I lease 24 acres of bottom-land in Lake Lure, Rutherford County for my business, Pangaea Plants. I tell people it is “the first farm in the Piedmont.” It backs up to the mountains on three sides, with Cedar Creek running along the South. The soil is sandy loam.
The farm is right on the edge where the mountains meet the Piedmont Plateau. This topography creates its own micro-climate–the hottest, coldest, driest, and wettest field in the Piedmont. It is only 45 minutes from Asheville’s great markets, and the weather extremes are often an advantage, making it an ideal location.
The farm is the first–and only–farm in Western North Carolina to be Certified Biodynamic. It is also Organic and GAP certified. I have been working these fields for the past four years, raising a mix of vegetables and medicinal herbs.
But this spring was different. I knew that half of each week I would be raising a hugely more important crop–my four-year-old son, Uriel. I wouldn’t be able to start field work so early that I woke the rooster, as I had in the past.
So I decided to “simplify” my farming operation, figuring that I had enough experience to make that work. I had spent my young summers on my grandparents’ farm, and I had worked on farms for two years traveling around Europe from England to Turkey, as well as years on organic farms and nurseries in the U.S.
Focused now on my little boy, I planned to grow only two main crops this year–watermelons and winter squash. In the spring I signed a contract with New Sprout Organic Farms to grow my produce for distribution in the marketplace. And then I called ASAP. I didn’t know it then, but that turned out to be one of the wisest things I did all summer.
I asked them to help me with the GAP certification process. We had a great conversation, and I learned about connections to the ASAP’s cost share program, which provides matching funds for promotional materials, low cost bulk packaging and the possibility of getting their help to move product. When harvest came, I was sure glad that I had ASAP’s connections!
The first thing that went really wrong this year was that my early lettuce crop didn’t work out. I had counted on income from that to see us through early summer, so that was a seriously painful blow early on. But I then had the space to fill, so I planted the watermelons a little earlier. They grew well. And so did the weeds. Oh, the misery–and the literal pain!–as spiny pigweed took over.
A hot summer ensued, but I still looked forward to a harvest, knowing the fruit had been set, even under the rambling mess of weeds and vines. Come harvest time, though, I had that nervous feeling that it wasn’t going to be worth it to harvest the crop. It crossed my mind that I’d be better off just plowing it under. But, with trepidation, I made arrangements anyway, hired labor, bought boxes, and rented a delivery truck. I carried on, working with my helpers, filling nine bins of 500 pounds each. The melons were even bigger than I had thought. Knowing the wholesaler wanted them at 10-25 pounds, I had worried about this and contacted ASAP to keep them informed.
When I delivered the watermelons, they weighed in at more than 20-40 pounds. And that was not even the worst part. The markings on the “Moon and Stars” watermelon variety I grew looked more like “Vines and Weeds.” Apparently, the images of the weeds had been burned into the melons’ skins by the hot sun–instead of the characteristic little yellow moons and stars that were the ideal “look.”
When I arrived at New Sprouts Organic Farms packing facility, their team confirmed that these were not up to the retail customers’ strict specifications. When my bins were placed next to another grower’s, it was obvious that my melons weren’t going to make the grade. And they didn’t. Oh, again the pain. I had spent so much time, money, and sweat on my big crop!
But again, I was not to be defeated. I called ASAP back, and told them I had nine 500-lb. bins of watermelon for sale with no buyer. I spoke with Molly Nicholie, ASAP’s Local Food Program Director. She gave me a list of possible buyers. I spent two days calling them and others, trying to move the melons, but no one could handle that volume.
I called Molly again, and she said she thought the school district might be able to help. There was some back and forth communication, and at last the deal was made! The schools would buy all nine bins! I was so relieved!
The next day I delivered them, and Molly and the camera woman and the school buyer were there to meet me. The mood was as light and happy as a kids’ cafeteria full of watermelons. I was thrilled.
In five days, I had suddenly gone from failing farmer to famous farmer! Never mind that I didn’t actually make money on the watermelons! Never mind that I still had pigweed spines under my skin. I didn’t lose as much money as I might have and now I have a new relationship for future sales. Thank goodness I hadn’t lost hope and plowed that crop under!
Now, 25,000 school kids were smiling, and the post of me and my watermelons on ASAP’s Facebook page became a smash hit. Even the local nightly news channel picked up the story! My friends called to congratulate me. On top of that, I now had another big market for my produce–the whole Buncombe County School District. This connection enabled me to sell to the schools my 2,500 pounds of winter squash that also hadn’t made the grade for my buyer.
The Biodynamic Certifying Organization, Demeter, also strongly desires to feed children the healthiest, freshest produce possible, and to stop the needless long-distance trucking of food that can be grown right here. They are excited to be a part of that, so that is yet another gift of ASAP–not just to me, but, more importantly, to the children who are our future.
I am also committed to this goal, and hope to grow produce for the schools for years to come. It fits my values and the scale of my farm, and gives me hope for the future. It was never only about the money, anyway. And none of these great things would have happened without one four-year-old little boy, who wanted to spend more time with his father this summer, fishing and eating watermelons, and a little less time pulling weeds.
But they also would not have happened without ASAP’s dramatic last-minute rescue and connections. Thank you, Uriel, my son! And Thank You, ASAP!