It takes farms of all sizes to create a thriving food system. Here in Western North Carolina, some farms sell directly to customers through farmers markets and community supported agriculture. There are also larger-scale local farms that use food distributors to get produce from their fields to nearby restaurants and grocery stores.
Today, we’ll focus on a local, organic produce farm that transitioned from selling at farmers markets to growing for a wholesale distributor and eventually starting their own packing house—and we’ll explore the community partnerships they formed along the way.
Beacon Village Farm was founded in 2012 by Danielle and Michael Hutchison. It started as a market garden in Swannanoa, North Carolina where they grew small quantities of many different vegetables.
That approach made sense given their backgrounds and education. Danielle first became interested in farming at nearby Warren Wilson College where she and Michael studied sustainable agriculture.
“I grew up in rural New Hampshire, but fell in love with farming in college,” she says.
During summer breaks they worked at a vegetable farm in Virginia and dreamed of starting their own farm one day.
The first iteration of Beacon Village Farm was a good fit for their original goal of growing organic produce in tune with nature and the community. They wanted to expand, but were cautious because they leased their farmland and never knew if it would be available next season.
“Every year we could have lost it,” she says. “They could have not renewed our lease and then our business wouldn’t have had anywhere to go.”
In 2016, they were ready to purchase their own land in the Crooked Creek Valley, near Old Fort.
“We came across this beautiful farm field and I was like, wouldn’t that be amazing if it was for sale? And we got to the end of the parcel and there was a for sale sign!” she says.
There was a lot of interest in the property, but their offer was accepted just in time.
“It was pretty impactful for our business,” she says. “Buying a 14 acre parcel created the stability where we’re like, we have this now and we can farm that, so we’re in control of this.”
As they expanded production, they knew they needed a different model for selling the additional vegetables. During the farm’s early years, Danielle worked full-time at New Sprout Organic Farms, a distributor of local organic produce. When Danielle and Michael expanded the farm, they joined New Sprout’s network grower program that distributes food from several regional farms to restaurants and grocery stores.
“We’re able to grow and harvest and process all of this amazing fresh organic produce while they manage the sales and logistics part of that product,” she says.
The new model prompted them to change what they produced. Instead of growing dozens of different vegetables to fill a farmers market booth, they honed in on 7-10 really viable crops that sold well in the wholesale market, like kale and lettuce.
“We also feel like by growing commercially for a wholesale market, we’re able to fill this niche in Western North Carolina and in the surrounding areas where we can provide fresh and local organic produce to our community where we’re not directly competing with other growers who grow for farmers markets and other outlets. We feel like we’ve found a really good niche in our wholesale,” she says.
Their original business hinged on a one-acre market garden, but now they now grow over 70 acres of certified organic produce for wholesale outlets across the Southeast, with Ingles, Whole Foods, and Harris Teeter being their primary customers.
While you won’t find Beacon Village Farm at farmers markets anymore, they foster many close connections with other farmers in the community, like Steven Beltram from Balsam Gardens.
“Beacon Village Farm and Balsam Gardens had been working side by side since 2015, both growing for New Sprout Organic Farms. Oftentimes farming each other’s land, borrowing each other’s equipment and labor. So when New Sprout shut down their packing facility last year, we thought it would be a good idea to join forces and build a packing house together. Now we sell our produce together under this single organic certification and food safety program. We’ve merged our work force and so far, it’s been challenging, but so rewarding,” she says.
She says some of the biggest challenges have been the logistics and paperwork of starting a new business, but that farming collaboratively has been an easy transition. Steven Beltram has connected them with more farmers, including Kirby Johnson from Flavor 1st, a larger scale produce grower and packing house in Henderson County, which buys their tomato crop.
New Sprout Organic Farms is still in operation, and although Beacon Village Farm has its own packing house now, New Sprout continues to sell and distribute much of their produce.
As Beacon Village Farm continues to grow, Danielle wants to build upon relationships that strengthen the farming community in Western North Carolina.
“I feel like the friendships that we have, especially that have been cultivated here in the Crooked Creek Valley and Old Fort, are are so important to just growing a resilient community and having people you can turn to and depend on and trust,” she says.
Learn about more local farms in ASAP’s online Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: June 29, 2020