When Happy Dirt’s founder Sandi Kronick moved to North Carolina, she was 21 years old and found herself in the right place at the right time. The tobacco industry was in slow, yet swift, decline, and the USDA’s National Organic Program had recently gone into effect 12 years after the National Food Production Act of 1990 was passed. While working with a nonprofit that supported organic and regional farmers, Sandi saw an opportunity for organic produce to become the “new tobacco” for North Carolina farmers. The market for organic vegetables was growing fast across the country, and North Carolina farmers were perfectly positioned to supply the increasing demand.
“Farmers could grow acres and acres of organic sweet potatoes and kale in the vacant fields that were once used to grow organic tobacco,” said Kronick. “This could not only positively impact farmers and their livelihoods, but could also act as an economic engine in rural areas.”
Along with the guidance of a handful of farmers, a box truck, and a passion, Sandi received a grant from the North Carolina legislature in 2004 to launch Happy Dirt (formerly Eastern Carolina Organics). Because the company was for farmers and shaped by farmers, Sandi created a company model that offered ownership opportunities to farmers. Almost 20 years later, Happy Dirt has 16 farmer owners.
Celebrating Happy Dirt Farmers
To put it simply, farming is a hard job with a lot of long days and very little (if any) vacation time. Not to mention, farmers depend on ideal weather conditions in order to produce healthy crops. At the end of the day, farmers continue to do the work because it’s what they know and what they love.
Each year, we host a farmer gathering to celebrate our farmer partners, giving them the opportunity to leave the farm for a day to enjoy good food, conversation, and collaboration. This year, John Kempf joined us via Zoom to chat with our farmers about regenerative farming and the science of good soil health, while we enjoyed barbecue from Mike D’s BBQ. We also wanted to honor our farmers in a special way.
When planning the annual growers meeting, we threw around a lot of different ideas on how we could change things up a bit. We ultimately decided to create the Happy Dirt Grower Awards! Brainstorming the award categories was exciting, but deciding which grower would receive the award was hard! But after much deliberation among the team, we narrowed down the categories and winners for the 2022 Happy Dirt Grower Awards.
Farmer of the Year Award
Winner: Randall Watkins
The Farmer of the Year award goes to a farmer that is set apart by the integrity with which they run their business, the ease of communication that they bring when working with Happy Dirt, and their willingness to plan and take chances with us as we grow our programs and offerings. Randall Watkins is our Happy Dirt Farmer of the Year for 2022 for all of these reasons and for how much passion he brings to growing, cleaning and packing the very best organic sweet potato possible.
Emerging Farmer Award
Winner: Butler Family Farms
The Emerging Farmer award is for an up-and-coming farm with Happy Dirt, constantly growing, ambitious yet humble farmer that has found their path working with Happy Dirt, and is inspired to collaborate more with us, other farmers, and others in our network. While Butler Family Farms has been in operation for over 100 years, they are just in their second year of working with Happy Dirt. This farming family doesn’t shy away from a challenge, and we love that they are always willing to try something new while still staying true to their roots. When we asked them to grow new varieties of familiar crops or try different packaging styles, they didn’t think twice.
Innovative Farmer Award
Winner: Randy Massey
The Innovative Farmer award honors the farmer who is constantly pushing the envelope of new growing techniques, labor practices, and efficiencies on the farm. They can pivot on a dime when a challenge arises and have shown resiliency time and time again. Our Grower Services Coordinator, Taylor Holenbeck, has learned something new every time he has visited Randy Massey, from using oats as a cover crop in the aisles between crops, to focusing on adding microbial activity back into his soil, to retrofitting new equipment to make harvest easier for his workers, Randy Massey is constantly innovating. Taylor accepted the award on Randy’s behalf because Randy was busy…innovating!
Legacy Farmer Award
Winner: Richard Ward
The Legacy Farmer award celebrates our seasoned farmers, who have been with us all along, sharing their wisdom and hard work with us the entire way. This year’s Legacy Farmer award shines a light Richard Ward, who has not only been dedicated to his farm and family, but to the Happy Dirt family and our collective vision.
All of our farmers are heroes and deserve the highest of praise for the work they do 7 days a week. Without their dedication to their work, we wouldn’t have beautiful, delicious organic produce. We thank them, and we know the soil thanks them. We can’t wait to see what the new year brings and to honor more farmers at the 2023 Grower Awards.