Farm Fresh From Locals
Text and photography by Mick Schulte
Raleigh’s State Farmers Market offers a slice of small-town, Southern life that is hard to find amidst the Triangle’s booming population. It’s a place where the waitress at the Farmers Market Restaurant still calls you “sugar” when she serves hot biscuits smothered in molasses. Where three generations of farmers offer you a taste of their juicy, ripe heirloom tomatoes. And where you learn the story behind a rare succulent that was a gardener’s labor of love.
The open-air vibrant market showcases all of the diversity North Carolina has to offer—in our interests, our agriculture, and our people. It also gives customers the opportunity to support local farmers and entrepreneurs who devote their lives to the products they bring to market. Penny’s Produce, Rare Earth Farms, and Growin Green Nursery are three of the businesses that pride themselves on growing what they sell, without relying on outside resources to fill their booths.
Each day they drive from their farms or nursery to deliver fresh produce, meat, and plants to new and familiar customers alike. The State Farmers Market depends on dedicated businesses like these to keep its roots strong and local. And all three—Penny’s Produce, Rare Earth Farms, and Growin Green Nursery—have a unique tale of how they started and why they work the long and hard hours it takes to maintain a Farmers Market business.
Jonathan and Lisa Penny are fourth-generation farmers of the land their family owns in the Willow Spring community of Wake County. They have sold produce including strawberries, cabbage, squash, tomatoes, and sweet corn at the Farmers Market for more than 15 years. “My grandfather was the first one to start at the market, then my dad, and now me and my brother,” Jonathan says. “I love it and wouldn’t want to do anything else. Some days are hard; but for the most part, early springtime comes around and we can’t wait to get started.”
Penny’s Produce is one of the few fruit and vegetable stands at the market that sells exclusively the products grown on their farm. “I think that’s the way it should be,” Jonathan says. “That’s the way my grandparents did it and my parents as well, so I wanted to carry on that tradition.”
The Pennys start their days around 6 am when Jonathan loads up the van with the morning’s pick, and then someone from the farm drives it in to the booth. The whole family is involved in the process. Even Jonathan’s grandfather still works with the tractor every once in a while. “He can’t do the real physical stuff anymore, but he loves being outside just like I do. Every day is different on the farm with the weather and the plants we grow, and that’s why we all love it so much,” Jonathan adds.
Lisa has been part of the Penny family since she and Jonathan started dating almost 16 years ago. She recalls a time in her life when farming was a complete mystery. “He can tell you when we first started dating that every day was a question. He’d get irritated at how much I asked about farming. But I really wanted to know for our customers. Most people you see at the market are just workers, but not helping at the farm. To be able to talk to somebody who’s directly at the farm is pretty unique,” Lisa explains.
Now Lisa shares her farming knowledge at the Penny’s booth, where she greets customers with a trademark smile. “We really try to have a personal relationship with people at the market. I recognize most of the customers who visit our stand, and it’s great being able to talk about what they’ll want next,” she notes.
You can visit Lisa and her family at the Penny’s Produce stand in the open-air Farmers Building every day from 9 am to 5 pm.
Rare Earth Farms
Up until 2007 Mann Mullen and Karl Hudson raised cattle to sell at the stockyard, but they never sold the butchered meat themselves. That all changed when Mullen’s 74-year-old mother tasted their beef. “We happened to slaughter one of our cows and served it at a family meal. My mother said she hadn’t had stewed beef that delicious since she was a kid,” Mullen says.
Inspired by his mother’s review, Mullen and his good friend, Hudson, decided to have a community-wide taste test. “We put our cows up against some of the favorite local steak spots and invited people to come and eat. The only requirement was that they fill out a questionnaire about which tasted best. And in the end, we won hands-down,” Mullen says.
After that seminal event, the two friends started Rare Earth Farms and opened their booth at the State Farmers Market in 2009. They raise all the meat they sell, other than a small amount of lamb from a neighboring farmer who treats his livestock with the same humane practices as Rare Earth Farms.
“What sets our beef apart is that it’s grass-fed and grass-finished. Anybody can market their cows as grass-fed because at one point it probably was. But if you don’t ask now, they won’t tell you that it was probably finished on some grains,” says Jennifer Lusky, operations manager.
Mullen explained that a grass-finished cow takes longer to fully grow, around 18 to 21 months as opposed to 12 to 16 months for grain-finished. But even with the longer wait, he and Hudson were committed to making Rare Earth Farms a grass-fed, Animal Welfare Certified–operation from the start. “That’s how my father raised cows, so I wanted to carry on the tradition,” Mullen says.
Rare Earth Farms is also committed to sustainable and humane farming practices, and Jennifer believes this method makes a big difference in the taste. “Our cows are not confined. They live like they would in the wild,” Lusky notes. “If they are in a situation where they aren’t treated well, it produces hormones that toughen up the meat and distort the flavors.”
As their beef grew in popularity, Mullen and Hudson decided to expand Rare Earth Farms with a food truck in 2015. “Customers know the difference in our beef and our name now, and it’s made the food truck a big hit at events,” Lusky adds.
Even though they’re finding success on the road, customers can still find the Rare Earth Farms booth in the Market Shoppes building at the Farmers Market, Wednesday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.
Growin Green Nursery
At the age of 12, Scott Blount had more than 40 plants growing under a light in his small bedroom in Rocky Mount. Eventually his parents bought him a little greenhouse, which he quickly outgrew with more than 1,100 cactus and succulent varieties by the time he turned 14.
Now Blount owns Growin Green Nursery based in Nashville, just outside Rocky Mount. He sells his plants at the Farmers Market, where he specializes in rare varieties, cactus, and succulents. “I’ve grown a little niche of plants you don’t see very often, like the carnivorous Venus flytrap and sundews that eat bugs,” Blount explains. “I always try to have something that other people don’t have access to, and they especially wouldn’t think they’d see it at a farmers market.”
He started selling his plants at the State Farmers Market 11 years ago, although he had to wait for a spot under the roof at first. “For two whole years I would haul my plants to the market and set up a tent on the hot asphalt under the blazing sun,” Blount recalls. Eventually he moved off the waitlist and got his booth, and Growin Green Nursery has been a staple ever since. Many customers know him for the rows of colorful, affordably priced cactus and succulents that come in small boxes. “I was growing cactus and succulents before they were cool. I’ve always been stuck on them. Everybody would say they’re a West Coast thing, but I just had a feeling they’d eventually be something here, too,” Blount says.
His passion for plants is contagious, and he loves sharing it with visitors at the market. “I’m a plant collector—some might even say hoarder—as well as a seller, and when I start a conversation with someone who loves plants as much as I do, I never want it to end,” he says.
This labor of love sustained Blount as he established his business. For the first seven years he worked at the market all day then came home and cared for the plants in the nursery all night. He is dedicated to growing everything he sells, even the exotic varieties he gets from overseas. As long as he has a tissue culture of a plant or a division, he can grow and sell them at the market. But he admits it gets discouraging when some of the people selling plants buy from out of state and ship the plants in to sell. “They’ll have a completely empty nursery all winter and suddenly March comes around and it’s filled with plants,” Blount explains. “I don’t do that. I grow everything I sell, and that allows me to have more reasonable prices.”
He also believes that by growing what he sells, he can be more honest and helpful with his customers. “My theory is: ‘If you grow it, you know it’. For example, some sellers will tell you to just put ice cubes on a plant every few days, but that’s going to shock the roots and kill the plant. I always tell my customers to go back and ask that business to show them their ice machine. You have to practice what you preach.”
Customers can hear more of Blount’s plant wisdom at the Growin Green Farmers Market booth, where they are open seven days a week from 9 am to 5 pm. Or you can visit his nursery in Nashville.