Sweetness of Mother Nature: Vendors and restaurateurs stay connected to the source

BY • Feb 21 • 1453 Views • No Comments on Sweetness of Mother Nature: Vendors and restaurateurs stay connected to the source

“How long have you been farming?” I ask Frankie Pridgen first.
“All of my life!” he replies excitedly. “Moved from my parents’ brick house down on the corner of the highway and Poplar Branch to 7 acres up the road here. Only move I’ve ever made. I remember my grandparents putting okra on the train at Rocky Point to sell in New York City!”

Above: Frankie Pridgen shows off his sprouting seedlings, which will become lush vegetables to sell at the Riverfront Farmers’ Market when it opens in April.

Above: Frankie Pridgen shows off his sprouting seedlings, which will become lush vegetables to sell at the Riverfront Farmers’ Market when it opens in April.

One of the original vendors at the Wilmington Riverfront Farmers’ Market and a former board member, Pridgen follows organic standards in growing a wide spectrum of vegetables and grapes on his Rocky Point farm. Family and friends, including his mother, daughter Ashtyn, girlfriend Deven Boyles, and seasonal workers help him with the harvest. He sells his produce to a number of fine restaurants, including Pembroke’s, Rx, Circa 1922, Boca Bay, Chops Deli, and Osteria Cicchetti. He also manages eight hives of Italian honey bees, and plans to expand the number of hives and operate a pollinating business in the next five years.

A career firefighter and cowboy-cooking instructor, farming and beekeeping have been side businesses for Pridgen. But working the land is in his blood and will serve him well into retirement.

“I used to make more money selling my produce at the farmers’ market, but now my business with the restaurants is just as profitable,” Pridgen admits. “Chefs know if they run out of tomatoes in the middle of rush hour, they can call me and I will deliver what they need. I may have to source it from other growers, but I will deliver!”

Pembroke’s and Rx executive chef and owner James Doss has worked with Pridgen for the past five years and calls him the “farm ambassador.” “I use his tomatoes in our shrimp and grits, and his gold potatoes, red potatoes and squash as sides,” Doss tells. “He grows great watermelons! We compress them with a vacuum seal machine which makes them really red and tasty, and sprinkle with sea salt.”

Chef de cuisine Carson Jewell of Rx Restaurant says he and Frankie are on the same page. With his beautiful Big Red and Cherokee heirloom tomatoes, he calls Pridgen his sliced-tomato guy.
Doss and Jewell also use the peaches and apples Pridgen sources from the western part of North Carolina. Peaches are used for cobblers, jams and other desserts. They are served with pork, too, and apples make a delicious mignonette for oysters.

During the early winter when the ground’s at rest, Pridgen tests his soil for needed amendments and adds animal manures as necessary. He plans his crops around a four-year rotation. He uses his two greenhouses, a regular heated one that is 24-feet-by-48-feet, and a high-tunnel one, 30-feet-by-25-feet, which is only viable February through November. “My challenge every year is to propagate and plant earlier and earlier until I have produce all through the winter.”

Board president Ron Koster said there will be 30 vendors for this year’s Wilmington Riverfront Farmers’ Market. Each Saturday, Apr. 15 through Nov. 18, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., local and organic growers will be on hand to educate consumers about the benefits of seasonal eating and to encourage the use of locally grown farm products.

Market manager BJ Ryan coordinates the vendors, and says Pridgen will be selling broccoli, cucumbers, eggplants, green beans, greens, Irish potatoes, lima beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, and of course heirloom tomatoes. Some of the harvest from his 295 muscadine grapevines will be on hand, as well as jars of his golden honey. When it comes to the cultivation of his sweet-tasting muscadines, Pridgen says it’s a family secret. But one consumer comments, “Oh, I remember these from my grandma!”

Pridgen’s honey is delicious, too. Certified through the New Hanover County Beekeepers’ Association just last year, Pridgen is excited about the prospect of cultivating enough hives of Italian honey bees to rent out to fruit farms for pollination, four-to-six weeks at a time. Bees gather nectar from a 3-mile radius, and Pridgen’s bees have access to flowering blackberries, clover and dandelions around mid-April.

Master beekeeper David Bridgers has 200 hives for his pollinating business and helps educate beekeepers throughout the state. He won a blue ribbon for honey at the Eastern Agricultural Society in 2010. He and his wife Kay have three grandchildren, and Bridgers enjoys giving talks to elementary school kids. He’s very excited about the North Carolina Beekeeping Association’s 100th anniversary, an organization which is the oldest of its kind in the nation. This association has adopted a “honey standard,” by which beekeepers who sell honey must abide.

Bridgers says beekeepers need to monitor the food supply in their beehives during the winter, so the bees will have enough to eat and nurture the queen bee. She is very busy laying eggs at this time and must be properly nourished. (Read “Top 10 Tips for Winter Beekeepers,” by Lauren Arcuri, small farms expert.) Bridgers agrees that honey mixed with cinnamon may help people who suffer from allergies and other ailments. (See “Facts on honey and cinnamon: Q. What is the only food that doesn’t spoil? A. Honey”).

For more information on beekeeping, call David Bridgers at 910-512-2765. For upcoming Wilmington Riverfront Farmers’ Market dates, call BJ Ryan at 910-538-6223 or go to www.riverfrontfarmersmarket.org. To contact Frankie Pridgen, e-mail fpridgen@live.com.

3 tomatoes, chopped
1 large cucumber, seeded and peeled
1 yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. Texas Pete
1 bunch parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in blender and run until smooth. Finish with Georgia olive oil and Wrightsville Beach sea salt. Serve as a chilled soup. Enjoy!

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