North Carolina Navy veteran inspired to become a farmer
By Taylor Parrish
When inspiration hits, it can change the course of your life for good. Tenita Solanto, owner of Green Panda Farms in Siler City, North Carolina never dreamed that she would become a full-time farmer, but after attending the Minority Land Owners Conference at Fayetteville State University, all her plans changed. “Being in the Navy for four and a half years and then owning my own IT company, farming was the last thing on my radar,” Tenita said, “but when I attended that conference and saw all the great work that farmers in our state and across the world were accomplishing I got inspired.”
Starting with a small room in the back of her house, Tenita began growing microgreens and the journey to Green Panda Farm began. “I wanted a crop that would grow quick and give a fast return,” she said, “so microgreens was the obvious answer, not only because they grow fast, but also because they have a very niche market.” Today, Green Panda Farms operates as a grow-to-order farm, meaning customers can request specific microgreens they would like to have in addition to the varieties that are being grown, such as broccoli, sunflower shoots, radish and pea shoots.
A typical day on the farm for Tenita starts early by tending to the plants, farm cats and the fish in her aquaponic systems. “We try to harvest product every single day so that our customers get the freshest product available,” she said. Using 10×20 trays filled with organic soil, the seeds are planted, placed outdoors and left to grow anywhere from five days to three weeks. “Most of our microgreens take around 10 days to fully grow,” she said, “but depending on the variety they can take a little less time or a little more.”
All products from Green Panda Farms are organic because Tenita believes in giving back to the planet and preserving it as much as possible. Although growing a consistent customer base can be challenging at times, Tenita has truly found happiness in growing microgreens and farming both hydroponically and aquaponically. “Being with the plants is truly my happy place,” she said, “it’s so peaceful and rewarding to nurture them and watch them grow.”
Products from Green Panda Farm can be found online at their website, through the Durham Co-Op and at The Root Cellar Restaurant in Siler City. “Online we have a subscription service where customers can schedule to get our products on a regular basis,” Tenita said, “or if they prefer to enjoy a sit down meal and have our products served to them, Chef Sera Cuni at The Root Cellar uses our microgreens in a variety of her dishes.” Although she enjoys products from her farm in a variety of ways, Tenita’s favorite way to eat microgreens is on fried green tomato sandwich with custom sauce and rye bread.
In addition to her passion for farming itself, Tenita also fully believes in educating the community about the importance of agriculture and how to grow their own food. In fact, she started a non-profit called Growing Ag Innovations to accomplish exactly that. “We hold school and classroom tours to not only educate kids about agriculture but teach them how to grow microgreens and give them an opportunity to try it themselves,” she said, “we have so many communities with a food access issue that it is important to teach the community that they can also grow their own food in addition to buying products from local farmers.”
The biggest misconception she faces while educating people about microgreens is differentiating them from sprouts. “Sprouts are younger than a microgreen by at least double the time,” Tenita said, “so while they have slight similarities, they are completely different products.” In the future, Tenita will continue to expand both the farm and her non-profit business by combining the two in a way that will help expand knowledge of the agriculture industry across North Carolina.