Like many Southern politicians, Ayden, N.C., farmer, entrepreneur and raconteur Benny Cox contends that ‘redneck’ isn’t a negative term, rather one that aptly describes the successes he has had growing and selling specialty vegetable crops in eastern North Carolina.
From a small roadside stand, affectionately called the Collard Shack, Cox and his wife Vickie, sell seasonal vegetables to a steady stream of customers from Greeneville, New Bern and towns and villages within a 50 mile radius of Ayden. What they don’t retail, they wholesale.
At the center of his business is a local delicacy that he calls Carolina yellow cabbage collards. Significantly different from collards grown in other parts of the country, yellow collards have a distinctive, sweet taste that is more akin to sweet potatoes than collards. It is not unusual to sell 400-500 pounds per day of the local delicacy.
“We grow collards year around, and about half of what we grow we retail from our little market here in Ayden. The rest we wholesale to area grocery stores,” Cox explains.
Originally, he started out selling virtually all of his produce to wholesalers, often taking his crops by truck to area stores. “It got to the point, I was spending more time on the road than I was farming, so we hit on the idea of letting the customers come to us,” he says. Enter the concept of Redneck Marketing, the Collard Shack and a different way of doing business for the North Carolina grower.
It has been a long, arduous road from farming to marketing, Cox admits. He started out earning a degree in forestry from Wayne Community College, then shunning a profession in timber to begin farming. At one point, he and his partners farmed more than 200 acres of tobacco and sweet potatoes and more than 1,000 acres of grain crops.
The risk and reward ratio just didn’t make sense to him, so he quit farming all together for a while. “I guess farming is in your blood and you just can’t get away from it,” Cox says. And, when the opportunity arose, he began a new farming operation centered around collards and around the concept that giving rural people what they want will keep them coming back to buy more.
“If we sell something to a customer, either we grow it, or we know the person who does really well,” Cox says. Everybody is the same that we sell to, doesn’t matter whether you drive 40 miles from New Bern to buy eight pounds of collards or pick up 50 boxes of collards for wholesalers,” Cox says with pride.
Over the years, he explains, they have found there are certain things like yellow collards, boiled peanuts, red potatoes and salad crops that area residents can’t always find at the grocery store. These redneck foods, he says, have provided him an opportunity to provide vegetable crops that few others can provide.
People use to have gardens, now not so many do, the North Carolina farmer contends. “We are providing a lot of the vegetables that people used to grow fresh in a garden,” Cox explains.
Combined with their philosophy of providing people with wholesome food, and in a place where they are always welcome, these specialty crops make up what Cox recently told the annual meeting of the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Association is Redneck Marketing.
In the summer months, butterbeans, sweet corn, watermelons, red potatoes are grown, again primarily for retail. Another delicacy, almost as revered as yellow collards, are frozen boiled and fried peanuts. Vickie Cox, who recently published a cookbook filled with her recipes, cooks peanuts and yellow collards to sell to customers who don’t want to, or don’t know how to cook these delicacies themselves.
They also grow and sell peppers —with a slight twist. “We sell the pepper plants in the pot, so that people can pick them whenever they need them,” Cox explains. They also sell pepper vinegar and hot pepper sauce.
Still, at the heart of their farming and marketing operation is the Carolina yellow collard cabbage. “We use the whole plant — we sell seeds, we sell collard leaves and whole-cut collards, and we sell cooked collards,” Cox explains.
These plants have been handed down from generation to generation, though neither Vickie nor Benny Cox knows exactly where they originated. “Noah may have brought the first plants over on the Ark,” Cox jokes.
Though he jokes about the origin of these unique seed, collecting and planting them has become as much an art as an agronomic science over the years, he contends. “We don’t try to keep them a secret — we do sell some seed, but we do have some secrets about how yellow collards are grown,” he explains.
The collards are started in a greenhouse, where the trays float on water. Collard seed planted in the fall will mature in March. From March to the end of November, the tender leaves of the collard plants are picked by hand and sold.
When weather gets too cold for collards to continue to produce the leaves that are harvested and sold, they begin cutting the plants to sell, which Cox and his two full-time employees do until they can begin picking off the leaves again the following spring.
“Some people like the leaves, some people like the whole cut collards and some don’t want collards until frost hits the plants. In the cooler months, the collards cook quicker and have a sweeter taste,” the North Carolina entrepreneur explains.
As a result of his unique staggered planting system, Cox can pick collards year-round. The Carolina yellow cabbage collards at the Collard Shack sell for 75 cents per pound, compared to a dollar or more in most grocery stores. It takes about a pound of collards per person to make a meal, Cox estimates.
Going from big farmer to small farmer doesn’t always equate to going from poor farmer to successful farmer, but in the case of Vickie and Benny Cox, the transition has been a good one that just keeps on getting better.