Putting down roots: How Reedy River Farms plans to compete against major U.S. food suppliers

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A Wofford College graduate dropped out of a masters program and started an urban farm near downtown. Now that farmer hopes to start competing against major U.S. food suppliers – all from an acre of land.

George Dubose, founder of Reedy River Farms, will be the first person to admit he’s not as seasoned as his competition. “We’re not the best,” he says. “The learning curve is still five years for farming. But I really believe we’re close to having a solid operation.”

Last year, Dubose planted seeds on half an acre on Mayberry Street and sold his first head of lettuce to the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery. The urban farm now supplies 450 pounds of organically grown produce a week to multiple restaurants, including American Grocery Restaurant, Passerelle Bistro, Bacon Bros Public House and more.

That number is about to change. Dubose and his business partner Chris Miller, who joined the farm a few months after it opened, will plant a half-acre plot at 1176 Pendleton St. on Oct. 1.

The new location is going to double the farm’s production to 100 beds. That could help the farm supply more restaurants and compete against large food suppliers.

“I just want to land a huge account,” said Dubose. “The demand was too high before, because we could only grow so much. But we stand a chance with this plot. I really believe we could grow a hundred pounds of turnips for several weeks now.”

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The plot could also open the farm up to West Greenville’s selection of restaurants. The duo is already selling produce to Coastal Crust Pizza Truck and GB&D, which opened earlier this year. The duo also plans to sell to The Anchorage when it opens on Perry Avenue later this year. Their reputation has already set them up for success.

“Reedy River Farms might be the new kids on the block, but they’re really setting a high standard for farmers wanting to grow alongside restaurants,” said Greg McPhee, owner of The Anchorage and former executive chef of Restaurant 17. “Quality is paramount at the end of the day. And that’s why they’re my No. 1 farm right now. They have it.”

 

From Shakespeare to Farming

 

While Dubose and Miller have cultivated a growing customer base and reputation in the culinary world, the road to success wasn’t always so clear.

Dubose graduated from Wofford College in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in English and business. He then relocated and started a job at Nalley Commercial Properties in Easley. In 2010, he decided to pursue a Master of Arts degree at Clemson.

He spent three years pursuing his degree but dropped out. “I just decided that office life or academia wasn’t for me. I was meant to be outside,” said Dubose. “And I was eating really bad food and smoking cigarettes and was considering a life change. So I just decided that growing food for a living would be the best thing I could do.”

Dubose spent a couple of months searching for farms, where he could learn the ins and outs of agriculture. He found an apprenticeship at Mountain Harvest Organics in Hot Springs, N.C. Dubose relocated and started living on the 5-acre farm.

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It was there he met Chris Miller, who had dropped out from pursuing an environmental science degree at the University of Northern Michigan to become an organic farmer. Dubose and Miller became friends, contemplating plans for their own farm beside campfires. But the duo went their separate ways in 2014.

Dubose then became an intern at Greenbrier Farms, where he spent eight months under the instruction of co-owner Chad Bishop. It was there that Dubose started to excel and make a name for himself in the farming community.

“He was one of only two that actually finished the season,” said Bishop. “He seemed engaged in why we were doing things the way we did them instead of mindlessly doing the task in front of him, which is rare. George and I talked quite a bit about his plans after his internship, so I felt pretty sure he was going to give it an official go of it.”

As the end of the internship neared, Dubose felt that it was time to start his own farm. At first, he searched for land in the “more rural areas” of Greenville so that he could raise livestock. But Dubose changed his mind after seeing how much it would cost.

“I decided that urban farming made more sense, because you don’t have to put in a massive capital investment. So I started looking in the city,” Dubose said.

Dubose found 3.5 acres less than a mile from downtown Greenville. He called owner Phil Hughes of Hughes Investments, who decided to let him use the land for free as long as he paid for liability insurance. Dubose agreed and started designing his urban farm.

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But he made a disappointing discovery – only half an acre could be planted. So he decided to use Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) farming, an organic-based production method designed to get as much profit from each square foot of land as possible.

SPIN farming requires farmers to plant three varieties of produce in a narrow, long crop bed each season. Thirteen beds, or one segment, can reap about $1,300 in gross sales. Half an acre of land can hold about 20 segments, producing $26,000 in gross revenue.

SPIN farms can generate more than $50,000 in gross sales from half an acre of land in about 10 years, according to Cornell University. Relay cropping, where the second crop is planted into the first crop before harvest, can boost sales. Twenty intensively planted segments with three crops per season can produce $78,000 in gross revenue.

In February 2015, Dubose cleared the land, added a green house and planted 50 beds of baby greens, turnips and other root vegetables About a month later, Dubose harvested his produce and set his sights on restaurants in or around downtown Greenville.

“I thought it would be the biggest opportunity for the farm,” said Dubose. “Our restaurant scene is just continuously growing. I mean, we’re really getting to the point where we can compete with Asheville and Charleston in terms of culinary talent.”

Within a 10-block stretch, there are more than 120 independent restaurants in downtown Greenville, according to the city of Greenville. Countless restaurants, including Cantina 76, Caviar & Bananas and Ink N Ivy, have opened in downtown this year.

Dubose sold his first couple of crops to The Lazy Goat, Passerelle Bistro, Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery and The Farm Cart. But soon after, Dubose recruited Craig Weiner, owner of Broken Oak Organics, to help with sales.

“I remember he came down one morning that May and picked up some kale and sold it to Southern Press Juicery. I’d never been so excited about anything in my life,” said Dubose. “He was really instrumental to some of those early sales.”

While Dubose flourished in the spring, the summer brought devastation. “It was a punch in the gut. I just wasn’t prepared for the heat, humidity or insects. So I suffered in the field and the crops really shut down. The baby greens, which were seeing a revenue stream, just shriveled up and died in the heat. I just couldn’t sell them.”

 

From Farm to Table

 

As the summer ended, Dubose started to prepare for the fall and reconnected with Miller, who was working on a farm in Michigan at the time. He told him about Reedy River Farms, and Miller turned in his notice a few days later.

Miller relocated shortly after and became an official partner in September. Since then, Reedy River Farms has flourished because of his marketing capabilities, cultivated during his time at farms and restaurants throughout the Midwest.

After leaving Mountain Harvest Organics, Miller spent a year in Chicago at Marigold Hill Organics. There, he learned how to sell to restaurants, including Parachute Restaurant, which received a Michelin star that year.

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Intrigued by the culinary scene, Miller relocated and started working on the Ham Family Farm in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the day, Miller worked the farm. But at night, he worked at a farm-to-table restaurant, hoping to learn more about the movement.

“Grand Rapids had an awesome culinary scene, which taught me that restaurants want variety. The idea is flavor and freshness. There are varieties within varieties that have more flavors. That’s why heirloom has became popular,” he said.

Miller incorporated that theory at Reedy River Farms, which now imports seeds from Johnny’s and Baker Creek Heirloom and grows radishes, sweet peppers, squash, baby Red Russian kale, cherry tomatoes, arugula, okra, eggplant, carrots and more.

With a boosted inventory, the duo started to sell to more restaurants. They can still recall their first sale: “We went to American Grocery before dinner that fall to sale baby greens, and I let Chris take the lead. And it was just so good. I swear to this day that he must have planned that pitch ahead of time,” Dubose said.

“Funny thing, that pitch wasn’t rehearsed at all,” said Miller. “I was just passionate. I want us to bring the best produce to tables. That’s what Reedy River Farms is about.”

With the door open to high-level restaurants, the farm started to get more business. Now, the farm supplies Bacon Bros Public House, Adam’s Mobile Market, Stellar Wine Bar, North Hampton Wines, Restaurant 17, GB&D and Coastal Crust Pizza Truck.

“Their selection is more chef-oriented,” said Philip Scott, sous chef at American Grocery Restaurant. “We had asked them to grow about 200 pounds of Carmen sweet peppers for a paste. And they did. It’s really that time and effort that will help Greenville catch up to Charleston’s culinary scene. If our farms are doing well, our restaurants are doing well.”

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As winter neared, the duo closed the farm. However, Dubose formulated plans to bring in more profits. In January, Dubose applied for the TD Saturday Market. Reedy River Farms was accepted on its first attempt – a rare occurrence.

When spring returned, Dubose and Miller planted the field and prepared for the market. In May, the duo set up their first tent and put up a sign decorated by Dubose’s mom, who is an artist at the Artist Guild Gallery in downtown Greenville. The farm sold most of its produce on the first of the market and has continued to see similar success since then.

“I got emotional on the first day,” said Dubose, tearing up. “I was just like, ‘Oh my god, it’s actually working.’ It was incredible to see that after all the work we had put into the farm for the past year. And the support from my friends and family has been critical to our success. Without them, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today.”

 

Building the brand

 

With boosted sales, Dubose and Miller got the idea to sell to more restaurants. So the duo visited 2 Chefs Cafe & Market on North Main Street to sell lettuce. The restaurant agreed but needed 150 pounds of lettuce per a week. It would be a challenge for the duo.

“Each of these restaurants deal with U.S Foods and Sysco, which are the largest food purveyors in the nation,” said Dubose. “When they requested that much, I was stunned. So we planned for it and tried. We came really close but failed. I could see how it would be possible for us to do it. But we needed more land to keep up with demand.”

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The duo lasted three weeks before they had to end the deal. Almost immediately, Dubose and Miller started searching for more land. Dubose remembered a location that he had scouted before starting the farm. It was the plot on Pendleton Street.

He started researching the plot, and during a routine delivery to Bacon Bros in June, Dubose bumped into Mike McGirr, director of Feed & Seed, a nonprofit that connects farms to consumers by distributing products to farmers markets. Dubose told him about his need for more land. And it just so happened that McGirr had the perfect location in mind – the plot on Pendleton Street. In fact, McGirr even knew the owners.

A few days later, Dubose and McGirr met with owner Amy Vaz and her husband, Dev, a cardiovascular surgeon with Greenville Health System. They decided to lease the land to Dubose and Miller.

“As luck would have it, I started seeing announcements that new local restaurants would be located a stone’s throw from the plots. These establishments could be supplied by the wonderful bounty of Reedy River Farms,” said Vaz. “This is more progress on Pendleton Street than we could have imagined, but we are overjoyed.”

Dubose and Miller immediately started prepping the land for SPIN farming and placed a tarp over the land to kill the grass. For two months, the land sat undisturbed. The duo lifted the tarp in August and started preparing the land for planting.

But they also saw an opportunity to build more connections and save money.

The duo called Vaz and asked if they could build a shared parking spot for Charleston’s Coastal Crust Pizza Truck. She agreed and the food truck started using the spot when it opened in August. Dubose worked out an agreement with the truck so that he provides produce and a parking spot as long as the truck pays his utilities for a walk-in cooler.

Currently, Dubose is handling the preparation of the land while Miller tends to the farm on Mayberry Street. The new location won’t just boost production and business, it is going to give the duo a safe haven in the future, which is uncertain.

 

Starting from scratch

 

The farm on Mayberry Street is part of the Reedy River Redevelopment Area, which is bounded by West Washington, Mayberry and Hudson streets. The area will become the city’s signature park. The 3.5 acres at Mayberry Street is planned for the first phase of redevelopment, which should begin sometime in the next decade.

“We’ll be invited to leave within the next three years. Mr. Hughes told us about the park when we moved in. But I didn’t worry, because I knew we’d move onto bigger things,” said Dubose. “For right now, I’m looking for other places in town. I can’t turn it off. Every time I’m driving around Greenville, I’m looking at old torn down lots.”

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Dubose and Miller are also worried about losing the attention that the Swamp Rabbit Trail has brought them. The 21-mile biking path had about 501,000 users last year, according to Greenville County. It’s been a free marketing tool.

“The trail has been huge for us. We don’t have any signage, but people come by all the time and stop at our green house. It was really smart on George’s part to set the farm up here,” said Miller. “We’re very thankful for the time we’ve had to grow here. But we’re going to miss it. We just hope the trail runs into The Village eventually.”

The relocation could lead to different farming approaches.

Dubose and Miller hope to lease multiple plots of land throughout the city and rotate crops on about 2 acres, which would allow them to increase volume and sell to the larger restaurants in the area. “If anyone has a decent, flat backyard with sunlight and they’re tired of cutting their grass, give me a call,” Dubose said.

For now, the duo plans to expand their operation and sell produce in the winter. Dubose and Miller plan to add three more greenhouses and low tunnels to their half an acre on Mayberry Street this fall.

Low tunnels, which are metal hoops with plastic draped over them, sit above crops, offering protection from the wind and frost. The temperatures inside a low tunnel can reach up to 10 degrees higher than outside.

“A lot of the local farms shut down during the winter – and with good reason. But we’re going to try to capitalize on that fact,” said Miller. “Our hopes are to grow year-around. But we’ll have to see how this winter goes before we make any final decisions.”

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As for the spring, Dubose and Miller are contemplating a different approach for the new half-acre plot on Pendleton Street. The duo might just focus their efforts on more volume of the same variety.

“You can’t really get a lot of baby greens from U.S. Foods or Sysco, because they don’t travel well,” said Dubose. “But it’s a big risk. You’re SOL if you put your energy into the crops and some bug comes along and chews it up.”

Dubose and Miller might also offer landscaping services. Earlier this summer, the duo started offering home garden installations and yard maintenance as well as planning and design. However, the duo couldn’t handle both landscaping and the farm.

“That turned out to be a dead end. It’s just a whole different business. And if you can’t devote yourself to it, then it’s not a responsible business move. We’ll probably revisit it someday in the future when we’re more established. But we both want our customers to be happy, and we can’t do that right now if we’re doing both. So we’re going to just focus on what we do best – growing and selling vegetables,” Dubose said.

For more information, visit reedyriverfarms.com.

All photos by Will Crooks, visual director. 

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