By Jeanne E. Fredriksen
Farmers’ markets are plentiful in this urban-rural area, and healthy food with a clean history is easy to obtain if you make the effort. Some of these vendors have been farming for generations. However, healthy food production for some has become unplanned business startups for people who never dreamed they’d be in the food business. And if the products, growing practices, and prices are right, Farm Table Kitchen & Bar in Wake Forest is ready to support local producers’ efforts.
“The definition of a microgreen is the cotyledon leaves before the true leaves of the vegetable or herb appear,” explained Sweet Peas Urban Gardens partner and founder Tami Purdue. “At that stage, they are dense in nutrients and in flavor, which makes them very healthy to eat.”
On the second Saturday that Sweet Peas sold their microgreens at the Wake Forest Farmers’ Market in July, Farm Table’s Executive Chef Lotah Fields showed up. It was just before the restaurant switched cuisines, and he was scoping out what was available.
“Lotah talked with us, and we sent him home with plenty of samples,” Purdue said. “He decided he wanted them for the restaurant, and now we deliver different mixes to Farm Table three times each week.”
Sweet Peas Urban Gardens is a whirlwind success story that continues to flourish. The Raleigh company was born after Purdue attended an Inter-Faith Food Shuttle workshop in May designed to empower people to grow their own food and make their own soil.
An avid gardener, Purdue fell in love with growing microgreens and brought her tray of seedlings to her friend Yvette Ruffin, also a gardener. Ruffin jumped in, and they experimented to see which seeds grew the best and what they tasted like. After trial and error, they decided to sell the microgreens at farmers’ markets, figuring they could make a business of it.
Through the Produce Box, a home delivery service, they found their third partner, a veterinarian and microgreen grower named Julie Gauthier.
Pooling all of their contacts together, they now sell their microgreens at several farmers markets and to the Raleigh City Farm, the Produce Box, Farm to Fork Meat co-op, and Farm Table, their only direct-sell restaurant, with more outlets on the horizon.
Money That Grows on Trees
Licensed vet technician Beth Gayden has always been passionate about mushrooms and is turning that passion into Shrooms2Grow. Producing primarily shiitake mushrooms on her property, Gayden is in her second year of business and plans to be a full-fledged grower soon.
“It’s the other healthy ‘meat’ because they’re protein, and they’re just so good for you,” she said.
The idea for the business came to her unexpectedly. She had trees to remove but didn’t want to waste them. Marrying necessity with passion, she cut down the trees and recycled them into logs after taking a mushroom growing class through an agricultural extension office.
“Shiitakes have great medicinal benefits like anti-cancer properties,” Gayden said. “Also, you can dry them in the sun, and when you rehydrate them in soups, you’re putting vitamin D back into your diet.”
Rows and rows of meticulously prepared hardwood towers sit beneath trees on her property, and it’s on those logs that the mushrooms are grown. Up to six varieties grow at any given time, each log carefully marked.
“This is like money that grows on trees – dead trees at that!” she said with a grin.
Gayden finds the wood, cuts it into logs, and stacks it herself. She uses any hardwood she can find, but believes her mushrooms have grown best on sweet gum. “That, and it depends on the temperature and the moisture,” she explains. “Normally, it takes about a week to get mature mushrooms.”
Her biggest business break came last summer when she took a chance and approached Fields at Farm Table.
“I had mushrooms and decided to just go up to the restaurant around 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon,” she related. “Lotah bought them right away. He was my very first paying customer, which I appreciate, so I will always supply Farm Table.”
A Chance Meeting Initiates New Business
Leo Stallings is a friendly, unhurried man who for 40 years has farmed 150 acres just outside of Louisburg. While most of his T&K Farms land is given over to field corn and soybeans, he reserves almost a third of it for vegetables.
In summer, he plants seedless watermelons, tomatoes, butter beans, field peas, bell peppers, and sweet corn, all of which found their way onto the plates served at Farm Table.
In mid-August, he planted the cabbage he started cutting mid-October. Another field has cool weather vegetables, such as turnips, kales, mustard greens, rutabagas and collards. And, because he plants in stages, he’ll have more turnips along with carrots and beets as late as the end of the year, depending on the weather.
Stallings has built up a customer base for his vegetables, and he is known for giving them good, fresh produce at a fair and competitive price.
“Most customers have been established for years. I also sell some to a local grocery store and at the farmer’s market in Louisburg three days a week,” Stallings said. “Providing to Farm Table has certainly added to what I sell.”
A chance meeting at the restaurant between owner Laszlo Lukacsi and Stallings’s son brought Lukacsi to the farm and made him a loyal customer. Stallings charges Lukacsi based on the volume Lukacsi himself picks and orders, plus Lukacsi will accept vegetables that other customers won’t buy because of surface imperfections.
“Those imperfections don’t change the flavor. And if he picks small peppers,” he says with a twinkle, “I don’t want to charge him for big peppers.”
Next Month: Breads and Cheeses