Monday, June 9, 2014

Farms For Fun and Profit

Last week I spent two different days helping out in very different ways at two different farms.  In order to go in chronological order, I’ll have to defy my title and start with the “for profit” one, first.

At the market a couple of months ago, Mindy at Tega Hills Farm mentioned to Miss Chef that they were going to be looking for a new delivery driver soon.  Long story short, last week I helped out a couple of days, riding along and doing the running…and jumping, hopping, lifting, shifting, stepping, stumbling and fumbling.  Of course, none of this was conducive to taking any photos—I needed both hands to manage invoice, box or bag, pen and doors. 

However, on the morning of the second day, I did have a couple of minutes while we were packing to document a bit. Tega Hills specializes in lettuces, microgreens and edible flowers, and most of their crops are grown hydroponically, in greenhouses.

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In the front, you can see the dark square area that is uncovered water.  The white squares are foam boards with holes which receive small cups where seedlings are placed.  These boards float in a nutrient-rich solution which is circulated through a system that is undoubtedly confusing and simple all at the same time.  Me, I just enjoy seeing the pretty colors floating around in the water.

Here’s another shot, where you can see some of the younger plants near the back.

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I’m going to guess that these varieties are red oak and green oak lettuces, with a section of dark green kale on the right.

The microgreens, which are grown in soil in a separate greenhouse, are even more colorful.

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In case you’re wondering, microgreens are simply the seedlings of familiar edible plants, such as these tiny beets above.  Not only do they serve as colorful garnishes, but they impart a surprising amount of flavor, which is sometimes more subtle or less bitter than their full-grown counterparts.  Some of the more unusual microgreens they sell are celery, purple radish leaves, pea sprouts and my personal favorite, popcorn shoots.  Yes, they taste like corn!

I interviewed Mindy for my article on squash blossoms, and was excited to see the very vertical growing method they use for the zucchini and cucumbers—yes, they sell those vegetables, too.

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On the right, you can see the nylon netting used to support the cucumbers; to the left you can see just how long these rows are.  Can you imagine trying to get your kids to eat all that zucchini at home?

And in case you were wondering just how you would package up all those colorful heads of lettuce, here’s a picture from inside the cold room.

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For each order, the appropriate number of heads are put into giant plastic bags, which are tied shut and put in the open-top waxed cardboard boxes.  Each box costs about $2 and can hold about 25 heads (so that’s about $30 worth of boxes you see there).  The microgreens are put into small zip-top bags or small plastic tubs like take-out containers, then orders are put together in plastic “t-shirt” shopping bags.  Most deliveries involved one box or a small bag of microgreens, but some restaurants ordered two boxes plus microgreens.

So now lets think about what it takes to get that crunchy lettuce or tasty microgreen from the farm to your table.  First it has to be plucked from its watery bed, packed as above, and the box labeled with the name of the restaurant and the contents, so it can be matched against the invoice.  Then the boxes are stacked in the bed and cab of the pickup truck in order of delivery, so the first deliveries are on top, and the last deliveries are in the air-conditioned cab.  This takes some excellent knowledge of the route, which involves 30 to 40 stops.  There are also a couple of coolers in the bed, for the myriad bags of microgreens.

Once the truck is loaded up, off we head with a stack of invoices as our guide.  Most of the stops are simple.  As we drive, I check the next invoice and figure out if I need a box, a bag from the cooler, or both.  Once we arrive, I hop out of the cab, hustle to the back of the truck, pull the order, carry it inside, barge my way into the kitchen (“Hey there, I need someone to sign for a delivery!”), quickly verify with the chef/manager that the order is all there (“One purple radish, two mix, one popcorn, plus the lettuce”), have them sign their copy of the invoice, thank them and go.  Sometimes I’d forget the box, and have to go back in, but for the most part it was in, hello, sign, thanks, bye.

Many of the Uptown restaurants are vastly more complicated.  Many require finding on-street parking, which is particularly challenging when streets are blocked off as they were on Friday for Taste of Charlotte.  Also, those “Parking for Delivery Only” signs are really important.  Sometimes I had to haul boxes down a block, or through a parking garage because the usual parking spots weren’t available.

Then there are the deliveries to restaurants located in 30-story skyscrapers housing corporate headquarters for banks and other security-conscious companies. 



Here we have to stop before even entering the delivery dock, so security can check our IDs, and do a sweep of the truck, including having us pop the hood and using mirrors to check underneath the chassis.  Fortunately, the driver is Mindy’s husband Mark, who has been doing this for a decade, and knows many of the security personnel, as well as the routine.

Now, once we get back into the truck and park where we’re told, I have to go through another security checkpoint.  At the “dockmaster” window, I have to surrender my ID for a “Contractor” ID and sometimes keys or an electronic key card to operate the elevator.  My favorite is the delivery to a restaurant on the 27th floor of a building that has a single freight elevator for to serve all those floors.  There’s often a bit of “hurry up and wait” involved in this job.  I have to move as quickly as possible to try to get to all 40 stops before 5:00 dinner service starts, so standing in front of a slow-moving elevator can be a bit irritating.

And that is where I often I find myself thinking “All this for a few ounces of microgreens?”  Once all the harvesting, packing and delivery rigamarole is completed, the kitchens still have to rinse and prep the lettuce, and store and portion the microgreens before they finally hit the plate, where diners may say, “Oh, how lovely,” before stuffing it in their mouths and continuing their conversation about stock futures or The Voice.

Fortunately for my sanity, this is not going to be a long-term job, more of a fill-in and backup position for when they find themselves shorthanded.  Even if it would drive me nuts long-term, it is an interesting insight into a hidden part of the food-supply system, not to mention a cool way to get to see some of the city’s best restaurants and meet more chefs.

Now, let’s change gears a bit, as we move into the second half of today’s post: Farms for Fun.  Saturday was another work day at Friendship Garden’s urban farm project at a local high school, which I’ve posted about already here.  This weekend’s event was a huge effort of Wells Fargo, where over 50 volunteers came out to help rake, weed, mulch, dig, haul and put their hands to any other job the garden could offer.

I was assigned a team to mulch under the few orchard trees next to the raised-bed area.  Sadly, I didn’t think to take a “before” shot, but here are a couple of this incredibly hard-working group when they were nearly finished with this task.

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There was a huge stack of cardboard boxes, which had to be stripped of any tape or stickers that wouldn’t break down, then flattened and placed on the ground as weed stop before the mulch was barrowed over and spread.  Fortunately, although the high temperatures were forecast near 90, the sun was hidden most of the morning by a thin layer of clouds.

After this mulch job was done, the volunteers took their wheelbarrows down to the main field, which has been divided into three large beds.  One is already planted, but needed plenty of hands to help pull weeds.  The second one in back needed paths mulched before the planting rows were mounded up and compost dug in.

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Here’s a shot to my left, which gives you some idea of the scale of this project.

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You can see one quadrant of the first field, and the 100-foot long greenhouse in back.  The shipping container to the right serves as a storage shed for tools, seeds and equipment, and has had a solar panel installed to provide power for the aquaponics pumps in the greenhouse.  Amazing system, isn’t it?

Shortly after I took this picture, the sun came out, and I started flagging.  Those amazing volunteers, however, kept right on going, completing an enormous amount of work before leaving around 12:30.  There was even one woman who was still recovering from mono, but still came out and did what she could.

Last time I came out in April, the first field looked like this.

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Notice the other two fields hadn’t even been plowed under yet.  This past weekend, I took this parting shot, from a little farther away.

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You can see the scarecrow in both photos, which should help give some idea of how much progress has been made.

All in all, this weekend has made me realize one thing—growing food for mass consumption is hard work!  My little garden doesn’t seem like such a chore after all this.


  1. Interesting! Your writing is always easy to read - flows well. So it makes it easy to learn new stuff from you.

    Where do you keep your camera while you're working, between shots?

    1. Thanks, jenny_o. I use my phone's camera, so it just rides in my pocket.

  2. What a production!
    It's wonderful to see so many volunteers.


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