George Smith, along with his wife Donna, are the sixth generation to farm on George’s family’s land. Sitting on 150 acres, Smith Greenhouses grows seasonal produce in Gibsonville, North Carolina.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Can you provide a brief introduction? Tell me more about yourself and your business.
George Smith: I’m George Smith, Donna—my wife—and I farm about 150 acres here in Gibsonville, NC. Our name currently is Smith Farms. We’re getting ready to change, we’ve already completed all of our certification paperwork, for Century Farms. The farm has been in our family for more than a 100 years, continuously. We grow produce, we have Angus beef cows, and grow a few chickens and pigs just for our own personal consumption. We sell mainly at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market—downtown Greensboro. Occasionally we go to Gibsonville to that market if we have the extra time.
Can you run through what some of your produce is?
George: We grow seasonal produce, two of our specialty crops are tomatoes and strawberries, which we grow in a heated greenhouse during the winter months. We found years ago diversification was the best solution for our farm. If you grow large crops, you’re completely dependent upon what the market’s going to be at the time of harvest. When you grow multiple crops, you can stagger your different harvest days and you always have different things. We’ve learned as well that the general public likes different and new things, especially in today’s time. And there’s so many new products and so many new varieties coming out we try to sample everything we can.
So what drew you to farming?
George: I was the only son on a family farm, and that’s the way it’s been for four generations in our family. I went to Elon and majored in education, taught school for a couple of years and I had the choice of staying in education or farming, and so we kind of do a combination of everything. We have a lot of farm tours out here, we work with Guilford Child Development centers, all of your local daycares—we send them an availability list and they buy fresh produce from us and they feed their children in the daycares.
Why was it important for you to weld education and agriculture?
George: My grandmother was a schoolteacher and she was definitely a strong mentor in my life. She really loved education, she actually attended Elon as well. I just always loved to teach the children, there’s something special about it. So many children have no idea where their food source comes from anymore. They don't understand this little seed makes this vegetable or fruit.
What’s the hardest part of farming and what’s the most rewarding?
George: The hardest part of farming is the variables we have no control over, mainly the weather. This year we’ve seen everything known to man from April through August. We’ve had excessive heat, excessive drought, excessive rain, excessive cool, late frost, just a number of things. One late frost can mess up many, many things on the farm. We have several different types of fruit on the farm, we haven't had a fig crop in 3 years now—we’ve got a few this year but nothing like normal. Normally we have between 400-500 pounds of fig. This year we may have 40/50 pounds if we’re lucky.
For people that don’t understand the obstacles you have to overcome, pick one of those items for me and break it down as far as what you’re up against…
George: Let’s take the pear crop, pear trees bloom late February to March. They can tolerate some freezing weather at that stage. Once they get beyond that stage and the little pear comes out of the bloom, it’s very susceptible. One hour below 32 degrees will ruin the entire crop. One hour. And many, many times in April we have that one last freeze. We have a month of no freezing temperatures at all, and that one night when it drops below 32, that’s it. And it’s impossible to protect it, a pear tree is 40-50 feet tall, you can’t cover it up. There’s really nothing you can do except hope for the best.
Why do you think it’s important for your community, or any community, to buy locally grown food?
George: Small farmers would not be in business if it weren’t for local support. We can not compete with large agribusiness, we can’t buy the volume, we can’t get the prices that we need in order to compete with them on a giant wholesale level, we pretty much have to sell directly to the public.
What does it mean to be a small farmer?
George: Being a small farmer, there’s a lot of gratification with it. It’s nice to be able to produce your own food. We know our food source, we know what’s been put on that food, we know how it’s been handled, from the beginning to the very end, and that’s very important for us. It’s very scary when you walk into a major grocery store and you see a bag of salad there ready to eat.
Why did you want to participate with the Local Food Ambassador Program (LFAP)?
George: We try to do anything we can to help our community, and we are strong advocates trying to do something about this food insecurity. Guilford County specifically, as far as per capita number of food deserts, we’re one of the worst in the United States. We’re 9th now, but we were the worst two years ago.
For someone unfamiliar with the term, can you provide a definition for food deserts?
George: A food desert is where there’s no grocery store within a mile of residential housing, and there are many in our county, huge. As a matter of fact we live in one right here, and we’re food producers, we are a food desert right here.
What does it mean to be GAP certified and why was this important for the University to have its producers go through this process?
George: GAP certified is Good Agriculture Practices, it’s basically food handling and food safety from the time it leaves the field till the time it’s put on a plate, or it’s delivered to a kitchen. The downside to the GAP certification program is in 2020 all this is going to change with the Food Modernization Safety Act, which makes GAP certification look easy, and GAP certification is very difficult.
If we set a bucket of tomatoes on the ground in the field when we’re harvesting tomatoes, that bucket is no longer eligible to sell, it has to be discarded. Another thing with tomatoes for instance, if we wipe our tomatoes off, we have to use a clean rag on each tomato wiped off, you can not use the same rag for two tomatoes. It has to be a clean rag for each tomato.
Concerning LFAP, why is it important for farmers to be at the table?
George: We’re hands on, we’re on the floor, we know what it’s taking to get this product to market or to make this product profitable. The students get a wonderful insight by helping farmers with all those things. You can read it in a book but it’s not like getting out and doing it. There’s a lot of difference between what you read and do.
Why do you think it’s important for A&T or any University to buy from local farmers?
George: It’s important for Universities to buy from the local farmers because it’s excellent quality food, many of the products delivered to the universities are harvested that day of the show. Your large purveyors can not logistically deliver it that fresh, and the fresher the produce means the better the nutrition. Also keeps us sustainable and allows us to stay on our farms and pay our bills.
What do we risk losing when more and more farms are selling to developments?
George: When a farm is developed into whatever commercial, residential, the farm is lost forever. It’ll never be a farm again. They’re not making any more farmland, it’s shrinking every day.
What are some ideas you have about supporting students with the farmers market?
George: We’ve come up with some initiative programs where several different organizations in Greensboro will help fund programs, we give each student that walks in the door and signs up, they get $10 they can go spend in the market anywhere they want to and buy whatever type of food they want and they get a free $10 every time they come in which also gives us a tracking method in order to keep up with how much fresh produce the students are actually consuming. The market is more like a habit, a lot of folks when they come and they feel comfortable with it, they begin setting it into their schedule and make a routine out of it. In return, they’re getting really good and fresh stuff. Especially at a market where you have over 100 vendors, the food quality is perfect or you’re not going to sell it.
Visit Smith Farms booth on Saturdays and Wednesdays at the Greensboro Curb Market (www.gsofarmersmarket.org).