Like most of Charlotte, the area between the North Carolina border and the small town of Tega Cay is growing rapidly. On a small road off Route 160, the greenhouses of Tega Hills Farm huddle amidst orange construction barrels and the onslaught of a new housing development across the street. Yet inside the white covering of those greenhouses, the chaos fades away.
Here Mindy Robinson shows off a few of the nine varieties of lettuce upon which she and husband Mark have built a reputation. Floating on foam core in a carefully controlled hydroponic bath of nutrients, their neat rectangles offer a macroscopic version of the colorful tulip fields of the Netherlands.
Over in the main greenhouse, twenty types microgreens mimic the illusion in miniature.
These tiny plants were the savior of the Robinsons’ farming dream. Both grew up surrounded by agriculture, Mark on a 70-acre farm in Ohio, Mindy next to her grandfather’s 35 acres in Tennessee. She recalls childhood summers at the public pool, being summoned by her mother from the water every hour to snap beans brought along from their large kitchen garden. “The other mothers did it too, though, so it wasn’t an unusual thing,” she laughs. “And there were years we would have gone hungry if not for that garden.”
There were some years the new owners of Tega Hills Farm might have gone hungry too, if not for some fortunate timing and lucky connections. When the Robinsons purchased the farm in 1999, with the idea to grow and sell hydroponic tomatoes, it didn’t take long for the shine to come off. The challenges mounted in growing and selling the ultimate summer crop year-round in a market leery of “greenhouse tomatoes.”
“We probably made most of the mistakes you could make,” admits Robinson, describing a steep learning curve in maximizing yield for a crop particularly susceptible to pests and disease. Though they had inherited some customers through the previous owners’ subscription program, their major outlet was through the Regional Farmers Market.
“As we were going to the farmers’ markets, it became apparent that people buy [lettuce] all the time,” she says. At the same time, her husband had begun experimenting with a simple method of hydroponic growing, and the writing was on the wall.
By 2002, the couple had transitioned to focus more on lettuce, and Robinson assumes it was the sight of all that greenery that pulled chef Ben Miles, then of Blue, to her booth. “This chef just showed up,” she recalls. “He asked for purple basil.” Turned out Miles was unhappy with the microgreens he’d been receiving from other sources and was looking for a local farm to supply him.
From that accidental meeting grew a second revenue stream, as Miles quickly recommended other chefs who might appreciate Tega Hills microgreens.
One of the first was PCG member Bruce Moffett, who still orders from the farm each week.
“Back then, the big thing was to get everything flown in to Charlotte. I was looking to use stuff that was produced locally,” he says. “The product is always consistent and it’s always beautiful.”
Back in her small kitchen whipping up a hearty lunch for her handful of employees, Robinson says, “Having a customer base with chefs turned us around.” As it happened, the couple’s timing was fortuitous, as fine dining in Charlotte was at the beginning of a renaissance. “All of those guys had started their restaurants within a year of when we approached them, so they were new and on the edge too.”
Though continuing at two farmers’ markets and a few retail locations, such as PCG member Rochelle Baxter’s Vin Master (formerly Queen City Pantry), the vast majority of Tega Hills’ deliveries today go to over 50 restaurants and caterers.
Even with a strong clientele built primarily through word of mouth, Robinson values membership in the Piedmont Culinary Guild. “I don’t know that I’ve necessarily sold more product because of being in the PCG,” she says, “But it’s good for me to see what’s on the chefs’ minds.”
The same holds true with her farming peers. “Farmers who live close to each other are buddies; they help each other out. I’m not [geographically] close enough to anybody for that,” she says. But through Facebook discussions, she says “It was neat to think that we had sort of an official way to communicate with each other or to address the same issues,” such as labor. Robinson has even extended the support, recently bringing in new member Jennifer Stalford of J&J Family Farms in Clover.
As she mixes up a cake for her employees’ dessert, it becomes clear that forging strong community relationships is a natural reflex for Robinson, one that should continue to work in her favor.
As Moffett says about Tega Hills products, “There have been times people have tried to get me to switch over to something else, and I feel like I have such a bond with them over the last 10 or 12 years. It would be very hard to walk away from that.”
Profile written by Alison Leininger