Most weeks on Growing Local we take you to a local farm through the magic of radio. But in just a few weeks, farms in Western North Carolina will welcome everyone in person. ASAP’s Farm Tour is coming up on June 22nd and 23rd, and nearly 20 farms are getting ready for the annual tour.
Over the next few weeks we’ll introduce you to several farmers on the tour to learn what motivates them to produce food for the community and what you can experience on their farm during the tour.
First up is Greenshine Farms in Marshall. That’s where farmer Rand Gifford and his family grow mixed salad greens, microgreens, and other vegetables like celery and beets. It’s a fairly new farm, about three-years-old, and Rand and his family started it from scratch when they moved here from Chicago.
“We had nothing—maybe a wheelbarrow and some shovels and rakes but we didn’t really have much,” he remembers. “The land we took on was just kind of a hayfield with an old tobacco barn and an old general store from the 1890s where we lived pretty much for the first year.”
There was no running water or electricity in the general store, and Rand remembers some really cold mornings. But that didn’t deter his enthusiasm for starting a farm. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been fun, too.” he says.
Rand and his family moved to Western North Carolina after working on other farms and starting a small urban farm in Chicago. They wanted to come to Western North Carolina because it was easier to access farmland here than in an urban center, and because of the public’s support of local food. They recognized that they had to think creatively about their place in the food system because there were so many established farms in the region.
“We found that the crops that had the biggest return were things like salad greens because they grow quickly,” he says. “They fetch a really good price and it’s one of those things that you kind of have to get local if you want high quality.”
It took some work to figure out where to sell their greens. “We applied to the farmers markets and we didn’t get into any of them, and I knew the CSA thing was a little bit saturated,” he says. “So we just went right to the grocery stores. That’s kind of been our niche.”
He noticed that some of the small, mom and pop groceries in Asheville didn’t sell local lettuce or microgreens. So he formed relationships with grocery owners and managers as well as two local food distributors that were seeking local lettuce. “We put [the lettuce] in a nice clamshell with a sticker on it in with our name and that kind of got us a foot in the door,” he says.”
The goal was to connect with customers who would want to buy the farm’s greens every week. The family also used YouTube to spread the word about their farm and share their experiences as new farmers.
“Little by little we would release a video here and there and then we started getting some good feedback,” he says. “Honestly, I really like it now as a way to share what we have learned.”
Now they have 45 videos and some of them have more than one thousand views. So how does a full-time farmer have time to make and edit so many videos? His partner Alexandra takes on the bulk of the video work while she’s caring for their children.
“The videos were her thing and I have no idea how she found the time, especially looking back to those early years, like that first year,” he says. “I honestly have no idea how we were able to do any social media at all.”
But they were motivated to connect directly with their customers–and to share their knowledge with other new and beginning farmers. Rand says they also learned a lot from other people’s videos.
“I think it’s a cool way to give back because honestly when people ask, ‘How do you learn about farming?’ I mean, we worked on some farms, but really the way I learned almost everything I know is through podcasts and YouTube. I read some books and went to some farming conferences, but with the internet nowadays you can learn anything you want to learn. It’s all out there,” he says.
Rand is excited to share that knowledge in person on ASAP’s Farm Tour in June. He says his main reason for being on the tour is to connect with the community.
“There are a lot of people out there who buy our product on a weekly basis and support our farm and reach out to us on YouTube and Instagram and it really means a lot to us,” he says. “So I thought [participating in Farm Tour] would be a cool way to connect with the people that are buying our product and supporting us.”
Visitors can see the lettuce and microgreen production process and talk to Rand and his family about the realities of starting a farm.
“They’re going to see a production farm,” he explains. “This is our only income, so you’re going to see how to grow a lot of food on a small space—high value crops and bio-intensive methods where we’re really trying to cram a lot into each space and really make the most of what we have. So you’re going to really see that small scale model in action.”
Learn more about ASAP’s 2019 Farm Tour, coming up on June 22nd and 23rd, at https://asapconnections.org/events/asaps-farm-tour/
Aired: May 27, 2019