When even established farms are struggling during COVID-19, what’s it like to start a new farm? When we spoke with Stephanie Vinat of The AppaLatin Farmstead in February, she was full of enthusiasm for the year ahead.
“We’re in Marshall, North Carolina and we’re new farmers so this will be our first season at market. Last year was a research and development year where we were growing wonderful veggies, but we weren’t selling anything. We were just researching and developing what we’re passionate about and what we want to bring to market,” she says.
Stephanie and her husband and farming partner, Jeremiah Batla, grow microgreens, herbs, spring onions, and lettuce, but their true passion is peppers.
“We are growing a lot of peppers, specifically Latin peppers. Hence the name AppaLatin. Appalachian grown, Latin inspired. That’s at the core. My family is Puerto Rican and Cuban, so I want to honor that heritage through what we’re growing and what we’re bringing to market. Some of the peppers that we’re growing are Cuban heirlooms, like the arroz con pollo pepper, which is wonderfully tasty but very difficult to find anywhere in the United States, so we have those heirloom seeds,” she says.
Stephanie and Jeremiah planted more than 150 pepper plants during a rainy week in May—a time when many local farmers were adapting their business plans in response to COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, they both had off-farm jobs that helped support them while they established the farm. Now that those jobs have been canceled, their farm has become their sole source of household income. They received an Appalachian Grown Farmer Immediate Needs Grant from ASAP, and they are using it for packaging like plastic bags and labels to help with COVID compliance at the market.
They were able to find a silver lining to the pandemic—having more time to improve the farm. They’ve added infrastructure like water storage, drip irrigation, and fencing, as well as an online store to pre-order vegetables that can be picked up at the Mars Hill farmers market.
They are in the process of building a farm stand for local pick up, and hope to collaborate with other small farms in the area to make their goods and products available at the farm stand as well. They also held a plant sale in May and sold nearly 300 plants to community members who will nurture them in their home gardens this summer.
Stephanie and Jeremiah have been able to do all of this despite growing several varieties of greens and herbs as well as more than one hundred pepper plants on only an eighth of an acre.
“This year’s biggest challenges are going to be scaling up. Last year, for example, I grew six arroz con pollo pepper plants, and this year we’re going to have a twenty five foot row of them. I think that’s going to be a challenge, but a challenge that really seems worth it to us.”
They’re also sowing seeds for the future of their farm by planting a “food forest” on an additional half acre.
“We’ve put in some dwarf fruit trees and some great beneficial pollinator plants and flowers, just to restore this area of land that had just been kind of cleared off. I feel as though we’re making this investment in our land, and by doing so, it’s a reciprocal relationship because the land is going to give back to us in so many ways,” she says.
Stephanie says her relationship with Jeremiah has grown alongside the farm, and together they’ve been able to connect with the Madison County community.
“The gift that has really come of it is that our relationship and our bond has really grown, which is wonderful. I mean, with my husband and also our relationship with our community. The farm has already provided for us connection with community, connection with like-minded individuals, and I think in the future, maybe not next year, but in a few years, we would love to embrace the community more so by doing educational workshops, maybe some farm dinners, and really move beyond being a farm that sells vegetables to also being a place where the community can come to learn and heal and we can do it all together,” she says.
The AppaLatin Farmstead is currently selling spring crops at the Mars Hill Farmers Market, and their peppers will reach maturity in the fall. Keep up with this farm and hundreds of others in ASAP’s online Local Food Guide – www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: June 22, 2020