Food » Local Tastes

Market farmer

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The Maple Spring Gardens stand is one of the biggest at the Carrboro Farmers' Market. Rows of produce sit next to more than 20 buckets of flowers. Setting up the display takes hours, and every Saturday, farm owner Ken Dawson arrives at 5 a.m. to get started. Dawson is thin and wiry, with a salt-and-pepper mustache and piercing eyes that don't miss much. During the market, when a woman has questions about cantaloupe, he steps forward to talk with her. When the eggplants need replenishing, he goes to the truck for more. He rarely sits still.

But after farming all week, Dawson sees the market as a reward.

"I get to meet the customers, and folks say thank you," he says. "Fifty years ago, most folks had a connection to farming. People hunger for that connection today, and we represent it for them. That's important to us."

Dawson grew his first organic garden in 1972--long before organics were hot--then joined the Carrboro Market as a full-time farmer in 1984. He's built his reputation on growing quality organic produce, and his farm is thriving at a time when many small conventional farms in North Carolina are barely making it. This year Maple Spring Gardens is celebrating its 22nd profitable season, and after eating Dawson's strawberries, I know why.

In the United States conventionally grown strawberries get sprayed with more pesticides than almost any other fruit or vegetable.

"Conventional wisdom says you can't grow organic strawberries," Dawson says. "Well, for 30 years I've heard you can't do this or you can't do that, and I've made a career of doing it anyway. We grow 'em, and we sell 'em."

Maple Spring strawberries get picked each May, and this year's berries tasted especially sweet and juicy, with just a hint of tartness. They were so good I ate an entire pint, berry by berry, in one sitting.

In mid-summer, you can find watermelon, purple peppers, seven kinds of tomatoes and more at Dawson's stand. Back at the farm in Cedar Grove, the fields that yield this abundance look more like tapestries than rows of vegetables. Silken yellow corn tassels flutter near the feathery green foliage of asparagus ferns that grow next to gold black-eyed Susans.

When I stand nearby, breathing in the smell of damp earth, it's easy to believe this farm has flourished for generations. Yet in 1990, when Dawson and his wife, Libby Outlaw, bought their first 53 acres off Allison Road, the land was worn out. Years of tobacco farming had depleted the soil, so much so that they did not find a single earthworm on the property for 12 months.

Dawson brought this patch of earth back to life. He rebuilt the soil by applying composted manure to it and planting cover crops like fescue and clover, which he tilled and left to replenish the soil with organic matter. Maple Spring Gardens now supports 90 varieties of flowers and vegetables: broccoli, beets, tuberoses, snow peas, lillies, blueberries and garlic, to name a few.

The farm now totals 61 acres, but Dawson cultivates only four and half at any one time. He rotates his crops to discourage pests and disease and plants a wide variety of produce so he can spread his risk and his workload. This biodiversity also attracts honeybees, lacewings and other insects that help make it a balanced ecosystem.

The most recent USDA Census shows that North Carolina lost about 1,000 farms a year between 1997 and 2002, most of them small farms. Within our current food system, these small growers must compete with large farms across the country and around the world that can grow produce more cheaply. As consumers, we benefit. In the United States, most of us pay a mere 10 percent of our disposable income on food--less than any other country in the world. But it comes at a price: Small farmers are forced out of the market.

Dawson has faced these challenges as an organic farmer. In the '80s, he sold half his produce through farmers' markets and the other half to local grocery stories. Then Whole Foods Market acquired Wellspring Grocery--his biggest customer--and started buying cheaper lettuce and tomatoes from California. Suddenly selling wholesale produce was a lot less profitable.

Dawson got into farming because he loves to grow things. Twenty-five years ago, he wanted to spend all his time in the garden. "That was our plan. I would grow it, then Libby would sell it," he says. But he quickly saw how important selling is, and he's been able to make a living as a farmer because he's a shrewd businessman. When his share of the organic grocery business began to shrink, he focused extra attention on the local market, selling more and more produce directly to consumers. By 2002, 90 percent of his sales were through farmers' markets.

In 2004 Maple Spring started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which allows members to pay up front for a share of produce that is delivered weekly at designated drop-off points during growing season. Dawson saw his profits increase by 50 percent.

This direct marketing--farmers' markets and CSAs--is known as garden market farming, and is on the rise across the country. The USDA reports that almost 2,000 new farmers' markets sprung into existence between 1994 and 2004. In North Carolina, it is helping small farms like Maple Spring stay in business.

"We're in a cash economy, and we grow organic vegetables," Dawson says. "We can make it because we're selling to the local market."

Today, Dawson sells most of his produce through farmers' markets and the CSA, with surplus going to local grocery stores--Whole Foods, Weaver Street Market and Earth Fare--and restaurants. He runs the farm, and Outlaw is a massage therapist. She works with him part-time, helping with the cut flowers and selling at the Durham Farmers' Market.

He relies on five full-time workers, all 20-somethings, to help with planting and harvesting, mulching and marketing. By showing these young people that sustainable farming can be rewarding and profitable, he is nurturing the next crop of organic farmers.

"It's always been my mission to provide an educational opportunity for young people. When I started out, there were no viable models around here for small organic produce farms," he says.

Leah Cook worked with Dawson for seven years before starting Wild Hare Farm in 2001. He taught her when to plant crops and when to harvest them, how to market and display produce, and how to build the soil.

"Being at Maple Spring also gave me the chance to learn the most important lesson: Despite the harsh weather and physical demands that come with the job, I wanted to run my own farm."

Each season, more people apply to work with Dawson than he can employ. Those who do get hired often return. His niece Sara Fuller, 27, joined him five years ago to work through the growing season, then traded in her teaching job to be there full time in 2002.

"I loved the kids," she says, "but I hated air conditioning, fluorescent lights and panty hose."

She spends almost 70 hours a week at Maple Spring, and as the assistant farm manager she gets paid a salary. The other four receive an hourly wage. When I hear her describe the work they do--they harvested 2,000 pounds of tomatoes in one steamy July day--I feel the same way I do when I bite into one of those tomatoes--full of appreciation. I'm so grateful they're willing to work this hard to grow food that I get to eat.

Dawson looks toward the future with plans to continue selling his produce to local consumers, but not to get bigger. "The problem is I'm always thinking about new things I want to do."

He's got his eye on some nearby land, a place where he can work with young people who believe growing food is honorable, showing them how to operate successful farms while being a good stewards of the land. For them, Dawson is a model of what is possible.

You can find Maple Spring Gardens at the Carrboro and Durham farmers' markets. For information about joining their CSA, go to www.maplespringgardens.com.

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