April McGreger is surrounded by sixty pounds of sunchokes. They are beige and knobby, dusted with earth, drenched in afternoon sunlight. It is Tuesday—production day—at Farmer's Daughter headquarters, or McGreger's home in Hillsborough. Here, there are blue skies and grazing donkeys and oceans of grass, a setting that's surprisingly calm for what's become one of the area's most prolific, productive food artisans during the last decade.
In that span, McGreger has won seven Good Food Awards through Farmer's Daughter. The prestigious national honor recognizes producers who demonstrate distinction both in taste and through responsible, sustainable practices. Her strawberry-honeysuckle preserves and "rosey" strawberry rhubarb preserves have both earned acclaim. This year, she won four prizes with four nominations for hot chili okra, ruby kraut, ramp-and-mustard-seed kraut, and "bourbon'd" fig preserves.
She has also made a name for herself through writing. In 2014, McGreger penned Sweet Potatoes for UNC's Savor the South series. In 2015, she provided notable contributions to The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. She now has her sights set on a Farmer's Daughter cookbook. And she speaks of a cooperatively owned brick-and-mortar store, too, where like-minded businesses could share resources while maintaining the integrity of their craft. Indeed, after spending a couple of afternoons with McGreger, it's clear that her mind is constantly churning, just like her hands right now.
"Sunchokes taste like dirt," McGreger says. "But crunchy, delicious dirt."
She talks as she works, slicing ends and bumps and lumps off the tubers.
"They're one of my favorite North Carolina things," she adds.
Before I can ask why, she starts telling me about how Native Americans cherished sunchokes and prepared them by burying them in ashes and roasting them until charred outside and creamy inside. They grow on the coast and are uniquely salt tolerant. She explains their root relationship to sunflowers and extols their bright yellow blossoms.
"They're an amazing plant," she says. "Completely on their own, growing wild."
They sound a lot like her.