmer and one of the part owners of Eastern Carolina Organics. He delivers to Pittsboro anywhere from two-to-four times per week, his food then distributed to parts far and wide.
Massey said he wasn’t always an organic grower, but is now committed to the method of farming.
“Naturally, it’s a healthier food,” he said.
Massey said he grows a variety of produce and said he believes in the mission of Eastern Carolina Organics.
“It’s an outlet for us,” he said. “Hopefully, we’re making a difference and making some money along the way.”