The folks at Cottle Farms have made it their business to meet consumer demand for quality fresh fruits and vegetables since Ned Cottle sowed his first strawberries in 1964 in Faison, N.C. At that time, the market for “U-pick” berries was on the rise as California began to take control of commercial sales of strawberries. Today, the entrepreneurial spirit at Cottle Farms continues as Ron Cottle, Ned’s son and company president, is embracing muscadine grapes.
With a cost share award from the N.C. Value-Added Cost Share Program (NCVACS), coordinated by N.C. MarketReady, Cottle Farms is pursuing a line of value-added products derived from muscadines. Funded by the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, NCVACS provided Cottle with $3,500 to offset the costs of a grant writer, who helped the business apply for and secure a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG).
The subsequent USDA grant of $300,000 will help Cottle develop a marketing campaign to introduce the new lines of muscadine grape products.
Cottle Farms is collaborating with Whit Jones, retired N.C. Cooperative Extension agent, and Dr. Keith Harris, N.C. State University assistant professor, to grow muscadines for use in a shelf-stable bottled smoothie called Muscadine Time. Jones, a firm believer in the medicinal benefits of muscadines, first tested the idea of blending entire muscadine grapes into a smoothie in 2009. But it wasn’t until 2011, when Cottle harvested his first crop of muscadines, that the true potential of value-added muscadine products, like the Muscadine Time smoothie, came into focus.
“We had the food science and health properties aspect covered by Keith. We had the Extension and business aspect covered by Whit. But we didn’t have the production aspect – actual muscadine grapes in hand – covered until the first crop was harvested,” said Cottle.
“With the NCVACS and USDA funds, we’re able to better market our muscadines and hit the ground running with the Muscadine Time smoothie. It’s a very exciting time for all of us.”
Cottle and Jones have already contracted with US Foods (formerly U.S. Foodservice) to distribute whole, frozen muscadines to Port City Java, a national chain of coffee houses. They’ve also partnered with a Canadian grocery chain to sell fresh muscadine grapes in 2012. After meeting with Jones, representatives from the Carolina Panthers football franchise in Charlotte have expressed interest in incorporating frozen muscadine grapes into players’ diets.
Cottle Farms has plans to begin operating its own bottling line in Duplin County. Other muscadine products such as popsicles, ice cream, pie filling and baby food will be investigated in the future, according to Jones.
NCVACS is coordinated by N.C. MarketReady, the Cooperative Extension outreach of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute, located at the N.C. Research Campus. Funded by the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, the cost share program was launched in 2009 to encourage more North Carolina producers to apply for federal funding and to generate more competitive applications.
Cottle Farms currently raises a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in its fields. The operation’s mission is to be North America’s preferred year-round supplier of fruits and vegetables by providing superior quality, consistent availability and competitive pricing to customers and the consumer.
Cottle Farms is located at 2488 W. NC Highway 403 in Faison, N.C. For more information:
*Portions of this profile were derived from a story published in Perspectives, the magazine of N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, by Suzanne Stanard.
Writer: Justin Moore