The dreary weather on a recent Saturday at the Carrboro Farmers Market matched the glum faces of April McGregers regular customers. A sign on her Farmers Daughter stand explained why. It read: This is our last Carrboro market.
After seven years selling jams, preserves and fermented vegetables, McGreger is stepping away to refocus her business.
Were so bummed, said Claire Farel of Chapel Hill, as she returned a pair of empties to McGregor, who gives customers credit toward a free product when they return jars for reuse. Then Farel and her husband stocked up on more sunchoke pickles, green tomato antipasto and fig preserves.
Market shoppers flock to McGregers stand overflowing with jarred goods, most made using fruits and vegetables grown by the farmers selling their produce a few feet away. Some people knowing how hard it is to become a vendor at the Triangles longest-running and most successful farmer-run market might question why McGreger would give that up. In 2012, the last time any spots for prepared food vendors opened at the Carrboro market, 20 people applied for two places.
For McGreger, the time was right to make a change. She is launching what she calls a community-supported preservery, a twist on the weekly produce deliveries from farmers; her business will make quarterly deliveries of jams or fermented vegetables. She will continue to sell online and at two local retail stores as well as five times this year at the Durham Farmers Market.
There are several reasons, both personal and professional, why McGreger is making the change. It is mainly because her current operation, working from her home kitchen, could not continue as it was. Online sales are growing and saw a huge spike last fall after a mention in Bon Appetit magazine.
We were so busy last year that it was unsustainable, McGreger said while standing in that well-equipped home kitchen making batches of sour orange jam.
Hard farming lessons
Sustainability is the defining theme of McGregers business model. That comes from a close-up look at what happens to independent, large-scale commodity farmers the opposite end of the spectrum from the small-scale, sustainable farmers who sell at the Carrboro market.
As the name of her business indicates, McGreger is the daughter of a farmer. He worked for many years as a brick mason but had to give that up after developing carpal tunnel syndrome. He took up farming sweet potatoes, a challenging commodity crop, especially when you dont own the land youre farming.
Vardaman, Miss., where McGreger grew up, is a town of 1,000 about 50 miles south of Oxford. The sweet potato farms there tend to be small operations where farmers rely on renting neighbors equipment and help each other at harvest time.
After about five decent years, her father and his business partner had a devastating year. With a new piece of equipment, they helped other farmers dig up their crops, leaving their own in the ground, hoping the potatoes would grow larger and fetch more money. But then the rain started and didnt stop. Sweet potatoes cannot be dug in wet weather. They got everybodys sweet potatoes dug but theirs rotted in the ground all of them, all 300 acres, McGreger said.
The men lost their crop and owed about $1 million in debts. McGreger says her father was able to pay off the debt by selling his equipment, much of it to his son, also a sweet potato farmer. Then McGreger watched her brother struggle, taking loans out from the bank based on projections of what he could earn by planting so many potatoes and then never seeing those projections realized at market. He filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Repeating a line from her sister, McGreger says: I love farming, but I dont love what farming has done to my family.
From chef to entrepreneur
As McGreger became an entrepreneur in North Carolinas local food system, she carved out her own path, based largely on the hard lessons learned by her family.
A big inspiration for me was figuring out: Is there another way? she said.
McGreger, 37, didnt set out to become a food entrepreneur. She graduated as valedictorian from her high school, attended Millsaps College, a small liberal arts school in Jackson, Miss., and then studied geology in graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
On a trip to Italy to study volcanoes, she had a transformative eating experience. Since she came back talking more about the food than the science, her husband, Phil Blank, suggested she explore a career in food. She needed a part-time job and got one cooking at Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill, where she eventually became the pastry chef.
After 51/2 years at Lantern, McGreger decided to create her own business as an artisan food producer supporting local farmers.
Outgrowing her kitchen
The business and the market were a way for McGreger to reconnect with her past.
The pickles and preserves represent what she learned from her mother and grandmothers. The market, as a consumer and as a vendor, became her family away from Mississippi, a way to replicate that small-town experience. The business also offered her a way to support the local food economy by paying a fair price directly to farmers for their fruits and vegetables.
In May 2007, she launched Farmers Daughter, creating a product that no one else was offering in the Triangle area. While she turns to the recipe her grandmother may have used to create a tomato jam, she makes it her own by adding Indian spices for her hyperbadi tomato chutney. Its the same with her taqueria-style pickled carrots or her Mississippi masala pickled okra. As McGreger is known to say: She is in conversation with tradition but not bound by it.
Her products have gained national notice. Shes won Good Food Awards all four years the awards existed. Her products have been featured in Cooking Light, Southern Living, Garden and Gun, and Bon Appetit magazines. Bon Appetits mention of her products led to a spike in online sales: She sold about 1,500 jams in November and December.
All along, McGreger had been making her products in her home kitchen. In 2010, she and her husband bought a house with an outbuilding to convert into her workspace. But she could never persuade county officials to approve the permits. Having stalled out there and being unable to sustain the businesss increasing production in her home kitchen, McGreger decided it was time to regroup.
She has always wanted to write a cookbook illustrated with her husbands sketches. Now she will have time to tackle that project and to spend more time with her husband and 3-year-old son, Moe. Working Saturday-morning markets cut into family time.
Hopefully, I can get to build a few sandcastles at the beach with my 3-year-old while he still wants to build sand castles, McGreger said.
But her customers are still sad to see her leave the market. One of her last customers was Ronni Nichamin of Carrboro, who brought back 13 empty Farmers Daughter jars. The thing about her jams, they dont last long (in my house), said Nichamin, especially McGregers sour cherry preserves.
Nichamin bought a few more jams and grabbed a newsletter with information about enrolling in the jam club. Then, before walking away, she told McGreger: Im going to miss you.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl