When you take a bite of an apple or dig into some leafy greens, do you ever think about where they came from and how they were grown?
With the wealth of information available via the Internet, wary consumers in North Carolina (and beyond) are getting invested in and engaged with where and how their food is produced, from the chemicals involved to the methods used to get the goods from the farm to their forks. It’s no surprise that many are finding it’s often more beneficial for their bodies, their families, and their communities to purchase food products from local farms.
Paul Jones, Media Marketing Specialist of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, explains that the interest in organic, locally grown food is nothing new in North Carolina. “Agriculture has such a rich heritage in North Carolina and continues to be the state’s top industry,” he explains. “I think both those factors contribute to our strong interest in local food.”
But the rebirth of the farm-to-table movement nationally has been “tremendously beneficial” to farms that dot the state, says Jones. One such business is Pine Knot Farms located in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina.
The Orange County farm was originally built for large tobacco crops but is now known more for its certified organic vegetables including collards, kale, and sweet potato greens. Owner Stanley Hughes and his wife, Linda Leach Hughes, are proud to carry on the century-old tradition of organic farming that started when Stanley’s grandfather purchased the land in 1912.
“Back in the day, they were farming organically, but there was no term for it,” says Linda. “It was just the way things were done. This land is over 100 years old and has never had any chemicals on it.”
Stanley says that the local movement has led to increased demand of Pine Knot’s organic products. “We’ve seen an increase of 15-25% a year in the last 10 years because folks are more educated about what they eat.”
And they are not alone. The Hughes say they have seen many other farms benefiting from consumers who keep their food spending within the community. “It’s helped them to maintain their own small farms and support themselves.”
Paul Jones agrees. “Buying local helps local economies,” he says. “When you buy local food, you also know you are getting products at the peak of their freshness. A tomato picked fresh this morning is going to taste so much better than a tomato picked last week and shipped.”
Many farmers capitalize on this freshness when they sell their products directly to consumers at farmers’ markets or local eateries, but the Hughes have learned to leverage another creative delivery method.
In 2012, they joined the Community Supported Agriculture program. Started in California, the program consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes essentially “the community’s farm,” with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. These local supporters receive seasonal customized packages from Pine Knot so they can enjoy the bounty of true “stalk to mouth” produce.
“The most requested packages contain squash, tomatoes, and fruit,” says Stanley. “It’s very popular in North Carolina and the greater Triangle area.”
The Hughes have their eyes on the future and enjoy sharing their knowledge with the next generation of farmers. “There’s a really strong interest in going back out and getting young people to focus on sustainable agriculture,” says Linda.
Because of this, the Hughes worked with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to host a youth program that involved hiring eight students to work on the farm and to develop the skills needed for future agricultural endeavors. Stanley set aside land that the students were directly responsible for managing. They learned everything from planting to weeding to tractor driving.
A&T student farmers are typically paid minimum wage to help with school costs, but the Hughes wanted to pay them more. In order to fund the increased wages, Linda decided to host a “Farm to Fork” dinner with ingredients sourced from Pine Knot Farm’s bounty.
“We got together with a local chef and he cooked all the food and served it,” she says. “Not only did the diners enjoy the fresh meal, but the students were able to gain some knowledge of the culinary arts while assisting the chef.”
The Hughes’ daughter, Xandria, was inspired by this event to pursue a culinary degree at Alamance Community College. “She may have her own farm-to-fork restaurant someday,” says Linda.
When it comes to the future, the sociable Stanley and Linda want to continue to bring more visitors to the farm. “We’re trying to think of more creative ways to have more events and workshops here on the farm,” says Linda. “That’s how you build success.”
It’s ingenuity like this that has led Pine Knot Farms to receive acclaim from UNC-TV, Edible Piedmont, Southern Foodways Alliance, Indy Week, and even Gourmet Magazine. The Hughes turned their traditional tobacco farm into a leader in the local agricultural community, and they could not have done it without the support of local consumers who cared about where their greens were grown.