Sowing Seeds for Five Generations
07 Apr 2022
A farming family in Carthage connects people with fresh produce
By Crissy Neville » Photos by Melissa Souto
Some like it hot. The Hot Fresno California pepper kind of hot.
Some play it cool. Cool as a cucumber.
For others, it’s sweet, if you please. Sugar snap peas. Sweet snacking peppers. And oh, for a sweet cherry tomato in a salad or even better, picked and popped straight from hand to mouth on a warm summer’s day.
If such taste bud tempters aren’t enough, eating the rainbow, i.e., plating up color, is another way some please the palate. Yellow squash. Yukon Gold potatoes. Orange bell peppers. Dried purple hull field peas. Japanese white turnips. And greens galore, from green beans, okra and collards to specialty crop asparagus. Whether you choose your produce for taste, appearance or the nutrition you net — after all, not all veggies are the same — you can’t go wrong with the fresh food grown and sold by Priest Family Farm of Carthage. Owned and operated by the parent and son team of Gary, Jane and Ben Priest, Priest Family Farm dates back five generations in the Sandhills and connects people with fresh food every day.
Traditionally a tobacco and row crop operation, the 66-acre Priest Family Farm has history on both Gary and Jane’s sides of the family. Before they married, Jane swore she “would never marry a farmer, live or work on a farm” but said, “as it is with things you can’t control, I married Gary.” Her husband, a life-long farmer, knew agriculture was his future, having raised cattle with his family as a youth growing up in Lobelia. He later worked for Jane’s dad on her family farm, and the two built a house across from her parents, where they still live today.
Retired now, Jane commuted to work in Fayetteville as a respiratory therapist for 35 years. Gary and Jane’s son Ben grew up on the farm, went to N.C. State’s Agricultural Institute and decided to return home to work the earth. The three are a devoted, hard-working team with Gary handling most of the farming activity, “what needs watering, planting, fertilizing, plowing or weeding,” said Jane. She schedules and fulfills orders and manages paperwork while Ben also farms, supervises field operations and their workforce, makes deliveries and sells to the public.
“But, there’s just three of us,” she noted. “We each have to do it all.”
In the early days, locals called the farm “Blue Dog Farm,” reflective of Gary’s CB handle radio nickname. Officially becoming Priest Family Farm in 1985, it wasn’t long, with changing times, before the entity needed to diversify commodities. The owners took the plunge to grow produce — a smart wager and what they are known for today. Cultivating nearly 100 different vegetable varieties, the Priests farm is “large for Moore County,” said Gary, “but tiny in the world.”
The inaugural ¼- to ½-acre asparagus crop grown in 2008 was a “risky experiment," said Jane, as the herbaceous perennial takes three-plus years to produce and is expensive to grow. An enormous success, Priest Family Farm asparagus is “pretty much sold before it even comes up,” quipped the Carthage native. The farm is not open to the public, but they sell their produce in creative ways.
Advanced orders taken through the Sandhills Farm to Table program are subscription-based and constitute where much of Priest Family Farm produce goes. The Sandhills cooperative, now in its 13th season, is a multi-farm model of community supported agriculture (CSA). Members order and receive a box packed with Sandhills fresh-picked fruits and veggies delivered to numerous “gathering sites” April through November. Learn more at sandhillsfarm2table.com.
Priest Family Farm also sells at three markets: the Sandhills Farmers Market in Pinehurst, open seasonally from mid-April to September; the Farm-to-Fender mobile and seasonal farmers market affiliated with the Community Friendship Garden of Fayetteville; and Nature’s Own Fresh Market, an organic, natural food market in Southern Pines open Monday through Saturday.
Many Moore County restaurants embrace the Farm-to-Table movement and proudly source and serve Priest Family Farm produce on their menus. Find the Priests represented at Ashten’s, Chef Warren’s, Elliot’s on Linden, The Bell Tree Tavern and most recently The Dormie Club in West End.
While this family business makes a significant impact on the local food community, its influence spans the Southeastern U.S. through the farm’s partnership with the Fresh Point Raleigh food distributor.
Priest is a conventional farm; the owners grow everything in the ground. No hoop houses, greenhouses or soil-less medium here. Simply good ol’ dirt.
“What gives produce superior flavor,” explained Jane, “is the soil and the sun. When a person buys a tomato picked in the heat of the summer, it does not taste like a grocery store tomato. Not at all. Same thing with green beans, arugula, you name it. If all you've ever tasted came from the grocery store, you've got a big surprise waiting for you when you get a hold of some of our vegetables and produce.”
And who doesn’t love a surprise?