‘Maximum Nutrition on Minimum Acreage’: Meet Living Wage Employer Humble Umbel Farm

Humble Umbel Farm, located outside of Hillsborough, may only have two acres of land in production – but the team makes the most of it, to say the least.

“We grow pretty intensively,” says the farm’s co-owner Anna Alexandre.

As their website explains, they are “going for maximum nutrition on minimum acreage.” They flip beds often to grow more than 50 different types of vegetables, with an emphasis on the year-round production of greens, lettuces, and salad root vegetables. They also grow herbs and flowers using the same organic and sustainable practices.

They never use synthetic fertilizers, sprays, pesticides, or herbicides.

“That’s what we prefer to eat, and that’s how we want to live on the land,” says Anna. “Giving back to the soils, making sure we are growing the healthiest plants possible, but we are also treating the environment in a healthy way – those things are interconnected.”

The team manages the farm as an ecosystem, providing food and habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, and wildlife; protecting and planting native species; using cover crops; managing nutrients and soil to minimize runoff and erosion; and using minimal-till market gardening techniques that enhance soil health.

The farm’s name comes from “umbel,” the botanical term for a carrot flower. They are big carrot growers, but the umbel family also includes dill and cilantro.

Established in 2018, Humble Umbel employs four full-time staffers, plus two part-time workers who help with farmers’ markets. (You can find Humble Umbel at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market as well as the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market.)

The farm became living wage certified at the beginning of 2024. Anna says it’s an achievement that she and her partner in business and in life, Brian Conner, are very proud of because it’s something they had to work toward.

“I have to give credit to the customers,” she says. “People are willing to pay what we charge in order to get ourselves to that living wage. … Customers really care about small businesses and local food. And they are willing to put their money where their mouth is.”

Anna and Brian met while working on a small farm just outside Asheville. While Brian grew up on the shores of the Great Lakes, Anna is a native of the Triangle – she fell in love with farming as a teenager thanks to a young farmer training program through the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle Farm. The establishment of Humble Umbel doubled as a homecoming for her.

Humble Umbel’s land is rented from the Orange County Cooperative Extension. The acreage is owned by N.C. State University. Anna and Brian are hoping to purchase land in the next few years.

They hired their first employee in 2020. Each year since, they have added a full-time person. Historically, they have offered more seasonal jobs; this year, they are finally in a financial place where they can support year-round positions for everybody.

Those employees make work a lot more fun for Anna and Brian.

“We have always hired folks who really want to work hard and are really passionate about growing food and growing it in the best way possible,” Anna says. “We all have a lot of fun doing it. … It’s fun to work hard, play hard. The nice thing about farming is you can kind of multitask in a way where you are doing a project together, but you can have fun and chat and really get to know someone. Getting that hang time. You are doing something really hard together, which is very team building. We have to harvest in the heat and sometimes in the rain. It really builds connection.”

The living wage designation marks a milestone, but Anna has an eye toward her next goals for the farm.

“If you’re looking at things from a food justice standpoint, I want to be able to pay my employees and myself enough that we can buy the food we are selling. … We need to reach higher than the living wage,” she says. “There are things we want to be able to offer – like 401ks and health care benefits – as a longer-term goal.”