Tied to the Land
As a customer of a weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) delivery of locally grown fruits and vegetables and a regular visitor to restaurants featuring seasonal offerings from area farms, I consider myself part of the farm-to-fork movement. Of course, I’m much more familiar with the fork end of the equation.
So I decided a few weeks ago to learn more about the farmers who are adopting sustainable agriculture practices with locally-adapted varieties that have the potential to offer more nutritious, more flavorful produce. I started with a visit with Jordan Tony and Silvan Goddin, the founders of Red Wolf Organics in Orange County.
Jordan comes from Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He’s living something of a double life: 30 hours a week farming and 30 hours as a plastic recycling consultant. “I really like my consulting job,” Jordan said. “My end goal is to figure out a way to do both farming and consulting. I work 60 hours a week, but 30 of those hours are playing in the garden, so it doesn’t feel like work.”
When I mentioned that he might feel differently once he turns 40 years old, he responded with a laugh: “When I hit 40, maybe I’ll hire some interns.”
When Jordan completed his farming apprenticeship at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) – a partnership of North Carolina State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services – in 2014, the couple decided to take advantage of Jordan’s CEFS training and Silvan’s previous farming experience to start their own farm. First, they needed some land.
“Red Wolf Organics actually has three locations, all rental,” Jordan said. “We plan on buying our own land at some point, but right now it makes more sense to rent because we don’t know where we want to settle permanently.”
The pair met three years ago when Silvan hired Jordan to work at a community garden. Once Jordan completed his CEFS apprenticeship, “He had studied farming in a way I hadn’t, so I became the apprentice to the apprentice,” Silvan joked. Jordan added, “She already had farming experience and she really knows what she’s doing.”
Renting relatively small plots of land brings some distinct advantages. “We can do things in a small space that you can’t do at a huge operation because we’re able to get in and weed properly,” Jordan said. “And in our second year, we’re already getting more efficient. This year, with a total of a third-of-an-acre in the three locations, we hope to get more production than we got out of a full acre last year.”
A smaller farm can compete on price, too. “We sold a grocery store 100 pounds of squash – they talked me down to $1.50 a pound,” Jordan recalled. “They put Red Wolf Organics’ name on a card with the squash, so we went to the store to take a picture of it. They were selling the squash for $4 a pound. They have to mark it up to cover their overhead. They have to keep the lights on – but we don’t even have lights.”
The Triangle Connection
The Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill is fertile ground for farm-to-fork operations. “In the Triangle, people seem particularly interested in eating healthy and supporting sustainable farming,” Jordan explained. “We don’t really have any problems finding buyers for our vegetables. I have a friend in California doing this, and he has a hard time finding a market because there are so many established operations.”
Red Wolf Organics supplies produce for weekly CSA deliveries that customers purchase for $20 a week. Silvan also staffs a stall on Tuesdays at the Fearrington Farmers Market, which has provided valuable market research.
“We’ve learned a lot from doing the farmers markets,” Silvan said. “Something we realized is that people go to a farmers market not only for the food, but for the experience. It’s just like going to a nice restaurant – you’re not there just to eat. People want to know where our food comes from, they want the story. That makes them feel part of the farm-to-fork movement. If somebody walks up to your market stand and you tell them the name of what they’re looking at, they’re about 90% more likely to buy that thing.”
As they gain more experience as farmers – and marketers – you might expect that Red Wolf Organics would start planning for expansion and scaling up. Nope.
“We don’t expect to get rich doing this,” Jordan said. “If we scaled up, we could make more money. But then we’d have to buy equipment and hire some workers. Then to afford that, we’d have to farm more land and the whole thing starts to spiral up. The economy of scale is very different for agriculture than other industries. You can either be a giant mega-farm or you can be a small farm, but something in between is more difficult.”
“Relatively, we’re richer than somebody who drives a Porsche and has a vacation house,” Jordan added. “What we care more about is having time. We are rich in the time we have to do the things we’re interested in. Money isn’t why we’re doing this.”
Although they operate on a thin profit margin, Red Wolf Organics has managed to donate 10 percent of its profits to charity at the end of every season. “We plan on donating to environmental causes in the future, but lately we’ve been donating to Syrian refugee relief, given current circumstances,” said Jordan.
The Future of Farming, Rooted in North Carolina
As Jordan and I talked, Silvan watered a range of crops in various stages of ripening. Red Wolf Organics specializes in growing heirloom varieties of the kinds of vegetables North Carolinians find interesting or unique. During my visit to the farm, I saw several kinds of radishes – I didn’t even know there was more than one kind – snap peas, and different greens sprouting up. But when I saw Silvan watering what looked like a pile of rotting weeds, I had to find out just what the heck she was doing.
“We’re composting,” Silvan said. “You have to think of the compost heap as a living organism. If you don’t water it, it can’t break down as quickly.”
“I learned a lot about composting at CEFS,” Jordan added. It was among many facets of sustainable farming included in the apprenticeship program. “I had worked on farms for three years before the CEFS apprenticeship, and at CEFS, I learned why I had been doing the things I had been doing on those farms. So now I make decisions based on science. I know how to work through a problem rather than being told by a farm manager, ‘Go do this now.’”
Smaller organic farming operations like Red Wolf are fueling North Carolina’s interest in the farm-to-fork food economy. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) is a strong supporter of the movement, sponsoring community gardens in nearly every county of the state. From June 3-5, BCBSNC will sponsor the 2016 Farm to Fork Weekend, which includes a sustainable supper and square dance at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, a more formal dinner with chefs Sam Kass and Andrea Reusing at the Durham Hotel, and a farm-to-fork picnic at W.C. Breeze Family Farm in Hurdle Mills.
Join us for a celebration of local foods from local farms. And if you get the chance, stop by the Fearrington Farmers Market on a Tuesday to say hello to Silvan at the Red Wolf Organics stall.