American Heartland Acres: Pioneering Locally Grown Basil in North Carolina

Posted by Amy Storey on August 5, 2016

 

Matt_Upstart_Photo.jpgMade to innovate

Growing up on a farm taught Matt Marsh the work ethic to pair with his "dreamer" personality. The result of this pairing? Matt was uniquely equipped to solve a problem rampant not only in his home state of North Carolina, but across the country.
 
In an area with dozens of local farms, he saw an industry with great potential that just wasn't being achieved. Not only is the average age of the modern day farmer increasing, but the occupation is notoriously tough on it's members. "You'd see a farmer that was 60 with a body like they were 80," said Matt.
 
Matt knew that to breathe new life into the industry, new farmers would have to find a better way to make a profit. 
 
"Our desire to start a farm was financially motivated once we realized the rising age of farmers in America. We knew someone would have to take on the craft. Also, seeing our rural town become more and more populated with subdivision was something I wanted to avoid see happen to our family farm. "
 
-Youd_see_a_farmer_that_was_60_with_a_body_like_they_were_80.-.pngThis challenge - hard for traditional small farmers - was going to take creative thinking and hard work. He also knew that he was up to the challenge. After all, the industry is undergoing a massive shift that is changing things for small farmers. For consumers, the value of food is more and more defined by transparency, ethical resources management, and sustainable practices.  Small farmers are a perfect fit to meet those desires. 
 
"Our goal is to help regenerate an appreciation for locally supplied goods and services that are produced with healthy practices and without questionable fertilizers or pesticides. We are finding that the quality speaks for itself and that more people are satisfied that there is a healthy, local option."
 

Unlocking profitability: Matt's 3-part approach

On the other hand, many young farmers that are entering the industry either aren't prepared, or they don't leverage the new tools that this century offers, and cannot make a profit. Matt didn't want to be the farmer's version of a "starving artist" - a lifestyle steeped in sacrifice with minimal returns.
 
North Carolina's motto is "Esse quam videri" or "To be, rather than to seem." It's about honesty, transparency, and acceptance of the way things are. Rather than trying to change the system or wish that things were different, Matt got smart. He observed the markets, studied his growing techniques, and weighed various options (including starting a "truffle orchard"). In the end he saw the best opportunity was  growing herbs in ZipGrow Towers. He built out a growing system in an environmentally controlled greenhouse, and named the farm American Heartland Acres.
 
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True to North Carolina's state motto, Matt took action and worked within the existing system. 
 
Now, Matt lives out the motto in a different way: by offering transparently grown, high quality produce to his immediate community. By representing the farm in its entirety, Matt has built a brand with a common trait among small farms: Matt is American Heartland Acres, and American Heartland Acres is Matt. When you buy basil from the farm, you buy a relationship with its owner. You buy access to information. You buy transparency and passion.
 
In local restaurants, Matt has found that chefs are deeply appreciative of the homegrown herbs that flavor their dishes. Matt has established American Heartland Acres as the farm for growing basil. 
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Matt and the rest of the American Heartland Acres team (including expansion expert Julian Hall, Crystal Marsh, and land manager Bruce Ellington) did several things that contributed to the farm's success.
 
We think that any farmer, new or old, can learn from them:
 

1) He considered multiple options.

Originally, Matt wanted American Heartland Acres to grow truffles. But growing the trees and inoculating them would have taken at least 7 years. He knew that getting investors with a ROI that long would be tough, and that he would have to bridge the 7 year gap with something profitable.
 
He started looking into something to fill the greenhouse that would give him the best use of that space. After comparing aquaponic options, Matt found ZipGrow Towers. He realized that he could be even more profitable using them than with a truffle farm, and that the support and simplicity made them the best option.
 
"Bright Agrotech has been the single best resource for us from the start," says Matt.  "I came across the website while researching aquaponics and fell in love with the simplicity in which Dr. Storey approached farming. It just made sense that we could use our square footage in a more productive way while possibly lowering our labor commitment. Considering the resources, ZipGrow products, and continued support we received with Elesif it was a no-brainer! "
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In the end, Matt decided on growing basil in ZipGrow Towers.  Weighing and comparing multiple options for crops and growing techniques allowed Matt to understand the benefits of the system better. That intimate knowledge of ZipGrow's strength then allowed him to leverage those strengths and grow an extremely high quality crop.
 

2) He took an unconventional path into sales.

Having experience in sales, Matt knew that he could have better luck starting from the top than walking through the front door as a "just another salesman". Because he was willing to go through a longer sales funnel (1-2 months to secure accounts) and because he met with the top guys in the industry, he got a backdoor into accounts. He was referred to multiple restaurants who already knew that he and his product were legit.
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3) He sold produce on comparative advantage.

In Stem and the nearby city of Durham, local food is very prevalent.  For a local farm like American Heartland Acres, this is both a blessing and curse. On one hand, consumers, chefs, and produce managers are familiar with local food and know that it's good. On the other hand, there is a lot of it, and local farmers have to compete more on pricing. Matt quickly learned that if the farm's uniquely grown produce was going to have a place in the market, buyers would need to understand its comparative advantage.
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Rising to the challenge - and beyond!

Of course, every farm has challenges. Thanks to Matt's smart approach to sales and marketing his challenges aren't insurmountable. They include dealing with the North Carolina heat, which is difficult to assuage in the humidity. Because the farm is using only biological pest controls, the greenhouse must be extremely biologically secure, which makes airflow very difficult. This, of course, only amplifies the heat problem. 
 
Another challenge which is very familiar with every farmer who is both growing and selling, is finding enough face time in his schedule. Both account maintenance and greenhouse maintenance require hands-on and in-person time. So far, Matt and his team have managed. Considering the great innovation and hard work that the farmer has displayed so far, we have no doubt that he will grow American Heartland Acres beyond our expectations.
 
Matt says that the American Heartland Acres business is looking forward to growing a network, and other potential opportunities like agritourism and hands-on training. Ultimately, the goal is to empower entire communities with local food.
 
You can follow Matt Marsh and American Heartland Acres on Facebook or Instagram.
 

Upstart_Farmers_Logo_-_Blue.pngLearn more about the Upstart Farmers

They believe that transparent food and good business go together. They grow honest, ethical food. They're changing the shape of the vertical farming industry. Learn more about Upstart Farmers and whether you belong in the Upstart community here.
 
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