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August 20, 2004   Email to Friend 

Fresh Ideas Help Farmers Make Local Connections
Debra Davis

Dale County farmer Monica Carroll picks produce with her daughter, Brittany.
For Monica Carroll, growing produce is just about the perfect job--not an easy job, but one that's rewarding financially and in ways she can't put a price on.

She and her husband, Chris, are best known for producing some of the finest beef cattle around. The Dale County couple also owns and operates a successful poultry farm. So when Monica wanted to start a produce business last year, Chris was supportive, but a little skeptical.

"It made perfect sense to me," Monica said. "We had the land; we had the equipment, and who doesn't like fresh produce? I knew we could do it, but I also knew we had a lot to learn." So in January of last year and again this year, they planted thousands of tiny seeds in a greenhouse near their home.

"Quality plants begin with quality seeds," said Monica, who takes special care of the tiny plants that grow to feed hundreds of families.

The Carrolls' most popular crops are peas, tomatoes and corn, but they also grow yellow squash, zucchini, eggplant, peppers and potatoes. They increased their produce acreage from 15 acres last year to 22 acres this year.

Most of the marketing for the produce is left up to Monica. Chris still prefers cows to produce, but he helps out just the same.

"When we first started last year, I didn't really know much about marketing what we grew," Monica recalled. "With produce, a little (acreage) goes a long way. We had to find what was right for us."

On Tuesdays and Fridays during the summer, Monica can often be found at the Coffee County Farmers Market in nearby Enterprise where shoppers rave about the Carrolls' produce. But customers get more than just fresh vegetables, they can also get free recipes when they buy Carrolls' Farm Fresh Produce.

"Especially early in the year, there isn't as much variety available, so you try to make the most of what you have," Monica said. "I make recipe cards with new and different recipes for what we have to offer. Maybe someone who has never baked a squash casserole or zucchini bread would give it a try if they had fresh ingredients and an easy recipe."

In addition to selling at farmers markets, the Carrolls had 10 acres of watermelons, which were sold to wholesale distributors, and they have their own produce stand near their home.

"People love to come to the farm and buy produce," Monica said. "Lots of times they'll see us picking, and it seems to make them want even more. We try to offer a variety of items plus honey that was produced on the farm."

Monica rents hives from a local beekeeper, Elizabeth Whitaker, to help pollinate her crops. She then purchases the honey from Whitaker and sells it at their produce stand.

Another market Monica has developed is a local cafe that prefers the Carrolls' vegetables over those purchased from a wholesale warehouse. "Mine cost just a little more for the restaurant to buy, but they know they are getting fresher, better-tasting ingredients, and our produce has a longer shelf life," Monica said.

The Carrolls' children, Brittany, 4, and Blake, 3, love to help on the farm where they can. Blake likes being outside and enjoys pulling beans from the stalks. Brittany, a curly-haired bundle of energy, drags a basket down the row behind her mother as they gather squash and peas.

"I think it's a great way for us to raise our family," Monica said with a grin that shows her thoughts are genuine. "It's tough sometimes when it's hot, but we manage, and we're working together. So long as we're together, that's the important thing."

The recently launched "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign should only help farmers like the Carrolls, according to Monica. "That message really tells it all," she said. "If you want fresh, then you need to buy it from a local farmer."


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