Cardinal Foods LLC has expanded a market and operations for local farmers under the leadership of Corey Barnhill, founder, president and CEO of the company.
Prior to Barnhill’s purchase of the Burgaw-based food processing operation in early 2017, it solely processed blueberries and operated seasonally, he said.
“The idea was to invest capital into the business and make it a yearlong business, versus running three months out of the year,” Barnhill said.
With the purchase, the amount of which was not disclosed, Barnhill expanded the Pender County plant from just blueberries to additional processes for butternut squash and sweet potatoes.
Cardinal Foods manufactures frozen produce mainly to go to larger industrial manufacturers for further processing, Barnhill said. Some of Cardinal Foods’ frozen products are also bagged for retail.
It supplies to companies such as Sara Lee Corp. and, Kroger, Dannon Yogurt and Starbucks, as well as to government agencies for use in schools and prisons.
To do this, the company takes raw produce from farmers and facilitates a market for the growers.
“What we do is we give the grower an opportunity for essentially his subgrade product that will not be retail or fresh spec. And then we process it and freeze it or puree it,” Barnhill said.
The company reaches farmers from as far south as Florida, up to New Jersey and Michigan. Its dominant base of produce, however, comes from farmers in North Carolina, Barnhill said.
“Eighty percent of them are North Carolina growers,” Barnhill said, adding that almost all blueberry growers are within about a 30-mile radius of Cardinal’s 60,000-squarefoot plant in Burgaw.
It is one of few such operations of its kind in the state, he said.
The plant in Burgaw, originally completed in the late ’90s, was a “diversification opportunity” for Barnhill, who is also president and CEO of Southeastern Grain Co. LLC, which owns Cardinal Foods.
For the past 10 years, Barnhill and a group of investors have operated Southeastern Grain, a grain elevator network along the East Coast that buys grain from local farmers and supplies it to Smithfield Foods Inc.
“My main focus is agriculture- based businesses that are somewhat in distress and ... we can inject capital into them and revive them essentially,” Barnhill said.
Many farmers don’t have the capital to build a large operational facility like the plant in Burgaw, he added. So through the upgraded facility, Cardinal Foods is able to work with a wide range of growers to create an avenue for their products.
“I guess the glory of it is, without a facility like this, really there’s no market for that subgrade product,” Barnhill said. “It has to be further processed.”
Processing Produce Locally
201 Progress Drive, Burgaw
No. of employees: 25
Year founded: 2017
Top local officials: Corey Barnhill, president and CEO; David Ross, director of sales; and Leanne Kelly, grower relations
Company description: Cardinal Foods is a supplier of fruits and vegetables that brings worldwide market exposure to local farmers. It specializes in individual quick freeze and puree of blueberries, sweet potatoes and butternut squash and is working to expand production of its product mix of vegetables and fruits.
Places of product distribution: 85 percent North America, 15 percent international
What made the company decide to make its goods locally? Barnhill: “This is the community in which we live and work. We are in the heart of North Carolina’s agriculture and in a perfect location to ship our local farmers’ products around the world.”
What’s your target market? Barnhill: “Industrial and private-label processing.”
What do you guys have planned next? Barnhill: “Expanding capacity and focusing on process utilization for 2018. We are in the preliminary stages of installing a sweet potato French fry processing line.”
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