Grateful Growers: Farming with a Culinary Mission
Down a winding road, just past Sweet Bubby Lane, sit 10 acres of North Carolina farmland. It might not sound like a lot, but two women, Cassie Parsons and Natalie Veres, are doing big things with those 10 acres as owners of Grateful Growers, raising heritage breeds of hogs, chickens and ducks, selling local, buying local and working hard to build business by building the local farming economy.
Parsons jokes she’s the food and Veres is the farm, although each has passion for both sides of the operation. Veres tends the farm fulltime, and Parsons heads out to Charlotte almost daily with the Grateful Growers cart called Harvest Moon Grille.
“We got started because we learned where our food comes from,” says Veres, greeting the hens (“Good morning, girls”) as she relates the history of the farm and makes a list of chores —multitasking an apparent must-have skill for a farmer.
Six years ago, “We took the “don’t-eat-meatyou-don’t-know” pledge, and to this day, we’ve stuck with it,” she says.
They have more than stuck with it. They’ve taken five hogs on 10 acres to about 100 (give or take) hogs, some chickens and ducks, and have built a loyal following for their product. The mission was clear—to combine what the two call “culinary artistry with craftsmanship agriculture.” They grow great food to make great food.
“The mission is consciously raised humane food, because when we do that, then on the culinary level it becomes so much greater in flavor, taste, texture,” says Parsons. “The difference is phenomenal.”
“The term craftsmanship farming,” says Veres, “is used to describe something that’s done carefully with a lot of forethought. Maybe not the fastest or most convenient way or the most profitable way, but the way that has the end product in mind and the way that has quality in mind.”
Quality of product and quality of life is a key goal.While giving a few back scratches to some “teenage” (200 lbs.) hogs, Veres says, “I love to see them run. This is something pigs don’t get to do in commercial pork production. They don’t get to root, don’t get to run. They don’t get sunshine. The only time they see sun is the day they get transferred from one farm to another, or the day they go to die.”
“It’s really about value here, not about doing things as cheaply as possible,” she adds. Marketing the product was a key component of success. Grateful Growers had to introduce their product—heritage hogs, raised slowly in the sunshine, not in pins, wallowing, rutting, running in the open—then convince chefs and restaurateurs that there was good reason to break away from buying from big-box, onestop shopping systems to buying from Grateful Growers.
“The key starting point for us was that we were fortunate to have our product used at a farm dinner for Carolina Farm Stewardship. The chef who cooked the entrée, Bruce Moffat from Barrington’s, used our product and really liked it, and he told other chefs, and it grew from there.”
Parsons’ chef experience has helped. She speaks the same language the chefs do, and introduces ways to use cuts beyond the tenderloin by creating recipes and bringing new dishes in to the chefs to sample.
They also work to get other farmers’ products on the menus of local restaurants—another part of their mission, making small farms sustainable and an important part of the local food system and the local economies. “Processing.” Parsons doesn’t hesitate an instant when asked about the biggest challenge. The services of processors are few and far between for small farmers. She’s had a tough time finding processors for smoked hams, prosciutto, coppa etc. “I have to take product six hours away to get it smoked and hung.” Parsons is thrilled to have found Goodnight Brothers Country Ham in Boone, just two hours away from the farm. Bill Goodnight recently purchased equipment from Italy and now cures Parsons’ prosciutto.
Growing is another challenge. “We want to be bigger, but it’s all about having the room to do it and the money to do it,” says Veres. “We want to be able to make a living doing this. I’m optimistic, but I won’t lie about there being some pretty sleepless nights. But I consider us to be very fortunate to be doing as well as we are and to be able to continue, and I’m grateful for that.”
The Tamworth Hog
Veres and Parsons settled on hogs early on, and they chose the Tamworth breed. “They do extremely well outdoors, they are great mothers, and they have an easy disposition,” says Veres.
“But just as important in our decision was meat quality,” says Veres. “The flavor of Tamworth is unique; it’s a bacon-type hog, meaning their body conformations are long and lean.
Crossing the Tamworth with Berkshire or Hampshire (lard-type breeds), we work towards the best of both worlds: length, leanness and yields of the Tamworth, and the big hams and shoulders of the other. Crossbreeding these two also speeds the growing process (hybrid vigor).
“We wanted to be a part of the effort to save these amazing animals. The breed has been a part of American agriculture since 1882, and, like many of the heritage and standard breeds, it slowly started to vanish as our nation’s food production became singularly focused on profitability. Small-scale farms like ours are the lifeblood of many food and farming traditions. Without us, they would cease to exist,” says Veres.
Harvest Moon Grille
Just about a year ago, Parsons realized she wanted more — more farm food on more plates everywhere. Grateful Growers pork on the menu at local restaurants wasn’t enough.
“We need to elevate the quality of the food people are eating. We also need to encourage people to be challenged by the food they are eating,” she says. Now Parsons trailers around the Harvest Moon Grille “cart,” using food from as close to a 60-mile radius as possible.
The cart, on the street at two Charlotte locations since summer 2009, is a hit. “People see it’s authentic food. They taste it, and they’re back,” says Parsons. Customers can decide
“They serve as witness to the notion of sustainability, which is the buzz word, but it’s also about how to humanely raise the food we consume. It affects our consciousness because it changes everyone’s relationship to the food.”