Growing the little greens: a big part of life at Sunshine Cove Farm
by Sherrie Norris
Not only were the Nicklaws looking for a wholesome atmosphere in which to raise their children, but they were also interested in growing a garden and living off the land, as much as possible.
After living all around the country for a decade, David had moved to Boone in 1998 upon the advice of friends. While dining with his parents at the Bistro (now Joy Bistro) one evening, he discovered Jill, the girl of his dreams, who was a student at Appalachian State University.
“David stalked me for a few nights before finally asking for my phone number,” Jill said. “We got married a little over a year later and then started having kids.”
First choosing the convenience of living in downtown Boone, the couple later began to consider other options.
“David saw a real estate ad in the paper that seemed to describe everything I wanted,” Jill said. “The ad just said that the place was off Roby Greene. We called the number listed, but the owner did not call us back immediately, so we began driving up and down that road looking for the sale signs.”
The couple saw nothing to indicate a farm for sale. “We started to drive up the adjoining roads when we saw a big green, 100-year-old farmhouse that looked vacant,” Jill said. “I told David if that was it, to tell the owner we would take it.”
It was that simple, the couple agrees.
“We got the property, and then started brainstorming about how it would be great to earn some of our living off of the land that came with it,” she said. “So, we started gardening and selling some produce at the farmer's market.”
They named the farm “Sunshine Cove Farm” after the road on which Jill lived while in college, “out in Vilas where I had my first garden and discovered my love for growing,” she said.
As a part-time instructor for adult high school education/GED classes at Caldwell Community College, Jill greatly anticipated the time she would be able to spend gardening.
As a homebuilder and employee of Harmony Timberworks at the time, the downfall of the construction industry marked the perfect opportunity to make a change.
“So whether it was food or shelter, I have pretty much stuck with the basic human necessities in my work since moving to Boone almost 15 years ago,” said David.
“David realized one night, in the spring of 2010 when we were looking through the seed catalog together, that there was an unfilled local niche and suggested that we grow micro greens,” Jill said.
The couple had no greenhouse at the time, so David “set me up,” Jill said, with an indoor growing space with shelves and lights.
“I took it from there,” she said, “and began growing just a few varieties and selling them at the farmer's market.
Soon, they developed a fan base at the Watauga County Farmer's Market. “I got better at growing them, and then we contacted Vidalia downtown and they were interested in buying from us for the restaurant,” Jill said.
“People always think Blowing Rock and Banner Elk for fine dining,” David said, “but some of the best fine dining in the High Country is right here in Boone. Vidalia and Joy Bistro both offer creative menus, professional service and outstanding food. Our newest customer, Char, is also a local favorite. Outside of Boone, our best restaurant customers are probably The Game Keeper, Westglow Spa, and Jefferson Landing. These places order from us every week — we can count on them, and they can count on us.”
The couple began to expand their in-house growing space.
“At night, our house with the grow lights on began to look like a UFO landing sight,” Jill said.
Soon, the couple was in touch with the New River Organic Growers, the local farmer's co-op that sells primarily to local restaurants.
“Caleb Crowell, their new marketer at the time, started taking our samples all over the High Country,” Jill said. “Caleb helped us catch the end of the tourist season here that year, as he set to work, in earnest, building our business.”
With Crowell's projections on the demand for this most recent growing season, the Nicklaws applied for and received a grant from Agricultural Options of Western North Carolina for expansion, which is funded through the Tobacco Trust Fund of North Carolina.
“We originally thought we would continue expansion in the house under lights,” Jill said, “but we realized that with growing demand, we just needed a greenhouse, so we put one up last spring.”
With greenhouse in place, they pursued and received Organic Certification; Jill also took classes in food safety to pursue certification in Good Agricultural Practices.
Starting in May of this year, Jill and David are both working the farm business full-time.
“David has really ramped up the garden this year to compliment the micro-green business, and we are working the Blowing Rock Farmer's Market in addition to the Watauga County Market at Horn in the West,” said Jill.
“We really appreciate the loyalty shown by both our restaurant customers and farmer's market patrons,” David said. “It really helps a small business like ours, when the community appreciates the importance of buying locally.”
The farm currently serves more than 20 restaurants in the High Country, and is expanding into central and coastal North Carolina; the Nicklaws cite New River Organic Growers as “a big help” in literally growing their business.
Jill continues to grow and package all the micro-greens, while developing new products to sell — “with Caleb's input and advice.”
“David does all the other things that make a business successful, such as having a logo designed, putting up our website, finding great packaging, and managing shipping for our mail order business, as well as keeping equipment in good working order,” Jill said. “We both ‘manage' our 10-year-old Olivia and seven-year-old Jack. We like to grow our own farm labor too and we really hope that this will become a true family business as the kids get older.”
Sunshine Cove Farm currently grows more than 25 varieties of micro-greens, or “baby plants,” that are about two inches high when harvested, or when their first true leaves appear. They are used primarily as a garnish, in salads, on sandwiches, in spring rolls and in countless other ways to tempt the eye, as well as the palate.
The farm offers several mixes, along with individual varieties such as Pak Choi, Red Russian Kale, Arugula, Bull's Blood Beet and Red Amaranth.
“We grow six different kinds of micro basil alone,” said David.
Custom orders and “signature combinations” for the discerning chef are also provided for many of the area's outstanding restaurants and country clubs.
“We grow them in trays on benches in our greenhouse, using a special organic growing mix,” David said. “Hydroponics just can't give us the quality that we demand.”
The Nicklaws believe strongly in the socio-economic value of local and regional food production, and the importance of organic and sustainable farming practices to the health of our future generations.
“At Sunshine Cove Farm, we don't just provide high quality micro-greens and excellent customer service — we provide a product that is USDA Certified Organic,” said David. “In fact, we are one of only a few farms specializing in micro-greens that enjoy this distinction.”
Sunshine Cove Farm sells micro-greens through several distributors, including New River Organic Growers, Eastern Carolina Organics, Let-Us Produce, and Farmers Fresh Market online.
“We ship wholesale orders overnight in carefully packed, insulated boxes, and package our product in high quality clear containers that are recyclable,” said David. “We also sell a whole range of farm products, including the greens, at the Watauga and Blowing Rock Farmer's Markets.”
For more information, contact Jill or David Nicklaw at (828) 264-2699 or (828) 406-9380; email: (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit http://www.sunshinecovefarm.com.