For some in North Carolina, goodness grows at home

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — In shallow trays of organic soil at her greenhouse in Harrisburg, onetime real estate agent Kate Brun is cultivating a business: growing and selling microgreens, tiny herbs and vegetables harvested when their first leaves appear.

Not even a year old, her company is already taking root - part of a wave of the homemade and home-grown springing up in Charlotte and across the country.

Two factors have combined to propel the trend, experts say: the increasingly popular local-food movement, and a recession that's prompted people to consider different ways to earn a living.

"We really are going to need more producers who are willing to grow for this kind of market," says Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. State University. "There's sometimes a learning curve and some barriers, but I think there's a lot of interest and a lot of opportunity."

That's how Brun, a 35-year-old mother of two, sees it. "It's finding something, having faith in what you've got and having the courage to go do it. I never enjoyed going to work until now."

The overall number of farms in North Carolina declined 2 percent in the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture - to 52,913 in 2007, compared with the previous count in 2002. But the number of small producers, on plots up to 9 acres, jumped 25 percent, to about 5,000. The pattern has continued since then, observers say.

Area farmers markets and agricultural extension offices report a boom in inquiries about growing and selling local produce, as well as new producers entering the arena. There's a 78-person waiting list for spots at the certified organic incubator farm in Cabarrus County, which began in 2008, county extension director Debbie Bost says.

The innovative project now has 16 farmers working up to a third of an acre apiece, learning about sustainable-food practices and gaining experience so they can one day farm land of their own. The participants are ages 18 to 59, with a range of education levels. Some are there full-time; others work elsewhere, too, including at Wells Fargo, US Airways and Carolinas Medical Center, Bost says.

Brun had always enjoyed gardening and began growing microgreens for her family last summer. By that point, the economy had taken a toll on both her husband's construction management and contracting company and on her part-time work as a real estate agent, so she mulled whether there was a way to make money from something she loved.

Inspired by a friend in California who had done the same, she decided she could sell what she grew. Her husband, Marc, installed plumbing in the greenhouse at the back of their home, Brun set up shelves for her trays of soil, and she began experimenting with the plants, trying different seeds and learning about how they grew.

This spring, she launched her company, Lucky Leaf Gardens - the moniker inspired by her maiden name, Lachance, French for "luck." She checked with the N.C. Department of Agriculture about reselling and food safety requirements, and headed to a restaurant supply store to buy packaging and labels. To come up with a logo and website, she hired professional designers, because she wanted her brand to be viewed as legitimate from the start.

Initial startup took about $2,000, helped by the fact that she already had the greenhouse. But additional costs keep cropping up, she says. She needs a larger refrigerator in her greenhouse, and it will also cost money to expand her greenhouse space eventually.

"This is very business-oriented for me," she says. "It's not just a hobby, digging in the dirt."

Marketing and branding are key for the new agri-preneurs, though they can be unfamiliar territory for traditional farmers used to focusing on production, says Carl Pless Jr., a Cabarrus agricultural extension agent.

"There's a lot of stuff involved in that," he says. "Most are finding they spend as much time marketing as they did growing it in the first place."

"You have to be a jack of all trades," N.C. State's Creamer notes. "Not only do you have to be a farmer, you need to be a marketer, a people person, web savvy."

But, she says, that diversity and challenge is also part of why farming appeals to people.

At the same time, Pless says, it's important to back up the marketing with knowledge and top-notch products. "So many people think you can just throw seed in (the soil), work it any old time," he says. "That's not the case."

Brun ate her microgreens at home and liked their burst of vitamins, nutrients and flavor that foreshadow what the leaves will become - radishes, cauliflower, broccoli or arugula, to name just a few. But she sought a chef's opinion before venturing out. When a Concord chef provided positive feedback, it helped convince Brun that she had something restaurateurs wanted.

Now, she provides microgreens to about 10 area restaurants, which use them to garnish and enhance meats and appetizers. She also sells them at the Harrisburg Farmers Market on Monday afternoons. She makes sales and delivery trips several times a week, dropping off orders and visiting other nearby restaurants to make her pitch.

On a recent, sticky afternoon, she hopped out of her white Ford Escape to drop off greens at one of her earliest customers, Bistro La Bon in Plaza-Midwood. She toted a rolling, soft-sided cooler behind her like luggage.

Inside, she handed chef James Swofford four plastic containers, containing sunflower sprouts, mustard mix and sweet pea tendrils. After inspecting the goods, he took a couple of her cards. "You should be getting some calls."

At Dandelion Market on West Fifth Street, Brun met with executive chef Katie Formuzis, presenting her with little sample cups of greens to try. Her pitch: We're local, we're fresh - delivered on the day the greens are harvested, and new customers get 20 percent off the first month.

"Mmm, they look beautiful," Formuzis said, picking up pea tendrils to smell and taste. "It reminds me of eating it just off the pod."

Brun promised to follow up.

"This is wonderful," Formuzis said. "We'll definitely be using you for a lot of things. We like it to be a little unique."

Not every restaurant signs on, but a chef has never turned down at least a meeting, Brun says. She expects that's because her product fills a distinctive niche.

That's crucial for a new business trying to carve out a spot in the marketplace. It also makes it easier to land a spot at a farmers market - as opposed to, say, selling corn and tomatoes, says Lynn Caldwell, manager of Atherton Market in South End. "Figure out what the trends are," she advises. "Like, instead of cupcakes, do gluten-free cookies."

It can be difficult for nascent farmers to find the labor and infrastructure required to reach beyond farmers markets to larger institutions, says Christy Shi, co-founder of Know Your Foods, a Davidson-based group dedicated to rebuilding the local food system.

More entrepreneurs will be needed to serve as middlemen between farmers and customers, processing and distributing local food, she says. "Even though everyone's got the energy and the enthusiasm, it's not sustainable if the infrastructure in the middle is not present...(a farmers market) can't be the only way people get access to local food."

Another issue, she says, is that new producers are not necessarily entering the market fast enough to make up for older farmers leaving the field; the average age of an N.C. farmer is 57.

Even though her business still has plenty of room to grow, Brun is already encountering some of those challenges. To head out on her recent delivery run, she had to hire a babysitter; if she had more time, she says, she could do more with Lucky Leaf, but she has to balance it with family life. The business doesn't provide enough money to live on, she says, but it is profitable and has added some cushion to the family budget.

It's also somewhat bittersweet, she says, to be providing something so seemingly in demand as her hardworking husband continues to find so few construction jobs.

Her goal, she says, is to make Lucky Leaf a family business that lasts. Just like her plants, it's young - but enough, for now, to sprout some hope.

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Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com

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