Situated on 7,500 acres in Faison, North Carolina, and a lot of history, is family-owned and –operated Burch Farms. Many farming operations throughout the country are multigenerational, but few have been farming the same land since colonial times. The story of the family-run farm and nationwide supplier of vegetables and fruit crops begins in 1775.
“Our family history in eastern North Carolina has been traced to 1760,” tells Jimmy Burch, partner-owner in Burch Farms. “Beginning in the 1740s, records indicate our ancestors began settling on the land that is now Duplin County and Sampson County in North Carolina.”
A centuries-long story
“Our relatives came to America from Europe, mainly Scotland, Ireland and England,” tells Jimmy, who now runs the company with brothers Bill and Ted. “There were five of us, but two brothers have passed. Barry passed from cancer four years ago and our brother David, who served in the Vietnam War.”
Although the farm wasn’t officially established until 1950, through the 1800s and into the early 1900s, generations of the Burch clan lived off the land, growing crops native to North Carolina and raising pigs, cows and chickens. In the 1900s, the family began growing commodity crops, such as corn, cotton and tobacco to sustain the operation.
“In the 1950s, our parents, William and Georgiana Burch, had 35 acres,” recalls Jimmy. “Fast-forward to now and we’re one of the largest vegetable farmers in the state.”
In 1999, Burch Farms obtained its first organic certifications for its main crop: sweet potatoes. “Now organic farming is a trend, but that’s just how we’ve always farmed,” compares Jimmy.
Today, Jimmy oversees just about every aspect of Burch Farms with wife Teresa. “My brother Ted does our crop planting and prepares the fields with Bill,” Jimmy tells. “Bill runs the Burch Equipment side of the show; everything mechanical is his responsibility.” Jimmy’s two sons, Jimmy Jr. and Jared, are also involved in the business.
Identifying new needs
Over the years, the operation has grown to encompass a range of production crops; sweet potatoes, cabbage, asparagus, peppers, broccoli and many greens. “Collard, spinach, mustard greens and kale – those are our biggest sellers,” says Jimmy. “We’ve identified peoples’ busy lives were moving food preparation toward convenience. At the same time, people still wanted to eat healthily. We now offer bagged greens, in which the leaves were pre-washed and trimmed seemed like a logical step for us. This idea seems to have caught on.”
Families are also trying to make healthier choices for the smallest members of their family. In 2006, Burch Farms partnered with area growers to form Yamco, a sweet potato puree company. “Yamco now supplies Earth’s Best Baby Food Company, as well as grocery store chains,” details Jimmy.
Made with patented microwave technology, Yamco aseptic products offer greater nutritional value, flavor and color retention without artificial additives or preservatives in sweet potato, spinach, pumpkin and butternut squash puree.
Burch Farms works on a national level to deliver fresh produce and baby food items to some of the biggest retailers and food service companies in the country. “We service all major chains,” says Jimmy proudly.
More recently, Burch Farms has moved beyond the field and into the distillery, using the company’s abundance of sweet potatoes to make award-winning vodka. Looking for a new way to put the sweet potato crop to use, in 2012 Burch Farms formed Covington Gourmet Vodka –named for a variety of sweet potato developed at NC State.
“The sweet potato puree was just absolutely fantastic for vodka,” Jimmy says. “Researchers at the University of Michigan told me it was ‘absolutely the best vodka they’ve ever tasted in their lives.’”
“We were all surprised by how well it did from the start,” Jimmy continues. “In North Carolina, it’s in all the ABC stores right now. We just hired a broker and we’re going into 32 states. We’ve only been on the market for a little over a year, so we’re happy.”
In addition to appearing in ABC stores, Jimmy says Covington can be found in places like Biltmore House, the Angus Barn restaurant and PNC Arena. While Jimmy is pleased with the initial response to his vodka, he says it’s just an addition to the farm and a way to create some value-added products.
From sweet potatoes to vodka, 1775 to 2015, Burch Farms has an interesting story to tell, one that’s sowed in family ties and time.