Belk family shifts from fashions to farming
Photos by Zan Maddox
Forty-five miles south of downtown Charlotte, the same family that filled generations of North Carolinians’ closets with garments is slowly working its way into Tar Heel kitchens, one head of broccoli at a time. From late April through late summer, the Belks’ Wild Hope Farm delivers a couple hundred containers filled with organic vegetables to customers weekly, while selling similar produce at the Matthews farmers market.
The business is about healthy food, nutrition, restoring the quality of soil and other positive karma. It’s hard to come away from a visit to an organic farm without feeling a tad more enlightened. But the Belks didn’t become the Belks without knowing how to build a business or, equally important, when to sell. In December 2015, New York private equity group Sycamore Partners paid $3 billion for the Charlotte-based chain of 296 department stores in 16 states, ending a legendary history for an iconic N.C. family business.
The farm’s “connector,” Katherine Belk, 28, never worked full time for the company started by her great-grandfather William Henry Belk in Monroe in 1888. But in her third summer overseeing the farm, she’s displaying the work ethic and messaging of a veteran entrepreneur. “We want to be financially sustainable, environmentally sustainable and socially sustainable,” she says. “A lot of farms our size might be relying on migrant workers that they house and pay a very little amount. But we want to pay a living wage and build a model for a farm that is going to be around for decades, not something you do for three years, burn out the land and move on.”
Katherine and her family want their farm to help expand the local food movement in the Charlotte area, which is catching up with more entrenched systems in the Triangle and Asheville. The goal is to promote healthier diets and lifestyles and a renewed respect for land. The effort syncs with a decade-old campaign by North Carolina’s state agriculture department, universities and others to encourage that at least 10% of the state’s food consumption comes from local farms.
Interest by consumers to buy more food from local growers is clearly blossoming with a big kick from the coronavirus pandemic, says Nancy Creamer, an N.C. State University professor and director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. “Demand for local foods is growing, and there is a need to continue developing programming and resources for this industry,” she says.
If the Belks have their way, the 10% target will be surpassed.
Katherine was working at a product-design company in Boston in 2016 when her parents, Tim and Sarah, told her about their plans to create an organic farm on part of the 200 acres they’d bought in 1996. The Rodman area of rural Chester County has a picturesque feel that is hardly a second-home hot spot, but the Belks liked its close proximity to Charlotte. Tim stepped down as CEO of Belk in July 2016 after holding the post for 12 years. A company employee since 1981, he had succeeded his uncle, former Charlotte Mayor John Belk, who was CEO for 50 years. Tim’s father, Tom, was president and led merchandising at the department store chain until his sudden death at age 71 in 1997.
Katherine attended boarding school in Delaware and, like her father and three of her four siblings, Williams College in Massachusetts. She studied business and art at the highly ranked private college, graduated in 2013 and then headed 140 miles west to Boston.
It was Sarah’s vision to expand beyond the burgeoning flower business that she had started at the farm and add vegetables, Tim says. He calls his wife the “grower” in the family. She’d learned much about local agriculture by helping start a volunteer food stand that operated in Charlotte from 2009 to 2015.
The couple visited various farms and searched nationally for a manager before hiring Shawn Jadrnicek, who was operating Clemson University’s student-run organic farm. The author of a book on organic farming, he says the opportunity to test his theories at a startup made it a compelling offer. Among his special interests is no-till farming, which creates significant fuel and labor savings by limiting plowing. He has impressed the Belks with his craftiness, such as piling compost on top of a concrete slab embedded with coils. In winter, the composting process warms the coils and, in turn, heats the farm’s greenhouse, reducing the need to buy power.
With Jadrnicek focused on the field, the Belks needed someone to sell and distribute the produce. “I initially told my parents, ‘Good for you guys to do something together post retirement,’ and that was about it,” Katherine says. “But then I thought, you know, I’d become pretty stuck in my ways. I was ready for a change.”
Her parents encouraged the move with some trepidation. Rural South Carolina is a different place than Boston. “We asked, ‘Did we send her off to college so that she could work for the family farm?’” Tim says. “But then I thought, ‘It’s a startup, an early stage industry, it’s organic farming, and we’ll get to work with our daughter and maybe get to coach her.’”
Katherine’s husband, Peyton, had grown up on a horse farm in Virginia and was also ready for a new opportunity. “He was super supportive,” she says.
Based on a plan that Tim and Jadrnicek developed, the business kicked off in mid-2018 with 3.5 planted acres and about 100 customers signed up for weekly drop-offs. The first year was the hardest, like any small business.
“Sean and I were working around the clock just to get things started,” Katherine says. They ramped up to 6.5 acres in 2019 and 12 acres this year. Carrots, garlic, radishes, turnips, greens, cabbage, peppers, watermelon and okra are among the 75 varieties of vegetables and fruits grown at the farm. In mid-April, the farm met its goal of 340 customers who pay $22 to $32 a week for personal deliveries of a 14-week farm share that includes a basket of fresh produce from mid-April through late July.
Last year, Rachel Klein was hired to focus on the community share program. Having experience at a similar 15-acre farm in California, she describes her job as “making sure that our customers get a variety of stuff and a better value than if they went to the farmers market and bought everything.” Klein says the Carolina climate of extreme summer heat and too much or too little rain makes Wild Hope more challenging than her previous farm in the California foothills.
“We keep a high-quality standard, but the whole idea of [community-supported agriculture] is that customers are accepting what happens with the farm,” Klein says. “They understand that if one week we don’t have broccoli, we’ll supplement it with a lot of kale.”
Building up the farm has required spending for a large shed, fencing, irrigation systems, tractors and harvesting equipment. Several part-time workers are hired during harvest times, and the farm recruits interns interested in organic-farming careers. Tim says he views it as a promising project that is benefiting from growing interest in healthier food.
“We’re comparing notes with other farms. We want to know if a farmer can generate enough income to pay a competitive wage so that a worker could send their kid to college. That’s what we would like to show,” he says. “Hopefully it is a business model that can be replicated. But first we have to prove it works.”
Proof is key for the former CEO, says his daughter. “He’s a project manager to the max,” she says. “He always sets a deadline, and then we work on it. That’s definitely his skill set, so we let him keep track of timelines, and we focus on getting the work done.”
Wild Hope was expected to reach positive cash flow this year, but a $30,000 deficit is more likely because of coronavirus impacts, Katherine says. The farm has lost expected sales to area restaurants and a new farmers market in downtown Charlotte, which has been postponed.
Local food has been a big deal in North Carolina for a long time, reflecting its status as an important agriculture state. An example is the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a joint product of the state government, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University that started in 1994. It operates a 2,000-acre research farm in Goldsboro that has won plaudits as a leader in producing research to aid local farms. “North Carolina has definitely been ahead of the curve on this one for many years, though it’s also a national trend,” Creamer says. She notes that organic agriculture started mainly as an environmental response to pesticide use. “Over the years, the local foods movement grew … as people started thinking about the broader impact and potential good of regionalizing and localizing at least part of our food system.”
The center also supports local food councils that boost emergency pantries and try to encourage healthier dining among low-income North Carolinians. “The strength of the local food system is very valued at both the state level in government and in the culture of local communities,” says Hannah Dankbar, a local food program manager for the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Raleigh.
The coronavirus is sparking “incredible growth and interest” in the demand for local food across the state, Creamer says. That’s true at Raleigh-based The Produce Box, which Courtney Tellefsen started in 2007 after learning how to sell subscriptions at a health-club chain owned by Raleigh developer John Kane. Her business, which has no outside investors, has 12,000 subscribers in the Triangle, Triad, Charlotte and Wilmington after adding 1,200 since the pandemic emerged. Participants receive weekly boxes of produce collected from about 150 North Carolina farmers and artisans making honey, jam and other products.
“Over the last five or seven years, the number of [community supported agriculture models] has declined in North Carolina, because it’s become easier to find fresh foods without having to subscribe,” she says. The Produce Box, which employs about 230 full- and part-time employees and doesn’t do any farming on its own, saw its subscriptions decline in that period.
While grocers increasingly emphasize local produce, “that mostly benefits the larger growers who have the volume to supply those large stores,” Tellefsen says. “Most farmers also want to concentrate on farming, not marketing, and very few farms grow multiple crops. But I’d bet every farmer is trying to learn how to distribute their produce now, because there is so much demand.”
Wild Hope is seeing more interest, Katherine says. “Local farms are able to provide more fresh, high quality produce that has touched fewer hands since harvest. I think people are really prioritizing that.”
In a response to the pandemic, the Center for Environmental Farming earlier this year launched MeatSuite.com, a website for buying and selling local meat. MeatSuite is receiving significant interest from consumers and farmers, Creamer says.
The state also has a new online platform, Tall Grass Food Box, to support black farmers in North Carolina by ordering boxes made up of produce from their operations. It’s an example of small-scale businesses that are innovating to meet community needs, says Robyn Stout, who coordinates the NC 10% Campaign.
Ten percent amounts to about $1 a day per person, according to officials who say that North Carolinians spend more than $35 billion a year on food. No one doubts that there’s lots of work to be done in improving the health status and dining habits of many North Carolinians. By most measures compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the state’s health checkup is mediocre at best, despite the abundant farming sector. About 68% of state residents are obese, versus a national average of 65.9%. About 19% of N.C. adults report a poor health status, versus 18% nationally. Nearly 16% of adults aged 45 to 64 are diagnosed with diabetes, versus about 14% nationally.
“A strong local farm economy takes the education of consumers and a buy-in from institutions and businesses so that food can be made available to a wide variety of people,” Dankbar says. “It becomes part of the culture that people identify with.”
The Belks are joining at an interesting time for Charlotte’s local food ecosystem. The increasing, pre-coronavirus popularity of the Queen City’s chef-driven restaurants, many of which rely on fresh local farm products, has bolstered demand among consumers, says Chad Blackwelder, a food service marketing specialist at the N.C. Department of Agriculture. “Without the support of local chefs, I am not sure that customers and consumers would have local farmers on their grocery-shopping and menu-planning radar,” he says.
Operating within 45 minutes of Charlotte and an hour from Columbia, S.C., provides growth potential, Katherine says. “Sure, it would be ideal for a farm to be outside Durham, where you have a highly educated, very supportive community,” she says. “If you are in California or New England, you are often surrounded by a group of people thinking like you. We don’t really have a network like that here yet.
“Charlotte is more conservative, and people tend to value convenience over quality, and they don’t necessarily make a connection to the importance of how we treat the soil. But it really does matter: Don’t you want your kids to be able to enjoy this world too?”
The Wild Hope folks view their farm as both a business and an educational opportunity. Plans call for adding pick-your-own blueberries next year and events including discussions of farming practices or just fun musical or dinner gatherings. “We want this to be a model of how you make this work to inspire other younger farmers,” Klein says.
It’s also inspiring to nascent baby boomer farmers like Tim. “We’re on a steep learning curve, but we think and hope that we are building a brand around organic vegetables in the Charlotte market. It’s very early stage for organic local farms, but we are excited about working with others to make this work.”
In August 2015, when CEO Tim Belk announced the sale of the retail chain his family had owned for 127 years to New York private equity group Sycamore Partners, investment banker Howard Davidowitz didn’t mince words. “The department-store sector is terrible. I cannot explain why the buyers wanted it.”
Nearly five years later, the department-store industry has shriveled as consumers buy more online and make fewer mall visits. Shares of industry leader Macy’s, which traded for about $60 a share when the Belk sale was announced, fetched $5 in late April. Rival Dillard’s saw its stock decline from $93 to $23 during the same period.
Tim Belk clearly sold at the right time. Though he was the CEO for 12 years, his 11% stake of the company’s shares was less than other family members, a 2015 proxy filing showed. His aunt, Sarah Belk Gambrell, who turned 101 in April, controlled 25%, including various family trusts. Others with larger beneficial interests included John Belk’s widow, Claudia, and daughter, Mary Belk Pilon, and Tim’s sister, Katherine Belk Morris. His brother, Johnny Belk, the company’s former chief operating officer, also had about 11%.
Tim remains active in commerce, serving as a director for three private businesses, including Orvis, a Sunderland, Vt.-based company known for its fly-fishing equipment and apparel. He’s on several nonprofit boards, including his alma mater, Williams College, and the Carolina Thread Trail, which is creating a network of trails covering 1,610 miles in 15 counties around the Charlotte area.
More than retailing, farming’s fortunes correlate to weather, he says. “If there was frost on the pumpkin, people would buy heavyweight clothing, but for the most part, you didn’t know if the weather was to blame for a lack of sales,” he says. “But in farming, you have to be very flexible and adapt yourself to the weather. It’s always challenging, but it’s rewarding.”