Farmer Kim Shaw of Small City Farm will readily admit that she really didn’t plan to become a farmer. But these days she’s always in planning mode, deciding to prune that, ordering seeds, or picking produce or flowers on her West Charlotte property in preparation for her Freshlist orders.
The larger question, this farming for a living, seemed to reseed itself year after year like the perennials she often grows. Her life as a farmer resembles a flower bed that has grown from idea to overflowing, abundant flower stalks leaning on each other to catch the sun, beautiful and unkempt but continually providing joy. It’s definitely abundant, a little out of control, and just the way Shaw likes it. But this isn’t just the story of a woman who turned from a gardener into a farmer. It’s how that journey has influenced the work on the plate of some of Charlotte’s most well-known chefs.
Years ago, Shaw was working in catering at the Club at Longview when she began growing a little plot on the property for chef Paul Verica to use in the kitchen. She and her husband, Rohan Gibbs, had always been gardeners — he the vegetable plot and she the flowers — so it seemed natural to her to utilize some of the club’s rolling grounds in this way. But when she requested more land, she was denied.
Shaw did not let this deter her; instead, she started a little veggie plot for the restaurant in the yard at her home in Cotswold. And anything she grew successfully, Verica incorporated into his menu. And then in 2007 she was laid off.
She and Gibbs started building raised beds that year. She also attended her first Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. In the last 12 years they’ve expanded the farm to three acres at their home in West Charlotte, where they host an 18-person CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) seasonal subscription service. In 2021, produce they sold through the CSA and the regional food hub Freshlist totalled approximately $40,000. And that’s all still from three acres.
“She is extremely passionate about what she does, busts her ass, and the product shows that,” says Alex Verica, executive chef of PARA Charlotte and Verica’s son. “I’ve grown up around her and really consider her an influence and a friend, and she always has my back.” That includes sometimes dropping a sample size of something off at his South End restaurant that is special, such as a small basket of plums that he can then play with and incorporate into a one-night only special.
Many of the other chefs she works with — which include some of Charlotte’s best and brightest — seem to repeat this sentiment: Shaw’s passion, personality, and product push them in the kitchen to delicious results.
“She’s very opinionated about certain heirloom varieties because she is growing for flavor,” says executive chef Ashley Boyd of 300 East. “That creates a little bit of tension in the professional kitchen because often these things aren’t the easiest for us to use. The watermelons have seeds and the tomatoes are delicate, but she’s right. She forces us to slow down, to make time to use these ingredients, and as a chef, is keeping me from spinning off to convenience.”
And about those tomatoes. While many of the varieties of fruits and vegetables that Small City Farm produces are showcase ingredients: The Arkansas Traveler tomatoes are stuff of Charlotte legend.
“These tomatoes are one of my favorite things on the planet to eat,” says private chef Ben Philpott, formerly of Block & Grinder where the BLT sandwich featuring Shaw’s tomatoes was one of the hottest limited-edition items on the menu. “Anything she grows is superior to anything anyone else does, and the first time I tasted one of these, it was a revelation.”
Like many heirloom varieties of tomatoes, this medium sized, deep-pink fruit is more suited to home gardens where the distance from vine to plate is short and doesn’t involve packing and transporting via truck, but Shaw ignores that idea and commits to taking care of the delicate beauties from seed to delivery.
“I think one of the best parts of Kim is her ability to play the long game,” says Erin Bradley, director of business development for Freshlist. “She’s built her landscape as an edible and decorative wonder so everything serves a purpose. She put in red bud trees specifically for the week and a half in the spring that they flower. The persimmons are only sold one week a year, but they’re lovingly tended year round. These special items are the reason chefs and buyers in our area know her and respect her.”
Chef Greg Collier of Leah & Louise agrees. “What’s dope about Kim is her passion to grow for chefs. She has the classics, some new stuff, and some crazy random stuff. Chefs love a challenge, and using new products is a perfect challenge.”
Shaw’s own current challenge is growing into the next, expanded vision of the farm. She and Gibbs (who works full-time in the non-profit sector but joins in on the farm work on the weekends) recently secured a USDA loan for a bigger barn, which will not only allow the farm’s CSA to almost double, but also provide the opportunity to open a farm stand in the former barn.
On July 16, Small City Farm hosted a “barn raising dinner” with 10 courses from Boyd and Philpott with wine pairings to serve as a homemade kickstarter for the project. “It’s an expensive price tag for a farm of our size, and I’ve never taken out a loan for anything,” Shaw says. But that kind of faith in the farm she built bed by bed is a little bit like buying seeds.
“I grow a lot of what I like or what catches my interests,” she says. “When I sit down with the [seed] catalogs, a wave of amnesia crashes over me. I don’t remember the hard work, what failed or didn’t produce. It’s magical.” And Shaw and Small City Farm are poised to keep that magic flowing for Charlotte chefs for a long time.