Sugar Hill Produce is a very special customer. They’re the proud owners of not one or two but three CoolBot coolers! Rob VanVeld took some time out of his busy farming schedule to chat with us about why CoolBot works so well for Sugar Hill Produce. Read on to find out how this farm came to life and why they’re such loyal CoolBot fans, going so far as to request custom CoolBot branded baseball caps to proudly wear around the farm and to their markets. (Disclaimer: These don’t actually exist yet, but stay tuned for potential CoolBot merch in the coming year.)
“Tracy Lafleur started Sugar Hill Produce in 2016 at the Breeze Incubator Farm in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina,” her husband, partner and favorite farmhand Rob tells us. “Tracy went to school to learn all about the numbers and book learning stuff, and after school she spent a lot of time working for other people as a farmhand getting the experience. There’s nothing like experience, that’s where the real learning comes in.”
Rob is modest and humble when it comes to talking about Sugar Hill Produce, lovingly giving Tracy all of the credit. He goes on to explain how she’s learned through that farmhand experience and lots of hard work, growing her skillset and confidence until she finally qualified for a loan to start her very own farm.
“Most of that (Tracy’s work as a farmhand) was in North Carolina, learning to grow in this particular climate. She spent several years doing that, then started her own business at Breeze Incubator Farm, a state run project by North Carolina State University.” This farm wasn’t for incubating seeds, though. It was for incubating new farmers through a generous state program, where one can very affordably rent land and equipment. “Tracy started Sugar Hill Produce during that time at that place. Once she started making money and could show that on paper, she became a worthy candidate for a USDA FSA loan to purchase 40 acres of land.”
“The Breeze program is generous and was instrumental to our start-up, and we are super grateful to have had the opportunity there,” says Tracy.
It was during this time that Tracy learned about CoolBot, since they’d been using them at Breeze Incubator Farm. “More than once, we’d had an A/C unit go down, and because of CoolBot we were able to just replace that unit. It was great. The incubator farm was using shipping containers converted into coolers. When we moved to our new farm, we knew didn’t want that,” tells Rob.
Rob and Tracy were in the market for something more flexible and customizable. “We’d seen the CoolBot cooler enclosures and really liked the ease of the set up. It just suited our needs better. We would put our CoolBot cooler in a pack shed, versus putting it into a very heavy shipping container unit. Because the CoolBot cooler was modular, we knew we’d be able to build it on the floor.”
What really sold them on the cooling unit itself was the fact that they didn’t have to hire a cooling specialist to install a traditional cooler, which tends to be very expensive. “Then (when) they go down, you’re very dependent on someone else to maintain it,” says Rob. “It’s quite inexpensive to replace the A/C unit, if we needed to. We keep an extra A/C unit on hand, so we don’t lose several thousand dollars worth of product if the unit does go down. CoolBot is just so cool and so easy.”
Sugar Hill Produce grows year round. When asked what they grow at Sugar Hill Produce, Rob starts listing: “Cabbage, lettuce in spring, kale, spinach, carrots… name a vegetable and we’re growing it. There are so many I can’t even think of them all. Right now, we’ve got brussel sprouts, two types of kale, beets, chard, it’s the end of pepper season, tomatoes, butternut squash…”
Currently, Sugar Hill Produce employs four farmers working the produce and the farm on 40-acre farm (the piece of land is 40-acres, but not all of it is currently in production). They’ve got an additional two employees to work the markets too. “Right now, we’ve got six acres rockin’ and we’re working on another three acres,” says Rob. “Next year we’ll get those three more going, and we’ll be able to rotate plots so we can fallow and have enough working so that we’re not introducing unfavorable species. We don’t want to overwork land.”
The main reason Rob and Tracy like CoolBot Walk-In Cooler is its controller. They love the ease of adjusting the temperatures of each cooler themselves. “We don’t depend on a company to do that. Being free of all that is priceless, not dealing with other people and other expenses, etc. It’s very cheap to purchase A/C units compared to a traditional processor. The fact that the coolers themselves are so easy to put up is great,” he says.
“We just don’t have the time, we’re slammed busy all the time. And it’s too expensive to hire somebody else. These units work really, really well for us. They’re easy to move around if we need to. The versatility of having different types of coolers is the best.”
“Right now our coldest cooler is being used to store all our stuff that should be cold (potatoes, cabbage, etc.) and also for fresh stuff coming out of field, (ie. lettuce heads),” Rob explains. “In the next cooler, we’ve got squash and sweet potatoes that have been cured, which we keep around 60-63 degrees. And in the third cooler, we’re curing sweet potatoes at about 80 degrees for a week. Right now, we’re running three different temperatures. In tomato season, we do one cold cooler, another cooler for tomatoes which like to be around 60 degrees and the third cooler in that case (in the spring) will also be cold. And all the coolers are on the same levels, so we transfer produce back and forth with handcarts.”
“Maybe later on in the season when we have less produce, we’ll have an empty cooler, so we’ll run a little heater in there to bag up vegetables when it’s like 20 degrees outside, making a heated work space for us. It’s just so versatile. We’ll probably even be having a movie night in the winter in our spare empty cooler, we’ll have people bring chairs and just hang out in there. We love the fact that we can use them for three different things.” This is the first we’ve heard of someone turning their off-season CoolBot cooler into an insulated movie theater, so props to Sugar Hill Produce for their creativity!
Rob tells us that their CoolBots are spacious enough to store a lot more product than they typically do, but they value being able to move things around to having access to all their products at once. Sometimes the produce sells faster than the crops that are being stored in the cold, and it’s important that they can get to everything in the three coolers at any given time. Having three coolers “gives them plenty of space to work, sort and aggregate shipments.” Sugar Hill Produce sells at two different farmers markets, “using one cooler for bulk stuff and the second to put the stuff for the market to keep track of inventory easily.”
“Having the flexibility really helps,” says Rob.
While Sugar Hill Produce’s coolers are outfitted with CoolBot Pros, they’re “not checking remotely yet,” according to Rob. “Construction and WiFi are on the list of things to do,” he tells us. “We basically started from scratch a year and a half ago, so we’re still building out stuff, including electricity and irrigation.” While they can’t utilize the Pro just yet, Tracy and Rob “realize it’s going to be really good for them.” Long term plans at Sugar Hill Produce include “eventually building a home out there, too.”
“Since we currently live ten miles away, it would be really handy to check those things and make sure the temperatures and electricity are all functioning. It’s certainly high on our list of things to do,” concludes Rob.
To learn more about Sugar Hill Produce’s backstory (and Tracy and Roger’s love story!) check out Duke University student Katja Gilman’s photo documentary about the farm here.