by Lesley Lammers
Twelve years ago, Cassie Parsons took a leap and left the corporate food industry where she worked as a chef. Discouraged by the work ethic and processed, unhealthy ingredients she was using, she tried her hands at organic landscaping for several years. One day when visiting Yesterways Farm to pick up organic fertilizer, Parsons was inspired by what she witnessed. Seeing the chickens, pigs and cattle roam freely in the pastures, she fell in love with the idea of farming.
A FARM EDUCATION
The 71 year-old farmer, Jane Biggers, shared words that really struck a cord with Parsons, “She told me it was criminal not to know where your food came from and for me to have been a chef for so many years thinking I knew everything about food.” After apprenticing for Biggers, Parsons and her partner Natalie Veres bought ten acres in Denver, NC and brought to life Grateful Growers Farm. Parsons soon came to realize that fresh, local, sustainable food was just plain superior. “This was a huge awakening for me as a chef; the flavor, texture, taste were incredible.”
UPSCALE STREET FARE
To Parsons, sustainability also means being able to pay your mortgage and make a living. Quickly understanding that running a small farm wasn’t cutting the mustard, she once again ventured back into the world of cooking, but this time with a new approach and awareness. Parsons received a grant from Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) to start a gourmet food truck in Charlotte featuring local, sustainably grown food from Grateful Growers and other nearby farms. Serendipitously, Dunhill Hotel General Manager Craig Spitzer became a loyal customer of her upscale street fare and offered Parsons the opportunity to revitalize the hotel’s on-the-skids restaurant. “It made sense because I could have fun doing what I love and spread the word about local food.”
A RESTAURANT IS BORN
Charlotte’s Harvest Moon Grille was born in 2010, sourcing approximately 95 percent of their food from within 100 miles of the restaurant. The other five percent accounts for staples like salt pepper, olive oil, oranges and limes for the bar. Many restaurants tout themselves as local, but few take it quite as seriously as Parsons, with a menu that on some days literally changes by the hour to adjust to the seasonal cornucopia. “That is the beauty of what we have created here, a creatively driven team inspired by whatever comes in the back door.” All breads and pastas are made in-house with local, certified organic grains, and several cheeses, dressings and charcuterie items are handmade on-site.
REAL ECONOMIC STIMULUS
Becoming a farm-to-table restaurant can seem like a daunting task logistically for most restaurants, explains Parsons. “Sometimes I think we intimidate other restaurants because we are doing what’s not comfortable, what’s hard and challenging.” In a typical month, Harvest Moon will source from 46 farmers, with some ingredients directly delivered and others picked up from the farmers market and their own farm. In their first year, Parsons was proud to spend $400,000 on product from local farms, half from farms within 40 miles. Her advice to other restauranteurs is to simply “take the plunge and do it. They will realize how fresh and clean local and sustainably grown food can be. I don’t compromise the integrity of our products. People really see it, taste it, smell it, feel it. It’s neat to watch that process.”
22 chefs work under Parson’s tutelage and she feels as though this is her way of impacting the next generation. The younger chefs are encouraged by the variety of local ingredients like purple cauliflower and crooked neck squash and are trained to utilize every part of the products. What can’t be used is given to their other set of workers -- the earthworms -- to be composted and used back on the farm.
Considering herself a lifelong entrepreneur, Parsons is always looking for ways to save money and find food sources even closer to the restaurant. On her drive to work, she kept noticing the empty lots and all the people living or spending the day out on the streets with idle hands. She thought there might be a win-win situation for both the restaurant and the community, a way to empower residents to empower themselves while putting extra cash in their pocket. “They may have a job at an hourly wage and this could help supplement their income and be a deal breaker for them.”
A NETWORK OF URBAN FARMS
This inspired the idea to start a network of urban farms that employ local community residents, the first being Seigle Farm at Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church just around the corner from Harvest Moon. Ultimately, Parson’s hopes to build five urban farms across Charlotte. This initiative along with Parsons’ sincere commitment to supporting local farms and the local economy earned her the Citizen Entrepreneur award from Global Green USA. “I just want to take care of my community. If I don’t create sustainability within my environment, then there will be no sustainability. We are trying to do things a little bit differently and do it with love in a