Like most farmers, Emma Hendel, co-owner of Fair Share Farms, is in constant motion. The working farm produces primarily on five acres with one acre under cover in a greenhouse and caterpillar tunnels that Hendel calls “low-tech growing spaces.”
The year-round operation is “risky business,” says Hendel, who has weathered the last few tumultuous years thanks to strategic planning.
“We had to grow our staff quickly after COVID because we increased the variety of food we were growing,” Hendel says.
Restaurant sales were 70 percent of the business pre-COVID. It’s now half restaurant and 40 percent retail. “All customers are good, but restaurants are less labor and more profitable,” Hendel says. Online retail sales require a “wash and pack” crew.
Depending on the season, the farm needs eight to 14 employees to keep operations running.
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In the fall, the farm grows winter lettuce and squash (in partnership with Harmony Ridge Farms), head lettuce, salad radishes, carrots, beets (candy striped, gold and more),broccolini, celery, culinary herbs and more. Lettuce, micro-greens, herbs, root vegetables, garnishes and other vegetables are grown in large quantities for wholesale customers.
Growing the retail side of business, working smarter, not harder and showing up at three area farmers markets have helped Fair Share keep growing. Spring mix is a big seller and shows up in area restaurants. Some of which are Mozelle’s, Bobby Boy Bake Shop, Mission Pizza and others.
At Harmony Ridge Farms, owner Issac Oliver believes in farming with a social conscience. The family farm is on 70-plus acres and has a customer base that includes restaurants, a Community-Supported Agriculture program, farmers markets and community outreach.
During the summer, the farm participated with the Hope Foundation to deliver food in bulk to families in need. In September, the farm started the Farm Fresh program, partnering with food banks to deliver fresh food to 75 families.
The farm fared better than some during COVID.
“Retail sales increased during that time as well as home delivery and CSA became robust again,” Oliver says. “Our pre-existing customers stayed with us, and we are mostly back to pre-pandemic restaurant business – around 65 to 70 percent.”
Harmony Ridge has about 12 employees, along with Oliver and his wife, who work long hours. “Tomatoes are our biggest crop, along with eggs and meats which sell well to restaurants,” Oliver says.
Anna Anders, owner of Anders Family Farm, shares the dedication and passion of local farmers. The hydroponic grower started small, with husband Mark and their three children.
“We began by growing a variety of field grown crops and potted vegetable plants, selling by word of mouth. Each year, we would add an expansion of a crop or a new innovative idea,” Anders says.
With hard work, experience and some luck, the family grew its business.
“We took a small area of our first tiny greenhouse and built a mock hydroponic system and continued to grow and expand.”
After Mark died in 2021, Anders took a leap of faith and went full-time with the farm operation that sells to restaurants, stores and farmers markets.
“We love being able to provide our community with fresh hydroponic greens, herbs, microgreens and field grown crops,” Anders says. “We are passionate about growing fresh sustainable produce for the community. There’s nothing like hearing from those you help to feed that they love what you grow.”
Chefs like Michael Spencer at Rooster’s – A Noble Grille, and Jay Pierce at Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro are closely involved with the farming community.
Spencer credits his grandmother, Nellie Spencer, for this love of fresh food. As a boy, he learned the art of canning, freezing and fermenting foods in the summer to enjoy in the winter. As a chef, Spencer buys hundreds of pounds of greens and salad vegetables during his weekly trip to farms and Cobblestone Farmers Market, where he listens to farmers’ stories.
“I like to hear their stories behind the food, how their chestnuts won a blue ribbon – it is near and dear to my North Carolina heritage. I try to dive into the heart and soul behind food to create a memory.”
Salads are a top seller at Rooster's, with the oyster salad a year-round favorite. Fall bounty that shows up on the menu includes acorn squash, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, as well as jams made from figs and pickled fruits like tomatoes and peaches.
Pierce has worked with plenty of farmers during his career.
“One of the reasons that I really enjoy working with Fair Share and Harmony Ridge Farms is that they have scaled up enough to be able to accommodate if I need 80 pounds of tomatoes or 20 pounds of salad mix in one delivery. If the next week, I only need 30 pounds of tomatoes and 10 pounds of salad mix, they have other outlets established to sell all of their product, and my change in sales does not negatively affect their business.”
Margaret Norflett Neff, co-founder of the Cobblestone Farmers Market, enjoys working with the 60 farms that participate at the market.
“All of the farms are top notch at the Cobblestone Farmers Market,” Neff says. “During COVID, the market never closed and became a go-to, relied-on food source for many who preferred the outdoor setting.”