Tenita Solanto wasn’t specifically looking for a change when she attended the Minority Farmers Workshop at Fayetteville State University in 2016, but that workshop set a new direction for the U.S. Navy veteran and former information technology employee.
It led to the founding of Green Panda Farms, an urban microgreens operation. Already, Solanto’s products are offered in the Durham Co-op Market and the Bulldega Urban Market in Durham. She also sells microgreens to restaurants and caterers in the Raleigh-Durham area, and takes online orders for Triangle delivery of the nutrient-packed greens at greenpandafarms.com.
Following a transition with her job, Solanto had founded her own IT company, offering computer services to small businesses. While working with the N.C. Veteran Business Association, she began brainstorming ideas on how to assist farmers with being more efficient in record keeping. She reasoned that attending the workshop aimed at people with small farm operations or interested in starting one might lead to some new opportunities.
“I went there to work with farmers on a business administration level, offering tools to help them keep their work and production records organized,” Solanto said. “However, after hearing the speeches from the local farmers, learning about their impact in the community and understanding that we need food, I felt inspired to try it.”
She knew she had three-quarters of an acre of land, but wanted to be able to grow year round. Solanto started reading up on urban farming opportunities, including indoor gardening.
“I started researching information and reading articles, and in less than 30 days, I was growing my first tray of microgreens,” Solanto said. And, so began the business.
Making her story even more interesting is that she didn’t grow up on a farm and never really grew plants before she started with the microgreens.
“I always think way bigger,” she said with a laugh. “Anyone can farm, you just have to have a little bit of drive and motivation.”
Thankfully, her studying and research paid off. “It’s science, and I like science,” she said. “There is a method to growing a good organic crop, and we follow those methods. You have to have the right soil, the right climate and the right air circulation. And we use all organic methods.”
Solanto believes her products will connect with people wanting healthier options, because the microgreens pack a nutritional punch. “Items like our pea shoot snack packs let people eat healthy on the go,” she said.
In-store samplings allow consumers not familiar with microgreens to learn more about the nutritional value and flavor of the products. “We do the sampling to show people what they can do with these products. To many customers, it’s brand new,” she said. “I like to show them it is way more than a garnish.”
Microgreens can be consumed as a salad or snack, juiced or added to dishes. A go-to sampling favorite is a strawberry salad that includes her Healthy Fresh Blend Microgreen Salad. “When we offer samples of our Strawberry Salad, everyone loves it and typically kids who do not like salad, usually end up coming back for seconds.”
Solanto hopes to grow the business, and has recently been award a Rural Advancement Foundation International grant to retrofit a building in Siler City to expand her operations. She is eyeing April as a potential start date for the building work. Expanding operations will allow her to serve more stores and potentially add other products to what she offers.
For now, she plans her production schedule around market demand, which has been growing as more people become familiar with the product.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services works one-on-one with small and minority farmers on a number of issues through workshops, meetings and other outreach activities. Staff provide assistance on gaining a farm identification number, providing information on programs that might be beneficial to a farming operation, and helping growers navigate state, federal and private programs and assistance geared towards small farms.
“The point of conferences such as the minority landowner event Tenita attended, is to provide outreach so landowners and farmers to help them make good decisions and be profitable,” said Archie Hart, director of the NCDA&CS Small and Minority Farms Program. “In the last couple of years, we’ve gotten about 70 people into farming.
“We are looking at high-value crops that will help them be profitable,” Hart said. That is especially important for limited-resource farmers, because the limited acreage and space they have means they must be as efficient as possible.
“Tenita is one of the first veterans we have worked with,” Hart added. “We are hoping her story will be an example to other veterans that they can do this, too.”