February is celebrated as Black History Month. As an industry, agriculture owes a lot to inventions and leadership of African Americans. From nationally recognized leaders such as George Washington Carver, Booker T. Whaley, Henry Blair and Booker T. Washington to local influencers such as James Oliver Crosby, first president of N.C. A&T University and Neil Alexander Bailey, first African-American cooperative extension agent. The N.C. Agricultural Hall of Fame has honored two African Americans since it’s inception in 1953. Aaron W. Solomon, Sr and Robert Earle Jones Sr.
This month is also a time to celebrate and spotlight individuals currently that are supporting, promoting or growing North Carolina agriculture.
If you have attended the Got to Be NC Festival in Raleigh over the last few years, you may have gotten to taste what some people say are the best collards ever. Doris Johnson, along with her husband Shem, use a secret family recipe, seasoned without meat or dairy, to create a unique flavor.
Johnson has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years. Her collards began as a popular item at the family’s restaurant in the Clinton Hill section of New York City. “Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only thing our restaurant would make were the collards, we didn’t have time for anything else since they were in such high demand,” Johnson said. “Customers were always telling us we needed to sell them in jars. This is where the idea was born.”
The family moved to Elizabeth City in 2002 and it was here that Johnson finally began the process of commercially producing her collard greens. “My daughters were young then,” she said. “I remember them on stools in the kitchen helping me perfect the recipe.” Johnson worked with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Marketing Division to help with marketing her collards. The collards come from local farms in Greenville and Elizabeth City.
Johnson also took certification classes through N.C. State University on acidified food manufacturing. Dr. John Rushing served as not only her process authority, but also as her mentor.
“We are growing rapidly, but are still pretty small scale,” she said. “Our staff is just me, my husband and one helper.”
Carolina’s Choice Seasoned Collard Greens are available online and through other outlets such as The Produce Box and specialty stores. “We are sold at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, Fosters in Durham, Sweet Tea and Grits in Raleigh and several more locations in the state. We have shipped collards to every state in the continental United States.” Word of mouth from visitors to the Wide Open Blue Grass Festival, Got to Be NC Festival or other events where the Johnsons sample their product also help their sales and continue to grow their brand.
“One memorable sale came from Chicago, the parent of a cast member of Wicked, which was performing there, wanted collards and had them shipped for the whole cast. That was exciting for us.
Although collards are the first product for Carolina’s Choice, others are in development. “We have a few ideas about what we can make next.”