Exclusive: Tim Belk’s new adventure turned the former retailer into an organic farmer

Tim Belk hopes to grow organic farming

Belk manages Wild Hope Farm, a longtime dream of his wife Sarah Belk, after leaving the retail world.
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Belk manages Wild Hope Farm, a longtime dream of his wife Sarah Belk, after leaving the retail world.

CHESTER, S.C. Tim Belk always likes to have some kind of project to keep himself busy.

After clearing a mile-long trail on a wooded portion of his family’s property in Chester, S.C., in 2013, Belk had an arborist identify the dozens of trees that line the path, then put his five grown kids to work creating and mounting plaques for each tree.

Every year Belk has a venture like that, which his 26-year-old daughter, Katherine, describes as “fun-ish.”

It’s on that 200-plus-acre property that Belk, the former CEO of the Charlotte department store chain that bears his family’s name, is working on as his latest, albeit unexpected, project: Starting an organic farm.

On a recent crisp autumn day during a tour of his family’s Wild Hope Farm, Belk described organic farming as a fast-growing industry that’s especially attractive to young people willing to invest in sustainability and their well-being.

Of course, agriculture is a dramatic change of pace from the corporate environment Belk’s used to.

“People say to me, ‘Tim you seem different, you’re smiling so much more’ ” Belk says.

“One of the things I wanted was to have more control over my time. Being CEO, you’re on 24/7. You just don’t realize how much pressure that is until you get away,” he adds.


Wild Hope

It’s been about 16 months since Belk retired after selling the company to New York-based private equity firm Sycamore Partners in December 2015 for $3 billion. That drew to a close 128 years of family control of a business that mushroomed from a tiny store in Monroe to the nation’s biggest family-owned department store chain. The third generation of Belk leadership, Tim Belk took the reins from his uncle, John, the longtime Charlotte mayor.

The first several months after retirement included a little R&R and a lot of travel: The Belks traveled to Lebanon and Jordan “on an educational tour,” Belk says, then onto Croatia for hiking, biking and cycling.

Soon it was time for Belk’s next endeavor.

For the first time since his uncle retired as the company’s CEO in 2004, Tim Belk has a boss – his wife, Sarah. Belk describes her as the visionary, who had the idea for the farm, and himself as the implementer and financier.

Responsible for heavy-lifting of the fledgling business, however, are the three flannel-clad, jack-of-all-trade farmers that manage everything from hand-picking green beans and radishes to building relationships with restaurant customers to selecting the new design and logo for the farm.

The three are: Belk’s daughter, Katherine, who goes by Peanut and moved down from Boston this summer with her husband; farmer Shawn Jadrnicek, whom Belk hired from Clemson’s organic student farm program; and Henry Hernandez, a trained carpenter and landscaper.

It’s from Jadrnicek that Belk has learned most of what he knows now about soil, a surprising acumen from a Charlotte executive who has spent nearly his entire life in the retail industry. He’s also reading a college manual on soil.

During a tour for the Observer, Belk talks feverishly about the importance of the organic matter makeup of the farm’s soil, the abundance of organisms in the soil that help attract insects, and making compost to enrich the soil.

“I’m kind of hyper about this soil stuff,” Belk says.

Wild Hope Farm's rows of vegetables and cover crops look like multi-colored corduroy when seen from the air. John D. Simmons

Good food

Besides, Belk adds, “the key to good food is good soil.”

Radishes, turnips, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, garlic, fresh flowers and chicken eggs are just a few of the organic staples you will find at Wild Hope Farm. Plans are underway to open a greenhouse and a bee sanctuary for honey on the property, too.

The farm supplies to its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program members and restaurant customers whatever is fresh on a particular day.

Wild Hope’s CSA for now includes roughly 100 members, mostly friends and family, who pay $32 a week for 14 weeks. In April, it will officially open to more members. Each basket is carefully packed with enough fresh produce to feed a family of four for a week. They’re then delivered weekly by Peanut at a designated pickup spot – for now, Lenny Boy Brewing. Wild Hope’s also been doing various pop-up farm stands around Charlotte, Peanut says.

For restaurant customers like Pierre Bader, who owns Aria Tuscan Grill and other popular chains in Charlotte, that means he tweaks his menus to include the freshest local ingredients, such as kale that will be being mashed up for a butternut squash ravioli at Aria, or Swiss chard that will be served with trout.

“They’re a great source to have. They have the quantity that we can use,” says Bader, who met Peanut through mutual farming friends a few months ago.

Customers get baskets of whatever is available at Wild Hope Farm like these beets, radishes and carrots. John D. Simmons

Growing business

In hindsight, Belk was smart to leave the department-store business when he did. Falling sales have prompted chains such as Sears and Macy’s to close under-performing stores nationwide. Many other majors retailers are shrinking their brick-and-mortar store footprint as customers opt instead to shop online.

In terms of industry growth, organic farming is the antithesis of retail.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. farms produced and sold $7.6 billion in certified organic commodities in 2016, representing a 23 percent surge from 2015. The number of certified organic farms rose 11 percent over the same period.

The Belk family seems to have a knack for recognizing the opportunity for growth. Belk says in seeking out his next project, he wanted to build something that not only is profitable and can support a family, but something that can endure for generations.

“(Organic farming) has wind at its back,” he says. “If you surround yourself with the right people, you can make something of it.”

One of those people is David Dooley, a former Balfour Beatty executive in Charlotte who has known the Belks since the early 1960s. Dooley and his brother, Bob, started their family’s own farm, North Corner Haven, in 1972. They regularly consult with the Belks about farming.

Both the Belks and the Dooleys want to use their platform to help educate other young farmers and grow the local organic farming community.

The Belks, for instance, will start taking on seasonal apprentices, and will invite their CSA members to the farm to see firsthand how their food is harvested.

“The demand far outweighs the supply of what we’re doing,” Dooley says. “People are interested in how their food grows, and who grows it.”

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta