Tommy Barbee made a simple plea to the 30 future chefs shivering in the morning cold on his farm on Shelton Road.
"Give us a chance," he urged the students from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte on April 1. "That's all I would say. Come out and taste a tomato."
The students toured the sixth-generation family farm and the N.C. Department of Agriculture's Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury that day. They went to learn more about food production from its start, and about the research and science behind creating new food products.
Visiting Barbee and his son, Brent, also gave the students a chance to begin forging relationships with local farmers whose produce they can use in their restaurant kitchens.
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Their visit was part of the N.C. Strawberry Project, a first-of-its-kind partnership between Johnson & Wales and N.C. State University's Plants for Human Health Institute at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.
The yearlong project, supported by a $200,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation, focuses on breeding the best N.C. strawberry possible to increase the state's annual strawberry sales from the current $21million.
"The bottom line is that consumers will benefit with fresh, tastier, healthier food," said chef Mark Allison, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales. "And who doesn't love that?"
The project also aims to educate students on the benefits of using locally grown food, which can yield increased nutrition, freshness and flavor, according to N.C. State researchers.
Thus the students made the stop at Barbee Farms, which sells its fruits and vegetables at five farmers markets and a farm stand each week, and to numerous restaurants and grocery stores.
"What you're going to see here today is not Martha Stewart's garden," Barbee told the students. "Not everything you see is going to be perfect. This is a working farm. This is where we work, live and play. This is not a perfect world. It's the real world."
Barbee also explained the importance of growing various crops to a small family farm.
"We're not a huge producer of any one big crop," he said. "Diversity is our crop."
The farm hires local high school students and college-age adults as summer help. While pay is just above minimum, the workers enjoy being on the farm so much they return year after year, he said. "It's not glorious work," Barbee said. "It's hard work. Every day."
Barbee also answered students' questions, on everything from his definition of "organic" to the quality of North Carolina's red clay compared with other soils. He defended red clay as the best soil for various types of his crops.
The students walked along rows of vegetables, into a greenhouse and then a peach orchard, where Brent Barbee explained characteristics of his farm's peaches and when they would be ready to pick.
No one had to sell student Zach Weikle, 26, of Concord on the benefits of using fresh local produce in the recipes he'll one day create as a restaurant chef.
Weikle has helped the chef at the Speedway Club at Charlotte Motor Speedway, who uses some of Barbee Farms' vegetables, he said; and he works at Halcyon, a restaurant in the Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte.
"We can go to farmers at different times of the season for different fresh produce," Weikle said of his intention to use local produce as a chef. "And it tastes better, too. They don't have to truck it in from 2,000 miles away."