How an Organic Farm In Alamance County Grows the Flavors of Childhood for Immigrant Communities in the Triangle
by Elizabeth Read, CFSA’s Communications and Development Director
One of the best parts of working at CFSA is gaining a greater understanding of the innovative ways that farmers are able to solve problems. Sometimes that means figuring out how to hack the perfect tool to keep something from going haywire, but other times it means recognizing a space in the market where your product meets a real need. Having the knowledge to meet unmet needs is not something that comes from browsing seed catalogs, it comes from building a relationship with customers and really knowing what fruits and vegetables they are looking to cook with – but just can’t get anywhere else.
When Clay Smith and his wife, Nancy Joyner, started Redbud Farm, a certified organic produce farm on his family’s fallow tobacco fields in 2009, they wouldn’t have been able to dream of some of the crops they grow now. And it is not just because farming inherently requires farmers to adapt to a changing marketplace to keep their farm successful. It’s because they had never eaten or heard of those vegetables, let alone grown them for market before. But thanks to a request from a customer at Western Wake Farmers Market, Redbud Farm is now a vital part of the North Carolina Japanese cooking scene.
Keiko Ueda was already a Redbud customer when she mentioned to Clay and Nancy that she dreamed of being able to eat a variety of Japanese sweet potato variety that she remembered from her childhood in Japan. She just couldn’t find it in North Carolina, where she teaches Japanese language and cooking classes. The sweet potato is a staple vegetable in Japanese cuisine and Keiko’s uncle had grown it on his certified organic farm in Japan.
Already growing Carolina Ruby and a few other sweet potato varieties on their Alamance County farm, Clay and Nancy saw an opportunity to supply a product to a niche market. Working with NC State’s sweet potato micro-propagation lab, Clay was able to source a certified organic slip of the variety Keiko remembered eating. In that first year, Clay grew a few hundred pounds of the Japanese sweet potato. Keiko, deeply integrated in the Triangle Japanese immigrant community, helped connect Redbud’s produce with eaters throughout North Carolina. “Soon after we began selling the Japanese sweet potatoes to Keiko, we began to receive ‘Thank You’ emails from Japanese folks all across central North Carolina.” Today, Clay and Nancy grow well over 1,000 pounds of Murasaki sweet potatoes and sell almost all of them through Keiko and a few other regular Japanese customers at Western Wake Market.
Carolina Ruby and Japanese Sweet Potatoes
This isn’t the only time Clay and Nancy have been able to be savvy farmers and respond to a market opportunity. Clay had spent time in India as part of the Peace Corps, and was a frequent customer of Indian restaurants in North Carolina. He soon found out that chefs at these restaurants often struggled in finding specific varieties of peppers needed to create the right spice in traditional dishes. He worked with chefs to grow those native peppers, and they can now be found on menus throughout the Piedmont. Redbud Farm also grows some Indian vegetables to sell to the many Western Wake customers from India. These include bitter gourd, snake gourd, bottle gourd and a small purple eggplant. Redbud Farm also participated in the 2014 CFSA organic broccoli variety trial. The trial was in response to another market need – the supply gap for organic broccoli grown in the Carolinas. With Redbud’s participation, CFSA was able to test to see the best varieties of broccoli to grow in the Carolinas.
While farmers often get stereotyped with the notion that they are all growing the same kind of kale, the truth is often something much more like what Clay and Nancy experience. If farmers all grew the same variety of tomato or pepper, they wouldn’t be able to stay in business for long. In response, you’ll find farmers at your local market using business ingenuity to find new customers.
Satisfying this market need for a specific sweet potato variety is a terrific example of how the relationship between a farmer and his or her buyer goes beyond the weekly market transaction. It gives an opportunity for the buyer to connect with the farmer – and this instance, impact an entire community.