For most, Thanksgiving preparations — a whirlwind of last-minute runs to the grocery store and elaborate, but frenzied cooking — begin days, or maybe just hours, in advance.
But for Tucker Withington, a farmer based in Goldston, ensuring hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys end up on dinner tables across Chatham County is a process that starts almost a year ahead of the holiday.
Much of a quintessential Thanksgiving dinner is owed to North Carolina farmers: the state ranks number one in the country for sweet potato production and number two for turkey production.
But where exactly in Chatham do the Thanksgiving foods on your dinner plate come from? The News + Record spoke with three farmers in the county to highlight locally-owned businesses and get a better sense of where these ingredients — from herbs used to conjure classic holiday flavors to roasted turkey — originate.
Lilly Den Farm
Tucker Withington opened Goldston-based Lilly Den Farm with his wife Mackenzie in 2008. Year-round, the site operates as a dairy farm — one of just a few remaining in Chatham — and produces beef, pork and chicken.
The farm started selling standard white meat turkeys for the holidays more than 10 years ago, largely based on demand as locals reached out looking for meat that was safe to eat and unimpacted by Alpha-gal syndrome, Withington said. Alpha-gal syndrome is a red meat allergy, with symptoms often developing from a tick bite.
From raising the poultry to smoking the meat, preparing the holiday turkeys is a lengthy process, requiring months of planning. Withington orders the poultry from a hatchery in Pennsylvania early in the year, though the birds only arrive around the spring or early summer.
“We start thinking about Thanksgiving dinner around the first of the year,” Withington said.
The turkeys are only sold in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and if there are any remaining, the rest are sold at Christmas. The majority of the turkeys are sold through reservations, which the farm opens up in August.
Over the course of four to five days, Withington estimates the farm sells around 150 turkeys.
Lilly Den Farm offers both fresh turkeys and smoked turkeys, which can be purchased as whole birds or by turkey breast, leg quarters or wings. A standard white turkey costs $7 a pound and a smoked turkey costs $15 a pound.
Withington cherishes getting to supply people across Chatham with turkeys for the holiday. When he sits down for his family’s Thanksgiving dinner, he knows other families are gathering for a meal at the same time, eating the same product.
“It’s a one afternoon where you know for sure that there are literally thousands of people enjoying the product that you made,” Withington said.
Lilly Den Farm’s products can be found at the Pittsboro Farmers Market, as well as the farm’s retail store at The Plant in Pittsboro. For more details about pricing and times for Thanksgiving pick-up locations, visit lillydenfarm.com/product/poultry/#holiday-turkeys.
In Good Heart Farm
While turkey may be the star of the show for some, at In Good Heart Farm, it’s all about the vegetables.
The un-certified organic farm, owned by married couple Patricia Parker and Ben Shields, is located in Pittsboro. The two first began farm operations in Clayton in 2010, but eventually moved to Pittsboro in 2016, taking over farming pioneer Bill Dow’s former land.
In Good Heart Farm grows more than 100 different varieties in annuals on two acres of garden and three acres of orchard. Parker said because the farm grows year-round, they begin planning for the year ahead as early as December or January.
The farm’s produce includes orange, white and purple varieties of sweet potatoes, collard greens, butternut squash, fennel, leeks, beets and arugula.
This year, the farm hand-harvested 4,000 pounds of sweet potatoes — planted in June and gathered in early fall — and then cured the starchy root vegetables. Curing is a process that involves keeping the potatoes in 90-degree heat with high humidity for at least 10 days; as the starches are converted to sugars, the potatoes sweeten up and can be stored for longer.
“A lot of people don’t know that you have to cure it to make it sweeter, that if you just pull it out of the ground, and tried to cook one and eat one, it would be kind of savory and starchy,” Parker said.
As days shorten and temperatures drop, Parker noted what is termed the “Persephone period” is quickly approaching — the time of year best for hardy winter produce when daylight lasts for 10 hours or less and plant growth reaches a crawl.
“That was fascinating to me to learn that, ‘Oh, huh, everything kind of slows down,’” she said. “And that makes sense, like even your vegetables are essentially hibernating.”
And this transition to the colder season can also lead to more tasty crops; for example, cooking greens tend to become sweeter as the weather gets more frosty.
“The plants produce sugars to protect themselves and those sugars translate into deliciousness,” Parker said.
For Parker, starting up a farm wasn’t something she necessarily envisioned she’d do. Parker comes from a non-agrarian background, having previously worked as a sociology professor. Prior to starting In Good Heart Farm, Shields worked for the Smithsonian Magazine, but is a fourth generation farmer and made the move after wanting to return to his farming roots.
Now, part of what Parker loves most about her job is getting to share “the magic of the farm” with others.
“You just have to live it to know it, like community really does start to form around food,” she said. “It’s ‘agri-culture.’ Like in all societies, we very much have these traditions centered around food, and it builds community or reinforces community in ways that it’s just so much bigger than what it seems like it would be.”
In Good Heart Farm sells fresh produce at the Fearrington Farmers Market and Pittsboro Farmers Market, in addition to having a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangement, in which individuals can sign up for weekly boxes with items of their choosing. Produce from In Good Heart Farm can also be found in local restaurants, like the Root Cellar Café, Postal Fish Company and Angelina’s Kitchen.
Visit ingoodheartfarm.com for additional information about where to find the farm’s fruits, vegetables and herbs, and how to place an order.
Green Panda Farms
For Chatham residents looking for ways to brighten their Thanksgiving table and weave in some lighter dishes amongst what can be an all-day affair of heavy eating, Green Panda Farms in Siler City provides flavorful, nutrient-dense microgreens and herbs.
The farm is owned and operated by Tenita Solanto, a Navy veteran. Solanto’s farm sells microgreens — seedlings of greens and herbs harvested as the first set of true leaves appear — of various kinds, from basil and cilantro to pea tendrils and sunflower shoots.
The greens are considered a superfood because of their nutritional value, and are also useful through its visual appeal for decorating dishes, Solanto notes.
“It’s a nice aesthetic for a chef’s plate, but there’s also some nutrition behind them as well,” she said.
When it comes to adding microgreens to a Thanksgiving meal, Solanto said she always has salad as part of the spread to help lighten things up, and will even add micro herbs to stuffing.
“When you buy them in a microgreen format, they’re more intense in flavor,” she said.
Solanto, who has a background in IT, began her business around five years ago, after attending the Minority Landowners Conference hosted by Fayetteville State University and getting inspired by a session on sustainable farming techniques. Solanto was living in Raleigh then, with plans to use the acre of land she had around her home to grow crops, joking that at the time she couldn’t keep a houseplant alive. Thus began a deep dive into research — and when Solanto came across microgreens.
“I was looking for things that I could grow faster,” Solanto said. “And so I just started tinkering with it, and started learning about different types of soil, the seeds, the quality of seeds, and just like really started digging in deep about what this was…until I was able to perfect it and be able to grow something.”
Solanto moved the business to Siler City in 2018. Now, she’s looking to expand Green Panda Farms’ range of products to include more leafy greens using hydroponics.
Aside from offering weekly and bi-weekly subscription services, Green Panda Farms provides microgreens to local eateries like Root Cellar Café and Lucha Tigre.
The subscription service allows the farm to create custom blends and tailor produce to a particular chef or individual’s needs. For example, Soolanto said the farm has provided produce to cancer patients who specifically request broccoli microgreens for the therapeutic properties found in its dietary compounds, and those of other cruciferous vegetables.
Because Green Panda Farms is located indoors, the farm can grow greens all year, and is working towards fully outfitting the building to be climate controlled. The balance of determining various factors — climate, humidity, temperature, soil and pH level — is tricky, but Solanto appreciates that there’s always something to learn with her work.
“It’s like you’re kind of like a scientist, you know, we’re always doing experiments all the time,” she said. “And all seeds don’t grow the same, in the same climates and things like that, so it’s always like an experiment all the time, where we’re testing different things and seeing what we can do.”
Green Panda Farms’ microgreens are sold at the Durham Co-op Market as well as online through direct sales. For more details on pricing and placing an order, visit greenpandafarms.com.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Ben Shields' last name and mischaracterized his farming background. Shields is a fourth generation farmer, and made a return to his agrarian roots when establishing In Good Heart Farm. The News + Record apologizes for this error.
Reporter Maydha Devarajan can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @maydhadevarajan.
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