Even as farmland continues to be developed into new subdivisions across the tri-county region, agriculture remains alive and well.
Nobody knows that better than Mark and Mindy Robinson, co-owners of Tega Hills Farm in Fort Mill.
When the Robinsons bought the farm in 1999, they continued growing the much-anticipated Tega Hills tomatoes, but also branched off experimenting in the hydroponic production of lettuces, herbs and other vegetables.
Now, nearly 20 years later, they’re selling to 50 to 60 restaurants on a monthly basis and generating year-round income for their family.
“We grow a variety of lettuces, harvesting about 2,000 heads of lettuce each week,” he said. “We do a lot of micro-greens and we sell edible flowers. Last year we sold 9,900 squash blossoms. It’s a huge revenue generator for restaurants. They stuff them and serve them as an appetizer.”
Two of those restaurants, The Flipside Restaurant in Rock Hill and The Flipside Café in Fort Mill, are owned by Jon and Amy Fortes. As a former corporate chef in Charlotte, Jon started establishing relationships with local farmers long ago.
“Different farms grow different things throughout the year,” Jon said. “But the produce is always fresher. It’s not sitting on a truck coming from California or sitting in a warehouse for several days.”
Since strawberry season starts more toward May in the Piedmont, he sources early-season strawberries from Bush-N-Vine in York. By growing the berries in greenhouses, the farm gets a head start on berry picking and extends its season in October and November with a late flush of the crop.
A few Chester County farms are on The Flipside’s menus. Watson Farm, growing grass-fed cattle and pigs, will soon have its sausage added to the brunch menu. And Wild Hope Farm, using organic and sustainable practices, sold some of its first crop to the restaurant in the fall and will soon begin selling its spring harvest.
“Wild Hope Farm started last year and they’re upping their game as far as produce,” Jon said. “They’ve come to us and asked us what we want them to grow which is kind of cool, a lot of farms don’t do that.”
The farm grows vegetables, herbs, flowers and pasture-raised laying hens. Working with chefs is one of Wild Hope farmer Katherine Belk’s favorite parts of the job.
“I love the people aspect of what we're doing, whether that's a conversation with a chef about their preference for turnips with or without greens or touring a farm-share member around our operation,” she said. “People really care about where their food comes from and how it is grown.”
Local Dish in Fort Mill also features a farm-to-fork cuisine. Executive chef John Colwell said he sources micro-greens from Tega Hills Farm, fruit from Springs Farm in Fort Mill and honey from J&J Family Farm in Clover.
“The farms take better care in raising and growing their (products),” Colwell said. “We source ingredients locally because they have a higher quality and to financially support the local farmers.”
J&J Family Farm produces everything from mushrooms and herbs to edible flowers, vegetables and fruit, and sells to restaurants throughout York, Mecklenburg and Gastonia counties. The farm’s owner, former Tega Cay City Councilwoman Jennifer Stalford, knows farming is hard work – weathering the elements, navigating around nature’s schedule and enduring back-breaking labor – but she said it’s worth it.
“I have always had a passion for creating with my hands, learning and making a difference in our world,” she said. “Growing fresh and sustainably-grown foods using organic methods for our family and community is very rewarding.”
Stephanie Jadrnicek: firstname.lastname@example.org