The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Sustainability Series: Sunny Creek Farm

Sustainability Series: Sunny Creek Farm


November 26, 2013

Sunny Creek Farm is a family owned and operated sprout farm and specialty produce grower in the Western North Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sunny Creek’s comprehensive food safety program for preventing contamination in their products is extensive. We talked to Ed Mills, CEO of Sunny Creek Farm, about how producing nutritious food contributes to a broader meaning of industry sustainability. 

How does your business define sustainability?

Sustainability is typically defined as the use of the earth's resources to the advantage of the population without diminishing or damaging that resource. However, our definition expands the term to include the production of goods and services that sustain human life, health and well-being.  

How are you incorporating sustainable practices into your business?

With a commitment to the health of our customers from the outset of our careers as sprout farmers, the company’s President, Lee Ewing, and myself merged our two separate farms in 1998. With combined expertise and resources we passionately tackled the foodborne illness potential with growing sprouts. 

Currently, beyond following the FDA guidelines religiously, ozone and hydrogen ions are injected into all water used at the farm. This innovative approach has resulted in a 100% food safety record. The water has nearly the same sanitizing power as 5% household bleach without any toxicity thereby allowing the farm to maintain its organic facility certification. This has been an expensive endeavor but well worth the cost of research and development.

What are your short term and long term goals?

Short term, we work hand in hand with local farmers, and help them to attain GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification. This part of the business has grown to 50% of sales. Our long term goal is to distribute safe and locally grown product throughout the southeast and be known as the company that can provide safe and marketable specialty produce. We oversee distribution, labeling, handling and marketing for growers who are not able to take on these tasks. We also partner with national producers to provide distribution for similar products.

Where do you think you’ll have the biggest impact?

We have generated a strong interest with retail and foodservice customers as a reliable source for locally grown product presented in a way as to be marketable, able to be scanned, traceable, and easily presented to the consumer.

We’re also making huge impacts in health. Sprouts have always been regarded as a life sustaining living food. They are full of easily digested amino acids, vitamins, minerals and enzymes. However, this knowledge went exponential in 1997 when Johns Hopkins University patented broccoli sprouts because of their ability to deliver enough of a phyto-chemical, sulforaphane, into the normal diet to prevent cancer. Researchers found that eating just one ounce of broccoli sprouts every three days detoxified the carcinogens we are subjected to daily via breathing, eating, drinking and from exposure to the rays of the sun. This could also be achieved by eating one and one-quarter pounds of mature broccoli every three days if not boiled, frozen or steamed. Since this first discovery, researchers around the globe have conducted and published over 1,000 peer-reviewed studies on sulforaphane and the benefits of consuming broccoli sprouts. 

How do you measure your progress?

We measure our progress in several ways. First, we measure our success and progress with our safety record and our dedication to supplying safe and healthy products. We also measure our progress by our sources. We are, in many cases, the only way for the local grower to distribute his efforts to the consumer, other than the family next door and Farmers Markets. We teach our partners how to be compliant for certification and sales, we advise as to how and when to grow and pack, and we provide the sales. We measure our success by increasing our customer base and by increasing sales through each vendor. 

How do retailers factor into your efforts?

Retailers are a major factor to our business. We offer them a safe and reliable way to sell sprouts and locally grown produce. We also source specialty and organic produce for them. They present our product to an audience we would never be able to reach on our own.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the food industry?

The industry has had a past record of over use. Too much water, too many pesticides and too much soil depletion. Sunny Creek’s commitment to the health of the environment is exemplified by the use of solar panels to provide much of the one million BTU’s required daily to heat the water used for growing sprouts. Much of the waste in harvesting sprouts gets used by local farmers for feed or compost. There is no use of petro chemical fertilizers, pesticides, defoliants or herbicides. Our local farmers within the 150-mile inclusion zone around the Tryon location are committed to using low spray protocols for growing their crops whenever possible.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the consumer?

Obviously, our health and well-being depends on the quality of the food we eat. An adage we’ve coined and used for years at Sunny Creek Farm is “Eat well to feel well”. Managing the natural resources we use to grow sprouts and distribute produce affects the life and health of the planet including all its inhabitants.