Photography by Beth Mann
Tenita Solanto’s journey to becoming a farmer and launching Green Panda Farms is far from traditional – but then again, her produce isn’t average either. After graduating from high school in Moore County, Tenita served in the Navy as an electronic technician working on radars and satellite systems for four-and-a-half years. The education-driven curriculum of the Navy gave her the necessary skills to land a job with IBM in Research Triangle Park. After 10 years there, Tenita set out to start her own information technology business.
The North Carolina Veteran’s Business Association supported her goal and invited her to attend an Urban Farming Seminar at the Minority Landowners Conference hosted by Fayetteville State University in 2016. Tenita’s plan was to attend the conference and help farmers use digital systems to manage their production.
Instead, she left with a new perspective on the “dying trade” and a dream to start her own urban farm.
“What I learned about urban farming is that you don’t need over 60 acres of land to do it,” Tenita says. “There are ways to farm on a small plot of land. So I started my research. I didn’t know how to grow a houseplant or anything when I first started!”
At the time, Tenita lived on a 1-acre plot of land in Raleigh. Rather than convert her backyard into a production farm, she decided to make use of her empty spare rooms. “I converted my bedrooms into a farm – racks, lights, all of it – and began experimenting with microgreens.” Tenita met her business mentor, Annette Stevenson, while networking within NCVBA. Annette encouraged Tenita to explore the niche world of microgreen farming. Don’t let their size fool you; microgreens pack a mighty punch, with more vitamins and nutrients in their leaves than some much larger plants. Most have a stem, two leaves and can be harvested after a one- to four- week growing cycle. Some microgreens taste like the full-size version.
“The broccoli microgreen has a nutty flavor, arugula gives a pepper kick, radish is spicy, and the pea shoots really taste like peas,” Tenita says. “You don’t have to cook most of the microgreens –you add it to a sandwich, salad, burger, omelet or tacos.”
After signing her first grocery store supplier, the Durham Co-op Market, Tenita realized she had outgrown her Raleigh indoor farming operation. In 2017, she applied for and received a Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA grant to purchase and restore a building in Siler City. Tenita’s wife, Christina Verwoerdt-Solanto, and family friend Pamela Lee led the charge for renovating the “run-down, shell-of-a-tin- can building.”
“It was an all-women team who did 90% of the work on the building [of Green Panda Farms],” Tenita says. “We did [the] painting, installing, insulation, wall paneling and even building. What we didn’t know, we learned. We have done everything other than installing electrical and running the plumbing lines.”
The 1,200-square-foot building is filled from floor to ceiling with more than 20 varieties of microgreens. Every morning, Tenita goes in to Green Panda Farms to tend to the plants, process midday microgreen orders and feed the fish in her aquaponics system.
Tenita grows the microgreens to order and has the ability to design custom blends based on the customer’s preferences. Folks can purchase Green Panda Farms’ produce by ordering online at greenpandafarms.com for delivery or pickup from the farm.
The Green Panda Farms’ mission is twofold: grow healthy superfoods for customers and educate the community on how they, too, can start urban farming. “Your average person does not know what a microgreen is,” Tenita says. “We want to do more outreach within the school system, spreading the knowledge that farming can be fun and cool.”
Tenita has already started the work of agricultural education by serving on the Chatham County Food Council for two years, working with early education programs, teaching veteran farm classes, partnering with NC State University to design farm kits and curriculum, and leading Cooking Matters classes with Communities in Schools of Chatham County. She currently serves on the Chatham County Agriculture Advisory Board and also plans to expand Green Panda Farms to include educational farm tours that cover three types of indoor farming: microgreens, aquaponics and hydroponics. – by Marie Muir
Field of Dreams
Emily Boynton and her husband, David Boynton, spent most of their lives in Michigan before falling in love with the “small-town sense of community they discovered in Pittsboro. In 2007, after leaving their corporate jobs behind, Emily and David decided to take the leap and buy the land that would become Fiddlehead Farm – a name inspired by the abundance of springtime fiddleheads they spotted on a visit to their newly purchased property. It was a comfortable move, given the knowledge Emily gained from having previously worked at SEEDS, a nonprofit garden school in Durham. “I learned a lot about farming and sustainable agriculture while working with [its] DIG program,” Emily says.
The farm is just over 5 acres, and Emily and David started out by harvesting vegetables and selling baked goods at local markets. As time went on, their interests drove them toward creating and “selling only value-added products [like] preserves, hot sauces, finishing salts and a few baked goods,” Emily says. Today, the bulk produce harvested from the farm are hot peppers, figs, persimmons and hardy oranges.
The couple also prioritize supporting other local farms in the area, like their neighbors, Wild Abandon Farm, whose blackberries can be found in one of Fiddlehead Farm’s jams.
“We turned our focus to [growing] things that were difficult for us to find,” Emily says. The family-owned and -operated business consists only of Emily, David, their two kids, Daniel, 14, and Willie, 11, and a helpful friend, Katie Thornburg. Both David and Emily still work full-time jobs – David at Southern Energy Management and Emily at the nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International–USA – and the two are experts at knowing what to grow and how to balance the many facets of farm life, from production, deliveries and shipping to acquiring produce and fruit. “It’s definitely a juggling act, but we love it.”
The Boyntons’ passion for their products – like the roasted preserves, including strawberry, one of Emily’s favorites – stems from a desire to feed their family well and to treat the Earth with respect. “We use that same love, care and very exacting standards for the food we grow, prepare and sell to the public,” Emily says. You can find Fiddlehead Farm’s products at several retailers throughout the area, including the Carrboro Farmers Market, all four Weaver Street Market locations, as well as Chatham Marketplace and Angelina’s Kitchen.
“After selling at several farmers markets over the past nine years, we’ve had the opportunity to form relationships with lots of growers,” Emily says. “If the fruit is grown organically, locally, that is always our first choice. … We use organic sugar and organic lemons in our jams. For our hot sauces and pepper jellies, we use organic vinegars. Each of our products lists the farm name or producer for the batch right on the label. That way our customers know exactly where the main ingredients came from.”
And this family, who provide a bounty of fresh, sustainable products for our community, is in it for the long haul. “We’re pretty happy with the way things are going,” Emily says. “I don’t see us leaving the farm anytime soon.” – by Megan Pociask
Seeds of Change
Chantel Johnson followed a pretty straightforward path. She graduated high school, attended Carleton College, joined AmeriCorps for two years and even got her master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington in Seattle. Then her brother, Richard “Richie” Miller, died of complications from multiple gunshot wounds in 2015.
After her brother’s death, Chantel realized she was miserable working her “cushy” 9-to-5 job; his passing gave her a heightened awareness of systemic inequality in the U.S. and a desire to become less dependent on capitalism.
“[Richie] made bad choices, but society didn’t offer him good choices,” Chantel says. “The system let us down; it was time for me to take back control of my basic needs.”
She started making her own household products, such as lotion and cleaning supplies. In 2016, Chantel took a risk and began homesteading full time. Then, unexpectedly, the Discovery Channel reached out to her with the opportunity to be cast on its “Homestead Rescue” program. In an episode titled “Homestead of Horrors,” homesteading experts visited Chantel in Bear Creek and provided her with a tiny home on wheels to easily relocate her livestock from farm to farm.
By then, the retired “city girl” from Chicago had gone country. But traveling with her homestead to the next available lot of land was exhausting and expensive – until a promising partnership arose with fellow farmer Malcolm Henry. Together, they currently tend to 500-plus meat birds, 23 pigs, egg layers, ducks and turkeys on Malcolm’s 10 acres of land in Moncure and an additional 5 acres that belong to his cousin. Malcolm has deep roots in Chatham County; his grandfather, Isaiah Taylor, served as the principal of Horton Consolidated School, now Horton Middle School, from 1944 to 1976.
“It’s the first time I’ve been able to live and work on Black-owned land,” Chantel says. “This land feels different. … Now I have an awesome farm partner who is willing to share his land with me long- term, and there are good opportunities for us in Pittsboro.”
Today, Chantel’s homestead, under the moniker Off Grid in Color, sells chicken and pork to customers online for pick up at local farmers markets including the Fearrington Farmers Market, Carrboro Farmers Market, Durham and Raleigh’s Black Farmers Market and the Salisbury/ Rowan Farmers Market. Her mission is to lead others to greater self-sufficiency through healthy food, birth coaching and community outreach.
“It’s hard to live off grid when you don’t have the resources,” Chantel says. “I want to let people know that you can do it in style … [and] to let folks of color know that they could do this.”
In addition to raising livestock, Chantel offers doula services and leads workshops and retreats on agro-wellness. Her dream is to transform Off Grid in Color into a sanctuary for health, a space where people who have suffered and experienced similar pain can come to heal.
“I used the farm to get my body, mind, soul and spirit right,” Chantel says. “Mother Earth saved me – I did visual meditations, dug my hand in the dirt, walked barefoot and learned skills that were so important to my heart.”
Chantel sees the future as one that’s more community-driven, based in helping one another for the greater good. Her theory is simple: If the community wants fresh, local food, then everyone should participate and work together to pay for it through social financing, without forcing business owners to rely on grants and loans.
For those who are interested in learning more about homesteading, sign up for Off Grid in Color’s third annual Homesteading Workshop and Retreat, set to take place Sept. 11-13. The community can also participate in Off Grid in Color’s second annual Richie’s Fall Farmer Raiser, Sept. 11 (Chantel’s birthday) through Oct. 19 (Richie’s birthday) – a fundraiser aimed at fighting racial injustice through agro-based wellness. To learn how to get involved, visit Off Grid in Color’s Facebook page. – by Marie Muir