Category Archives: Meet Your Farmer

Meet Your Bakery: Ninth Street Bakery

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Right in Downtown Durham, in the middle of the loop on Main Street, sits Ninth Street Bakery. It has settled in its third location with a beautiful patio surrounded by vegetables and flowers, a huge commercial kitchen, and a small café that is partitioned off from the rest of the kitchen. They serve classic sandwiches along with some weekday specials such as a Thai Curry Bowl, Falafel Sandwich, Savory Handpies, pastries, and soup! You can sit inside or out and enjoy a nice cup of local coffee from Bean Traders (also FullSizeRender_1located in Durham), some fresh Kombucha on tap that is brewed in house, or a cold glass or bottle of beer. Of course you can find their selection of breads and sweet treats such as biscotti, cookies, or granola and even some Ninth Street Bakery t-shirts made by local t-shirt company, Runaway. On Saturdays and Sundays they serve a light (and amazing delicious) brunch with Vegan brunch on every third Sunday. Needless to say, you can find just about anything you may be looking for right inside Ninth Street Bakery.

Ninth Street was started in 1981 by two brothers, George and Frank Ferrell, Maureen Ferrell (Frank’s wife), and Michael Mooney (Maureen’s brother). FullSizeRender_4They were first located as a small café on Ninth St—where Dain’s Bar is now—and focused on selling their retail items at the bakery/café. Ninth Street Bakery was a big contender in the organic and healthy bakery circles in the ‘80’s, and its reputation and business continued to grow. As the company shifted from a retail emphasis over to wholesale, their location changed to fit their needs. After outgrowing their original space in 1989, they moved to a different location on Ninth Street (where Elmo’s is now) and opened a restaurant. They served everything from salad and soups, to coffee and pastries, to dinner entrees and desserts. They then opened a bakery plant in 1992 to help keep up with the demand as both retail and wholesale business grew. They operated as a restaurant for seven years and then decided that it was too stressful and time-consuming, and closed the restaurant portion. They shifted all of their operations and sales over to the bakery plant on Chapel Hill Street where they still operate today.

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Ninth Street is now owned by Ari Berenbaum, who bought the bakery from the original owners when they retired. They were looking for someone who would carry on the business and the name with their original spirit in mind. Ari was a baker and production manager at Ninth Street, and has since been perfecting and modernizing recipes and adding bread selections. He got into baking at home and became intent on creating the perfect blueberry pie recipe—he attempted the pie fifteen times and the final product used wild Maine blueberries. He worked at a bookstore and wrote fiction while FullSizeRenderpursuing a graduate degree at UNC. While training as a baker at Ninth Street he left his degree program because he “caught baking like a virus”. Ari is originally from Boston and grew up with his family’s Jewish baked goods, which have inspired some of the items that are now offered at the bakery. The Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot is based off of Ari’s grandmother’s recipe. His favorite parts of baking are the creation process, keeping up with the artisan and baking world, and being challenged by others in his field. He is passionate about supporting and participating in the communities of Durham and the Triangle, and hosts charitable events as well as sliding-scale classes at the Bakery.

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Now 2/3 of everything produced at Ninth Street Bakery is sold wholesale. You can find their products at Whole Foods, Kroger, Earth Fare, local Farmers Markets, and 20 different cafes around the Triangle area. They make 10-12 different varieties of breads and have 40-60 different products overall. Everything is made with local flower from Lindley Mills in Graham, NC.

FullSizeRender_2From all of its transitions to the bakery it has become today, Ninth Street has created its own niche in the bread-making community of the Triangle. Its somewhat complicated history has made it the eclectic and welcoming bakery it is today. Stop by and enjoy the atmosphere, you won’t be disappointed.

Meet Your Farmer: LL Urban Farms

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LL Urban Farms has come to fruition through a series of surprisingly fortuitous events and plenty of hard work. When you pull up to the farm stand on Holly Springs Road, its beautiful, reclaimed wood and organized décor make you want to buy all the local food you can fit in your car—that is after you go meet the chickens around back. Jim Loy and Glen Lang both come from business backgrounds; Loy was a tennis professional in Florida and Glen was the mayor of Cary from 1999-2003. When Loy and his family moved up to North Carolina, his daughter met Lang’s son at Athen’s Drive High School and the rest is history. The emphasis on family has remained and even those members who do not live in the area have helped and influenced the farm and its growth. When I went to visit the farm Lang was out of town, but I got the grand tour and the full story from Loy.

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Loy and Lang will have been farming for three years in July on their .99 acre plot in Holly Springs. When they first started out it was all an experiment, they bought the property on a whim and went from there. They grow their crops using a hydroponic system, which was Lang’s idea. Lang’s son studied Sustainable Development at Appalachian State University and worked withfarmstand2 them to make the farm more sustainable. They took a two-day seminar with Crop King, a company that specializes in hydroponic growing systems, and jumped in headfirst. According to Loy, when they first started they didn’t know enough to be afraid. A saying that they like to use around the farm when it gets overwhelming is: “Well how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” This simple approach to farming seems to have served them well. They now have a fully functioning hydroponic system that recirculates water, measures it for nutrients, and adds the nutrients as they are needed. They have two greenhouses and three different tomato patches, several different crops planted along the fence-line, a chicken coop, a barn, and a beautiful farm stand. They have proven something that many people question when the small-scale agriculture argument comes up: a farm can be financially viable on one acre of land.

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LL Urban’s way of farming is innovative and always adapting. They have six different types of heirloom tomatoes including Cherokee Purple, Early Girl, and Mortgage Lifter, all of which have been grafted. Grafting tomatoes is a method where you use the roots of heartier, more disease-resistant plants to grow plants with desirable fruit. This creates a stronger, healthier plant that produces fruit that is both delicious and more traditional. These grafted heirlooms grow in beta boxes with a watering system that runs beneath the pots and the ground is covered in black fabric to protect the plants from the many diseases that live in the soil. Alongside thislettuce3edit forest of tomatoes grow zucchini, squash, cucumbers, and peppers. Then come the two greenhouses where the bib lettuce is grown–fully equipped with a hydroponic system where the lettuce plants are sitting in hollow tubes and the water runs through the tube and is recirculated throughout. Along one wall of the greenhouse is a panel, that looks similar to an air filter, made from cardboard and dripping water, which creates cold air. Fans on the other side of the greenhouse pull the cool air across the plants. It is hard to grow lettuce during the summer in the piedmont, even inside, but LL Urban has perfected it.

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Loy’s favorite part of farming is figuring out how to fix whatever breaks (because on a farm something is always broken) and constantly learning how to farm better and more efficiently. There are so many facets to this farm that it does not surprise me one bit that he finds this enjoyable, I imagine that he is always looking for more to do or a new system to implement. He takes such pride in every aspejim loyct of the farm and has a story behind each building and each project. Another side project they have taken on is growing green beans for stinkbugs. A business called Ag Biome is studying a colony of stinkbugs and buys all of LL Urban’s green beans, along with fresh produce from other farmers, to feed their bugs (the most well fed stinkbugs of all time). Finally, the farm stand is a production all on its own; along with selling their own produce, LL Urban sells many other local products from farms such as milk, honey, cheese, salsa, meat, and other local vegetables and fruit that they don’t grow on their own farm. Loy and Lang knew that they needed the farm stand to provide more than just their produce to make a business, and opted to build relationships and support with those around them doing similarly good work. This is a very old-fashioned approach the the farming tradition, a salute to an agrarian society, it reveals a true understanding that we have to work together to feed our communities and support the other farmers and food artisans around us. It takes away the competition and spreads the wealth so that good food can become more abundant for everyone. LL Urban is proud of what they grow and proud of what their friends grow. You can practically feel the excitement pouring from every surface and through every vegetable–and trust me, you can taste a difference.

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Meet Your Farmer: Contrarian Farm (And Its Contrarian Farmer)

brittany and bunnyBrittany Kordick of Contrarian Farm is perfectly happy to admit that both herself and her farm are indeed contrarian. She has to do things her own way, and this drive has produced a farm that is wildly and chaotically organized, a beautiful extension of herself. In addition to the produce we partake in through Papa Spud’s, Brittany has goats and rabbits for milk and meat for herself. Her mother (who is the woman behind the Malus Hill Apple Eighths) owns the land and commutes to work in her orchards and Contrarian Farm is nestled among the trees. They sit on about 75 acres of land about an hour north of Winston Salem, right on the Virginia line in the breathtaking foothills.

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Brittany has been farming for eight years in total, five years in her location now. She first started farming in Chatham County along with a partner until the owner of the land they were leasing wanted to sell. So her mother invited her and her partner to farm on her land. Brittany has been rufieldnning the operation entirely on her own for about two years and truly making it her own. She went to school at Elon for Writing and Philosophy originally and realized that she didn’t want to make a career out of what she was studying, so she dropped out to pursue farming. She then went to Central Carolina Community College for Sustainable Agriculture and after getting through the basic classes, she decided she wanted to farm for real. She and her partner left school and started farming and she has been going ever since.

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Brittany might be what you would call an idealist, except she determinedly puts her ideals into motion. When she moved to the location where she is now, she discovered that the soil was terrible. It was once a large monoculture of tobacco, corn, or soybeans and the fumigant that the farmer used on the fields completely destroyed the soil. They spent the first year of farming realizing that everything that they had learned didn’t work. Brittany has spent the past five years nourishing the soil back to life. On top of this she is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Sauratown Mountains, which is a beautiful sight but it creates a lot of wind. After a year of being at the farm, there was a windstorm that completely tore apart their hoop house. She is learning to work with the land she has and use her knowledge and experience in conjunction with understanding the challenges her farm faces. This is the first year that she is really beginning to notice a difference, the soil is beginning to improve and her plants are healthier. She grows spinach, arugula, tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, and many different flowers. Her favorite vegetablepeppers2 to grow are peppers, when I asked where they were planted she pointed, smiled, and said “here is the pepper paradise!” She is growing red, yellow, green bell peppers, and poblano peppers. She explained with excitement that she finds delight in harvesting peppers and finding that perfect one that is completely unblemished. Knowing that she can grow the perfect pepper and have the satisfaction of picking it herself brings her so much joy. I asked her what her favorite part of farming is and she said: “just being able to do it.” It is challenging and relentless, but it is the lifestyle she has grown to love and she can’t imagine living otherwise. “I haven’t figured it out yet, but I can’t give it up”.

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She also works as a line cook at a restaurant in Winston Salem and has found that working in a kitchen is incredibly valuable. She used to be a vegetarian, brittany and goatsand during that time she didn’t really like vegetables. She would grow them and not eat them, but was so in love with the actual farming that she kept with it. Once she began to learn how to cook what she was growing and enjoy the food she sold, she could talk to customers about the best ways to cook certain things. Also, she now knows what chefs are looking for and why, and she can grow with that market in mind. It looks like Contrarian Farm has found its home and its roots grow deep. She can’t imagine moving again, her blood, sweat, and tears are in this land. She has plans for blueberry bushes and an asparagus patch in the future. She started with a blank slate of soil and has created a farm that is building and growing every year. Not only has she changed the land, her mentality has completely shifted as she has learned to work with the challenges. Contrarian Farm’s unique methods have lead to an evolving farm that will continue to flourish. Brittany’s love and hard work have gone into every single vegetable you eat from her farm, and you can taste the quality in each bite.

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“I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice…”
–The Contrariness Of The Mad Farmer, Wendell Berry

The Kingdom of Water And Lettuce, Meet Your Farmer: Coastal Plains Produce

Coastal Plains Produce is located in Grifton, NC, a small town outside of dirt roadGreenville, NC—serious farm country. I drove down to see Jedd Koehn’s operation and found his greenhouse buried deep in the country down a dirt road, off a dirt road. The greenhouse appeared amongst the pine trees and sandy soil with Jedd and his son Tanner waiting outside to wave me down. Stepping through the door of the greenhouse, I did not expect what I  was about to walk into. I had seen hydroponic lettuce in its final stage, beautiful and crisp in the clamshells that Koehn uses to transport them, but I was not able to fully understand what hydroponic meant until I saw the whole whole greenhouseoperation. A hydroponic growing system means that it is grown entirely in water. The seeds are started in seed trays and then transplanted into a floating tray and placed in a pool of water—otherwise known as a deep hydroponic lettucewater system. Nutrients are added every few weeks and the water is constantly aerated to ensure plant health and stimulate growth. Koehn’s greenhouse is incredible: it is the size of three greenhouses, it is completely full of greens in all different stages and equipped with grow lights, fans, heaters, a water aerator, etc. He grows over 20 different varieties of lettuce and greens including watercress, arugula, braising greens, and many different kinds of lettuce. He just started growing microgreens at the request of a local chef and is slowly starting to expand to other kinds of greens. This is Koehn’s third year as Coastal Plains Produce but he has been around farming his whole life.

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Koehn grew up on a 1200-acre organic farm in Kansas that was started by his grandfather. He worked in the fields as a kid and became accustomed to the lifestyle. His grandfather also started a grain mill called Heartland Mills. Before delving into hydroponics, Koehn and a friend started an aquaponics operation, which includes fish in the process. The idea of aquaponics is that the fish provide the nutrients needed for the lettuce to grow, creating a system with very few additives. They built their aquaponics system completely by themselves using an old greenhouse but ran into a lot of problems with scale—their system was too small to make enough money to keep it going. With an aquaponics system they found it difficult to regulate bacteria; Koehn now uses hydrogen peroxide in the water sometimes to kill any bacteria but could not have done so with an aquaponics system. Taking everything he learned from this operation and applying it to his own space, he started Coastal Plains Produce in November of 2013.

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He now works with local restaurants and distributors, and sells at farmers markets from Grifton to Durham and is continuing to learn and perfect his system. He has grow lights throughout the greenhouse that he uses for the seedlings he starts in trays and has to use on all the lettuce during the winter when there is not enough sunlight. Throughout the summer he uses a shade cloth to keep the temperature down and to keep the sun from burning the lettuce. Lettuce only needs about 10 hours of sunlight and cannot grow in very hot or very cold conditions, and he has found a way to accommodate to these restrictions and can now grow lettuce year-round.  Koehn does all of this work with just three part time workers and sells about 1,000 pounds of produce a week. I asked him what his favorite part of farming is and he responded by saying: “Walking into a restaurant and seeing my lettuce on a table. Knowing that we beat the bugs and the weather.” For him, farming is extremely satisfying work and the lifestyle is wonderful; he can go home for lunch and he brings his son to work with him most days. It is easy to see how much he enjoys his work by the way he talks about and handles his lettuce and his greenhouse. In a few years Tanner will be working alongside his father and learning the trade.

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Their favorite way to eat their lettuce (and they eat a lot of lettuce, as you can imagine) is to just have a simple garden salad with ranch dressing. The lettuce is so flavorful that it doesn’t need much–it cannot be compared to iceberg lettuce or any lettuce you might find in a regular grocery store. This lettuce is crisp, fresh, and full of flavor, and its shelf life is twice as long with the root ball still attached! Not only can you find Coastal Plain’s Produce through Papa Spud’s and many local farmers markets, you can visit some gourmet restaurants in Eastern North Carolina such as The Chef and the Farmer and The Boiler Room Oyster Bar both in Kinston, NC. So treat yourself with some of the best lettuce you’ll have the pleasure of tasting and keep in mind the farmer whose days are spent with your salad.

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Meet Your Baker: JP’s Pastry

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Joe Parker of JP’s Pastry is a man of many talents including baking, dentistry, multi-tasking, and inhuman super-speed. Every time I see him he is running between plans with several different projects on his plate, all with a smile and time to chat. Originally from Benson, NC, JP went to UNC for his graduate and undergraduate degrees for dentistry; he now works as a dentist at his father’s practice along with running his own business out of the beautiful certified kitchen in his house.

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JP had never baked anything until he graduated from UNC in the fall of 2008; the first thing he tried was a box cake mix and it was terrible—he threw it out knowing that he could do better. And so it began. What really makes JP love baking is the science behind it; he enjoyed biochemistry in school and quickly saw its importance in baking. Every recipe he uses is first deconstructed in order to discover how it can be dairy-free, paleo, or whatever dietary restriction needs to be met. This mindset is necessary for gluten-free baking, a transition JP decided to take in 2012 after having a severe allergic reaction to wheat. Flours without gluten are much more temperamental than wheat flour–in order to get the correct texture and flavor they have to be mixed carefully. JP has seventeen different flours in his pantry that are used regularly in their desserts. He is a texture person, carefully constructing everything he bakes–the result being pastries that you wouldn’t be able to tell are gluten-free unless someone told you. He went to the Culinary Arts Program at Johnson and Wales in Charlotte and has since taken the San Francisco Baking Institute’s Gluten-Free Baking Class several times, worked with Sugar Arts School, Swank Cake Design, and many other pastry and dessert classes. JP’s Pastry is made up of three people total: JP, Iz, and Katie. Together they have created an amazing business that is continually growing.

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Katie decorating a cake

 

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JP putting a tray of paleo loaves in the oven

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trick, he says, is relying on seasonal changes. They focus on holidays to theme their desserts as well as traditional seasonal sweets to which they can add their own twist. It takes a willingness to try and possibly fail, something that can easily happen with gluten-free baking. They JP6recently discovered a sugar cookie recipe when Katie was attempting a new recipe for their mini pound cakes. They came out of the oven with entirely the wrong structure and texture but they tasted delicious, so JP and Katie frosted them and had a delicious new product!

In all of JP’s free time he also hosts a local show called Triangle Food Addicts where they interview local restaurants. The most recent episode is about Irregardless Café. If you want to learn about gluten-free baking JP teaches classes out of his house, at Peaceful River Farm, and at Southern Season. On March 21, JP will be at Southern Season for the whole day to showcase his products. You can find their pastries at Third Place, Café De Los Muertos, Neomonde, Sassool, Groovy Duck Bakery, and Southern Season. With every bite of one of JP’s desserts you can taste the hard work, dedication, and cheer that went into its creation; here is where your sweet-tooth can be satisfied with very little guilt.

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JP and Katie

Meet Your Farmer–Wilkerson Farms

Wilkerson Farms is located in Willow Springs, NC and is owned and run by Chris Wilkerson. His family has been on the land since the 1800s and his grandparents and father raised cattle as well. After serving as a Marine, Chris moved back to the farm in 1995 and began working full time. This was when he began his farming endeavor, starting out with one or two cows and slowly building from there. He sells at the Holly Springs Farmers Market and just recently joined the Saturday Market at Rebus Works in the Boylan Heights neighborhood of Raleigh. Chris has one employee currently named Adeline, who I met with to learn more about their practices.

Photo by Wilkerson Farms
Photo by Wilkerson Farms

Wilkerson Farms raises Black Angus crossed with Hereford Cattle, Tamworth and Hampshire pigs, goats, and sheep (the goats and sheep are more like pets than anything else). The Angus Cattle are grass-fed and grain-finished. This means that for the majority of their life they eat grass straight from the pasture and the final few weeks they eat grain that Chris gets from a local mill. The reasoning behind grass-fed grain-finished is that the grain adds a marbling to the meat that is closer to the texture and flavor that customers are accustomed to. Completely grass-fed beef has a very different flavor and texture, so cooking it can be a huge learning curve; Chris wanted to make this an easier transition for his customers while continuing to be all natural. Finally, they work with a local butcher in Siler City, so when you eat their meat you can be sure that not one step of the process has traveled very far. This is their first crop of

Photo by Wilkerson Farms
Photo by Wilkerson Farms

pastured pork, so they’re learning and growing the herd this year. In February Wilkerson Farms will be the home to many calves, piglets, kids, and lambs–don’t worry they’ve already promised to send us multiple pictures! They sit on 100 acres and are about to move both the cows and pigs to new areas in the pasture. They are building an insulated hut for the pigs because piglets need more protection from the elements than the calves. Last year the calves came during the ice storm (of course) so they had to pull a horse trailer out into the field for the calves to find shelter and warmth. The calves all curled up in the horse trailer to keep warm and all of them survived! So right now they’re playing the waiting game until all the babies come, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a ton of work in the meantime. Managing and feeding their animals is hard work and time consuming, especially when they have pregnant mamas, and as Adeline said, “the babies won’t come between 8 and 5”.

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Photo by Wilkerson Farms

An interesting aspect of Wilkerson Farms is that their farmland butts up against subdivisions on most sides and more development is on the way. This was the first thing I noticed as I was driving in–you go through wide rolling farmland, then hit subdivisions, and right in the middle is the farm. At first it does not seem ideal to have a farm surrounded by development, not to mention the growing problem of the loss of farmland in NC. But the more Adeline and I spoke about it she unveiled a beautiful aspect of such a set up: it brings a customer base they would not have otherwise. The people who live in those subdivisions can literally walk down the road to buy their meat; and our developed world has begun to come full circle and brought us back to an aspect of our roots that has been lost–the farmer who is also our neighbor. Of course, this is not without it challenges. Most people were not raised on or around farms, so there is a learning curve for surrounding residents. Adeline told the story of a time when a dog got into the pasture and then a little boy went in after him, which normally would be fine, but this time the bull was in the pasture. No one was hurt, but they had to go and get the boy and the dog out of the pasture and away from the bull. Wilkerson Farms gets to inadvertently participate in educating customers and neighbors about farming just by existing so close by. They are open on the farm every Saturday from 9-12 when the market isn’t open and on Fridays during market hours during the summer months for customers to come and buy directly from them. They hope to continue to be involved in education and would like to do more farm tours, but that will come with time. Small-scale farming is very labor intensive and with only one full-time employee they have to slowly build up their growth and their goals. When I asked Adeline what was the most rewarding aspect of farming to her she responded by saying: “I enjoy everything: interacting with the animals and with the customers. It is important to keep the North Carolina farming tradition alive…seeing family farms coming back is so rewarding.” Wilkerson Farms is actively involved in keeping this tradition alive and when you buy meat from them, you are too.

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Photo by Wilkerson Farms

You can find updates and pictures directly from Wilkerson Farms on their Facebook page or on their website.

 

Meet Your Farmer–Cox Family Farms

This past Friday I had the great pleasure of visiting Cox Family Farms in Goldsboro, NC. Robbie and Janie Cox have been farming together for twenty-six years, their farm just down the road from the family farm Robbie grew up on. Robbie has been farming this particular piece of land himself for forty years. It has been in his family forever and he cleared the land and cultivated it himself. When I asked him why he decided he wanted to farm he replied with a smile: “Because I like it.” He and Janie (and their two sweet farm dogs) were excited to show me around their farm and explain their projects. You’ve seen their vegetables on our order page—bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, squash—they have about 10 acres in vegetable production, three greenhouses, and two hoop houses.

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Inside of a hoop house
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Outside of a hoop house
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Outside of a greenhouse

The greenhouses are used mostly for growing the cucumbers and starting seeds in the cold months, right now one of them is full of herbs that are drying. Hoop houses are essentially greenhouses that are not heated, often used to get a jumpstart on the season, they warm up to be about two weeks ahead than the crops in the field. For Cox Farms, the red bell peppers do the best in the hoop houses. They water all of their crops with drip irrigation, which is essentially a line of black tape between every row with holes poked through it. It is a more efficient way of watering directly at the base of the plant and in a steady drip instead of a flood. With forty years of farming under his belt, Robbie is an arsenal of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. “When you’re a good farmer your plants will talk to you, they’ll let you know what they need. I go out and look at mine every day.” It takes a long time to learn this stuff—I’ve heard it takes ten years just to feel established and knowledgeable as a farmer, and then you can really start–but you never stop learning and adapting. “I’m still learning every day,” Robbie emphasizes. A really interesting innovation that they use to start a lot of their seeds during the bitter cold winter months is an insulated Maola truck. Heating a greenhouse enough to start seedlings is incredibly expensive, but heating a well-insulated back of an 18-wheeler is not so bad. He has grow lights set up that are on a timer and plenty of space to start all of their seeds for the spring season.

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Robbie Cox explaining his seed-starting method
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The back of the Maola truck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is located in their packaging plant, which is a huge open room with a conveyer belt used to grade and sort their vegetables and tons. Off to the side they have their coolers which are enormous walk-ins the size of several rooms that have different sections in them to store their vegetables at the needed temperatures.

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A scale in the “lobby” of the cooler
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Separate rooms within the cooler

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Packaging plant

Robbie and Janie once trained racehorses on their land. In their office they have a wall of newspaper clippings of their horses that have traveled more around the country than I have and won different races. But training racehorses is hard work and they decided to shift their focus to their vegetables. This summer they decided to replace their horses with IMG_0186chickens and got 200 Rhode Island Reds mixed with Brown Sussex laying hens, outfitted some old horse stables, and fenced in 5 acres of land. The first thing they showed me when I arrived at the farm was their chicken set-up. Let me tell you, these are some of the happiest and friendliest chickens I have ever seen. They instantly came up to us when we opened the door (probably looking for food) but they even let us pet and hold them (something that not many chickens enjoy). Their nesting boxes are in the horse stables along with wooden planks for them to roost on and food and water. The stables are well ventilated with huge doors, which is important for keeping down the smell and ammonia build-up. There is a large covered, open space for the chickens to scratch around and explore before they are able to open up the coop for them in the mornings, but once they are allowed outside, the chickens run to the sunshine.IMG_0184 Right now the hens are fenced in to a slightly smaller area to keep them from eating the recently sown wheat seed in their grazing area for next season. But they are certainly not going without, their outdoor enclosure is equipped with a section of tall weeds for hawk protection, a big trailer for shade, plenty of space to wander and scratch, and some leftover veggies to munch on. Robbie and Janie love their chickens, their excitement was tangible and contagious. As we discussed the difference between store bought eggs and farm fresh eggs, we decided you can barely compare them: the deep yellow yolk, the strong white, the rich flavor (my mouth is watering just thinking about it). There is always something to be said about farming with compassion, not only is it better for everyone involved but the product is incredible.

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Robbie petting one of his hens
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Robbie showing me how to hold a chicken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I got to hold a chicken!
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Inside the coop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What struck me the most about visiting Cox Farms was how welcome I felt. Janie instantly greeted me with a hug when I arrived and I left with gifts of eggs and pecans. They are proud of their farm and are happy to show their hard work and lifestyle to those interested. They have customers who will come to the farm to buy directly from them–especially for their famous orange watermelons, which sound like they are worth a trip to Goldsboro. Farming to them is about good connections with their customers and providing good product that they are proud of. They have regulars that come back every week because they’ve gotten to know them, farmers that they know and share knowledge with, businesses (like Papa Spud’s) that they work closely with to reach out in the community. This seems to be the best way to bring a community and people together: good farming and good food. We all have to eat, and farmers like Robbie and Janie are maintaining the spirit of community with their work, all we have to do is join in.

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Janie Cox and I with some of their eggs
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Robbie and Janie Cox (notice the horses and medals behind them)

Meet Your Farmer–Britt Farms

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Photo by Britt Farms
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Field of covered strawberries–photo by Britt Farms

This week I had the pleasure of speaking to Vernon Britt, owner of Britt Farms in Mount Olive, NC, or as he described their location, “the ‘toe’ of Wayne County”. I called him on a dreary afternoon and caught him sitting in his tractor waiting out the rain so he could pull the row covers off of his strawberries. Such is the life of a farmer, you’re lucky to catch them out of the field or in a still moment, but when you do it’s a treat. Vernon was cheery and kind and graciously took time out of his very busy day to speak with me. He has been farming his whole life; as a child his parents grew corn, wheat, tobacco, beans, peppers, squash, and the like. His grandfather raised hogs and cows in the woods which essentially became Vernon’s childhood playground. His father’s last harvest was in 1980 and the farm was run by different family members until 2006. Vernon was working full time doing sales for Lowes in Goldsboro and dabbled a bit in raising hogs until the price of pork dropped. In 2006 he came home and took over the farm himself, 2007 was their first vegetable harvest and they’ve been going strong ever since. Vernon and his wife, Jennifer, are the only full-time workers and they have seasonal workers that come every summer. They still have cows that they sell through Smithfield and their main vegetable crops

Photo by Britt Farms
Photo by Britt Farms

include strawberries, peaches, potatoes, onions, greens, and “a little bit of everything.” Strawberries are their biggest crop with five acres in production currently. They sell their produce primarily at the NC State Farmers Market in Raleigh, have a CSA of their own, and work with wholesale businesses.

 

The desire for farming was instilled in Vernon as a child from his father and grandfather, but “the way they farmed then wouldn’t work now because of new diseases and insects. The chemicals we use are a lot softer than what they used.” He went on to describe how farmers once used pesticides and herbicides that would kill everything in the field. Now they still use chemicals but instead of coating the field at the first sign of a problem they scout their fields first to see if their crops have a pest or disease and then pinpoint that problem specifically. “There are a lot more beneficial insects than pests,” he emphasized. “Weather is always a challenge. About the time you think you’ve got it figured out you’re totally wrong. Every day is a

ss_5_10_3challenge around here.” But I can tell from his tone, as he looks over his strawberry field in the rain, that it’s all worth it. He finds support in the farming community surrounding his farm, he and about four or five other farmers in the area work together and share knowledge. If one farmer is having a hard time selling all of one crop the others will help him out and vice versa, along with sharing experience and ideas to deal with pest or disease problems. It seems like a model from the past, but just what our local food system needs: collaboration instead of competition.

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Photo by Britt Farms

As winter approaches, preparation is the name of the game. The work on the farm will shift from fieldwork to work in the greenhouses and barns. During high summer, when there

Photo by Britt Farms
Photo by Britt Farms

aren’t enough hours in the day, if a tool or machine breaks it’s fixed as quickly as possible. The wintertime is dedicated to maintaining and properly repairing the damage from the summer. They will also begin starting seeds for the spring in December and by January their time is fully dedicated to planting and preparing in the greenhouse. Some crops will still be available in the winter such as previously stored sweet potatoes, pecans, kale, collards, lettuce, broccoli, and cabbage that can take the frost. They are looking into some new projects as well, and winter is the perfect time for scheming and dreaming. On the surface it may look as though things are slowing down, but for farmers, slow is an adjective rarely used and Vernon Britt is no exception.

Photo by Britt Farms
Photo by Britt Farms

When you buy produce from Britt Farms you can rest assured that your produce was grown with care in every step of the process.