Joe Sanderson has spent nearly three decades promoting North Carolina agricultural products. For much of that time, Sanderson and his colleagues at the N.C. Department of Agriculture operated largely on their own in their efforts to promote local foods.
In recent years, though, the local food movement has caught on throughout North Carolina, and Sanderson says there are now lots of groups and individuals promoting efforts to buy and use local agricultural products.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” says Sanderson, assistant director of the Division of Marketing for the N.C. Department of Agriculture. “Now that it’s gotten really popular, it’s made our jobs a little easier.”
Sanderson has a variety of jobs when the N.C. State Fair is in town, but he spends much of his time working with the “Got To Be NC” tent outside the Scott Building that provides samples of North Carolina products for visitors to the fair. That includes everything from flavored peanuts to the red hot dogs sold by Carolina Packers.
“Agriculture is our leading industry in this state, always has been,” says Sanderson. “There’s such a variety of products. We have a few companies that come every year, as well as new companies vying for space in there.”
One of the new vendors at the fair this year is the American Culinary Federation, which has set up a food truck outside the “Got To Be NC” tent selling items such as a cajun grilled catfish po’boy featuring North Carolina foods. The proceeds from their sales will go to the group’s scholarship fund.
Sanderson has been with the department for 27 years, which means he has been working at the fair for 27 years. During that time, he has seen plenty of changes in the agriculture market.
“North Carolina agriculture is the third most diverse in the nation,” he says. “Now we’re seeing more value-added put in those raw commodities. We have a host of companies that take those North Carolina products and turn them into something else.”
Sanderson points to sweet potatoes as an example. “We used to sell them fresh out of the field, and that was it,” he says. Now, sweet potatoes are turned into purees for pies, sliced up and turned into sweet potato fries, served on hot bars in restaurants and even used to make vodka.
“That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in agriculture,” he says.