Twelve years ago, PCG Member Mary Roberts was living the American dream. She had a well-paying corporate job, a home in the country and a new man in her life. Then, like many Americans in the past decade, she saw her dream life suddenly turn upside-down. Roberts was fortunate to quickly find her feet again, only this time they were planted firmly in the soil.
The soft-spoken owner of Windcrest Farm grew up near Houston Texas, and while she built her career in corporate training in New York City, the soil has always called to her.
“I’ve been playing in the dirt since I was two years old,” she says, recalling her grandmother giving her a spoon, a bucket and permission to dig anywhere except in the flower beds. Even as an adult in the Big Apple, Roberts spent some time working in a greenhouse, a job she recalls with great fondness.
In 1978, life brought her south to Monroe NC, where, in order to keep her horses, she bought an old soybean farm that had already been parceled out for potential development. She still enjoyed the benefits of a company paycheck, even as she experimented with growing heirloom seedlings for transplant. In the back of her mind was the idea to grow organically for commercial nurseries, but it wasn’t until after Roberts met now-husband Ray that growing turned from an inspiring hobby into a business.
In December of 2003, Ray, a general contractor, brought home an unusual gift for his fiancée: an abandoned greenhouse that he installed on the property. That following May, Roberts had germinated about 5,000 seedlings when she learned she was being laid off. So, instead of a carefully planned entry into a second career, she says “the next weekend I was at the Regional market with 50 varieties of pepper and tomato plants nobody had ever heard of.”
Outside the hoop houses and high tunnels filled with vegetable, fruit and herb seedlings, the surrounding fields yield okra, blueberries, and an increasing variety of cut flowers.
The farm has distinguished itself from the start through its unique varieties and its longstanding organic certification. When Windcrest began, the local and sustainable food movements were in their infancy.
“I’m a hippie chick from the 60s and 70s, and that’s just the way we always did it.”
Following her original plan, Windcrest became one of the first nurseries in the southeast to supply seedlings to organic commercial growers.
The farm also has a busy online store, shipping transplants across the country for individuals as well as businesses. “We start as early as January, when they start planting in Texas, and go through late May when planting season winds up in New York,” Roberts says.
The second-career farmer also seems to have a knack for good timing. Windcrest was an established business before the Great Recession of 2008, so was well-placed to meet a strengthening demand from home gardeners looking to grow some of their own food.
In 2010, Roberts started planting ginger and turmeric, “just because I thought they were cool plants.” Little did she know they would rapidly gain popularity as superfoods, and that should would need to increase crop sizes every year since.
Even as the farm grew, the farmer didn’t leave her first career entirely behind. Roberts’ training experience still comes to the fore with monthly classes on the farm, covering everything from companion planting and pest control, to cooking and preserving the home harvest.
“I really enjoy just passing on basic life skills,” she says.
Heidi Billotto – food writer, cooking teacher, media personality, and fellow PCG member – has been a strong ally in sharing the Windcrest philosophy and food with a larger audience. By bringing her On The Farm cooking classes to Windcrest, she’s expanded Roberts’ talents from the soil to the kitchen.
“She thought we couldn’t do it because she didn’t have a place to cook,” says Billotto, but “I showed Mary that all it took was a bit of creative planning.” Whether in a greenhouse or on the back deck, the pair have introduced students to the farm and its products, as well as making Roberts more comfortable on the “cooking end of the local food spectrum.”
“Just ask her how to make a simple syrup from her beets or ginger,” says Billotto, who has also been able to include some Windcrest products in Competition Dining events, and even brought Roberts onto the demonstration stage at the Southern Shows Spring and Ideal Home Show.
Roberts’ talent for making good choices also led her to join the Piedmont Culinary Guild. She first found membership appealing as a way to connect more easily with chefs.
“It’s difficult geographically,” she says, “but also because chefs and farmers are probably the two hardest working groups with the most diametrically opposed hours.” She finds it an easier way to understand the chefs’ world, and the organization’s Facebook group has opened an effective line of communication with potential customers in the Charlotte area.
Coming full-circle, Roberts has dusted off her project-management skills as a recently inducted member of the PCG Board of Directors.
“It’s a chance to get a little deeper”, she says. With her unique combination of skills and innate sense of good fortune, she’s sure to help the Guild move closer to its own dreams of securing Charlotte’s local food system.
Profile written by Alison Leininger