CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In shallow trays of organic soil at her greenhouse in Harrisburg, N.C., onetime real estate agent Kate Brun is cultivating a business: growing and selling microgreens, tiny herbs and vegetables harvested when their first leaves appear.

Not even a year old, her company is already taking root — part of a wave of the homemade and home-grown springing up across the country.

Two factors have combined to propel the trend, experts say: the increasingly popular local-food movement, and a recession that’s prompted people to consider different ways to earn a living.

“We really are going to need more producers who are willing to grow for this kind of market,” said Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State University. “There’s sometimes a learning curve and some barriers, but I think there’s a lot of interest and a lot of opportunity.”

That’s how Brun, a 35-year-old mother of two, sees it. “It’s finding something, having faith in what you’ve got and having the courage to go do it. I never enjoyed going to work until now.”

The overall number of farms in North Carolina declined 2 percent in the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture — to 52,913 in 2007, compared with the previous count in 2002. But the number of small producers, on plots up to 9 acres, jumped 25 percent, to about 5,000. The pattern has continued since then, observers say.

Farmers markets and agricultural Extension offices report a boom in inquiries about growing and selling local produce, as well as new producers entering the arena. There’s a 78-person waiting list for spots at the certified organic incubator farm in Cabarrus County, N.C., which began in 2008, county Extension director Debbie Bost said.

The innovative project now has 16 farmers working up to a third of an acre apiece, learning about sustainable-food practices and gaining experience so they can one day farm land of their own. The participants are ages 18 to 59, with a range of education levels. Some are there full time; others work elsewhere, too, including at Wells Fargo, US Airways and the Carolinas Medical Center, Bost said.

Brun had always enjoyed gardening and began growing microgreens for her family last summer. that point, the economy had taken a toll on both her husband’s construction management and contracting company and on her part-time work as a real estate agent, so she mulled whether there was a way to make money from something she loved.

Inspired by a friend in California who had done the same, she decided she could sell what she grew. Her husband, Marc, installed plumbing in the greenhouse at the back of their home. Brun set up shelves for her trays of soil, and she began experimenting with the plants, trying different seeds and learning about how they grew.

This spring, she launched her company, Lucky Leaf Gardens — the moniker inspired by her maiden name, Lachance, French for “luck.” She checked with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture about reselling and food safety requirements, and headed to a restaurant supply store to buy packaging and labels. To come up with a logo and website, she hired professional designers, because she wanted her brand to be viewed as legitimate from the start.

The initial startup took about $2,000, helped by the fact that she already had the greenhouse. But additional costs keep cropping up, she said. She needs a larger refrigerator in her greenhouse, and it will also cost money to eventually expand her growing space.

“This is very business-oriented for me,” she said. “It’s not just a hobby, digging in the dirt.”

Marketing and branding are key for the new agri-preneurs, though it can be unfamiliar territory for traditional farmers used to focusing on production, said Carl Pless Jr., a Cabarrus, N.C., agricultural Extension agent.

“There’s a lot of stuff involved in that,” he said. “Most are finding they spend as much time marketing as they did growing it in the first place.”

“You have to be a jack-of-alltrades,” North Carolina State’s Creamer said. “Not only do you have to be a farmer, you need to be a marketer, a people person, Web-savvy.”

But, she said, that diversity and challenge is also part of why farming appeals to people.

At the same time, Pless said, it’s important to back up the marketing with knowledge and top-notch products. “So many people think you can just throw seed in (the soil), work it any old time,” he said. “That’s not the case.”


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