Maggie Lawrence has an unusual situation for a farmer.
Most who oversee small-scale, sustainable farms in the Triangle put in long hours of back-breaking work with no guarantee of making money. Farming is a tough business, where a heavy thunderstorm can wipe out seedlings, a drought can wither a field or a bug infestation can devour a crop – all chipping away or ruining a farmer’s profit for the year.
Lawrence, however, works a 40-hour week, earns paid time off and other benefits, including health insurance and a retirement plan.
That’s because she is an SAS employee who grows fruits and vegetables for primarily one customer – Herons, a fine dining restaurant at the upscale Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, owned by Jim and Ann Goodnight. The hotel and the 1 1/2 acres that Lawrence farms are on the campus of Jim Goodnight’s business software company, SAS.
Lawrence knows how lucky she is – not just as a farmer but in the ability to work with creative chefs to customize her crops.
“Being able to collaborate with chefs and have such a strong relationship, I pinch myself,” she says.
That collaboration was on display on a recent July afternoon, as Lawrence met with Herons’ chefs in a small conference room called the Oak Room. It’s one of several meetings that take place throughout the year to anticipate the needs of the chefs and their restaurants. This meeting was about what Lawrence should plant for their fall menus.
Lawrence and her assistant, Ariel Greenwood, sat at a round table draped with a white tablecloth. At each place was a white coffee cup, silverware, a bottle of water and a small dish of chocolates with candy coatings in various shades of blue. A silver carafe of hot coffee, along with sugar and cream, sat at the center of the table.
Also present was pastry chef Daniel Benjamin, chef de cuisine John Childers and executive chef Scott Crawford, who not long ago was trying to juggle his own job and Lawrence’s – before he hired her.
The idea to grow food on the SAS campus actually originated in 2009 with the Goodnights’ daughter, Leah. She had a conversation with Crawford about other hotels having farms and then mentioned it to her father. Later, Crawford recalled, Jim Goodnight was having dinner at Herons one evening and remarked, “We’ve got to be able to grow some food here.” Jim Goodnight also mentioned property on the 900-acre SAS campus that had been farmland.
Once the plan became a reality, Crawford thought he and his kitchen staff could manage the garden. They got advice on what to plant from a Wake County farmer who sells lettuce to Herons. The SAS grounds crew prepared the land, and by the summer of 2010 the garden was overflowing with tomatoes and cucumbers and, later, winter squash.
However, going from the seed of an idea to successful farming wasn’t easy.
Crawford and his sous chefs were logging 60 hours in the kitchen each week and also trying to manage the garden about a mile away. One of those chefs, Steven D. Greene, now executive chef at An Cuisines, remembers that weeds were rampant, tomato stakes were falling down and deer were invading.
Crawford recalls they started the lettuce too late, so it immediately bolted in the heat, and a bug infestation annihilated the beans.
“We were like cave men gardening,” Greene says.
Crawford adds: “We learned quickly how difficult it is. The biggest lesson we learned was a new respect for farmers.”
The next year, they hired Lawrence.
Lawrence grew up in Southern Pines, earned a geography degree at East Carolina University and then began working in land planning at a Louisburg-based land trust. She lived in the country and was growing a vast vegetable garden when she decided to start selling her produce at the Wake Forest Farmers’ Market.
“I’m a doer,” Lawrence explains.
She fell so much in love with growing vegetables that, she says, “I kept wanting to quit my job and farm.”
Established farmers who had become her mentors, like John Vollmer, a longtime farmer in Bunn, tried to discourage her. But she reasoned that at age 25 she could take the risk. In the fall of 2010, Lawrence quit her day job to look for land to farm. The next spring, she saw that Herons was interested in hiring a farmer.
Herons’ executive chef Scott Crawford recalls that Lawrence brought a satellite image of the farm site on the SAS campus to the interview, along with details about how she would plant it. Crawford says Lawrence was on the edge of her seat, explaining the reasoning behind her plan.
“Her passion was far beyond anyone else’s,” Crawford recalls.
Lawrence grows food primarily for Herons and An Cuisines, an Asian fusion restaurant also owned by the Goodnights that is across the street from the hotel. Anything Lawrence grows that these high-end restaurants can’t take is served at SAS employee cafeterias. Lawrence also runs a program to turn all the vegetable scraps from the hotel restaurants and employee cafeterias into compost for the farm.
Starting out, Lawrence realized the job had its challenges. Despite work done the previous year, the land was less than ideal. It had a dramatic slope, contained a lot of clay and faced South, getting full sun all day.
“It was a sorry piece of land to start with,” said Vollmer. “If she has the type of soil she has, you have to learn it.”
That meant Lawrence had to amend the soil to break up the clay, terrace the garden plots to reduce the impact of the slope and make sure the soil was always covered with crops or mulch. “A little rain will wash away any exposed soil,” Lawrence says.
Having so short a distance from farm to table has been a learning experience for both Lawrence and the chefs.
Farming for an upscale restaurant is far different than growing produce for a farmers market. For the public, Lawrence would grow large red tomatoes. That’s not what these chefs want. They want tomatoes in every other color: orange, yellow, purple, green with stripes. She grows 30 different varieties, successively planted, so they have tomatoes for several months.
For a farmers market, Lawrence would grow large heads of broccoli. These chefs prefer a type of broccoli that produces slender shoots all season and several shoots together make the perfect portion on a plate.
These chefs also want Lawrence to grow a lot of micro greens and edible flowers, such as pea blossoms, holly hocks, bachelor’s buttons and nasturtiums, which taste like radishes.
Anything Crawford was buying from specialty producers, like renowned farmer Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, he wanted Lawrence to try to grow. She’s even harvested the male blossoms from cucumber plants – at the chefs’ request – to garnish gazpacho.
Chefs Crawford, Greene and Childers know generally when fruits and vegetables are in season locally. But they have also spent their careers working at high-end restaurants that can pay for ingredients to be shipped from wherever they are in season. So when they asked Lawrence to grow asparagus, they expected to see her bringing it into the kitchen the next spring. She had to break the news: It takes several years before asparagus can be harvested.
Last August, Childers and Tim Morton, Herons’ executive sous chef, recall how Lawrence told them she was going to harvest apples from trees on some adjacent land owned by the Goodnights. “We said, ‘Bring ‘em,’ ” Morton recalls. “Then she brings in 300 pounds of apples.”
That was in the middle of peak tomato season. Childers says, “We made a lot of apple butter.”
At the recent planning meeting in the Oak Room, it was clear that the chefs and the farmers are still learning from each other. They quickly launch into the chefs’ wish list of fruits and vegetables.
Squash: Crawford wants hubbard squash, but Lawrence says she needs to investigate whether it can grow here.
Sweet potatoes: Lawrence grows purple and red ones, in addition to more typical colors. Childers admits he used to think sweet potatoes only came in three colors: white, yellow or orange.
Brussels sprouts: Lawrence says she won’t have a mature harvest until Christmas, and Childers says they will take immature Brussels sprouts. “You know how we love small veggies.”
Then apples come up.
“When did you bring that load (last year)?” Crawford asks.
“Late August,” Lawrence replies, rattling off the types of apples they will harvest again: Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Winesap.
“We need to mentally prepare,” Crawford says, referring to the apple butter incident.
“We should look at making our own cider,” Childers suggests.
“That’s a good idea,” Crawford says. “Anyone ever made cider?”
Weigl: 919-829-4848 or on Twitter, @andreaweigl