Since Jamie doesn't grow the sorghum he uses for his salad dressings and syrups, he's not welcome at his local farmers market. "They don't want anything to do with me. I'm like no, I'm not growing sorghum, but I buy from one guy. It's a single crop and he doesn't have time to come out here and sell."

"I'm not always over the kettle," he continues. "I'm 50 percent food artisan and 50 percent entrepreneur, maybe even 60/40. I don't grow sorghum. I don't have a spring on my property. But I make something artfully."

Although sorghum once was the region's dominant sweetener, it's now largely forgotten outside isolated pockets of the mountain South. Jamie says wedding sorghum to artisan techniques and promotional strategies has helped create new markets for sorghum farmers, who are now forming a trade group. "The sorghum farmers I buy from would never see an end product," he says, referring to the more than 75 percent of U.S. sorghum that's used for ethanol and livestock feed. "So when they saw my product at Williams-Sonoma, they took a picture with it. They saw it on a menu and brought the chef out, they were so proud of what they did. I'm very proud."

Mark Overbay in the cookery at Big Spoon Roasters.
Mark Overbay in the cookery at Big Spoon Roasters.
Left to right: Judy Herkner Harmon, Sue Herkner Keegstra, and Lynda Herkner.
Left to right: Judy Herkner Harmon, Sue Herkner Keegstra, and Lynda Herkner.

At Big Spoon Roasters in Durham, North Carolina, Mark Overbay, a veteran of the fair-trade coffee business, makes every batch of his locally sourced nut butters by hand. "I literally scoop the nuts by hand, and spoon the butter into every jar with a tablespoon," he says. A lifelong peanut-butter eater, Overbay was inspired to start Big Spoon by the ground-nut harvests he witnessed as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe in 1999. "They would shell them and roast them in big pans, or, in one case, over the hood of a car," he says. "People would bring containers or banana leaves, just whatever they had to take it back in. It was one of the most delicious things I've ever had in my life. It was a completely different food experience."

Yet it's one which Overbay believes can survive upsizing. "With a smallish nut roaster, I would increase my capacity by 1,000 percent, and then I would simply have to find a larger grinder and maybe a couple of stand mixers," he muses aloud. But he's thinking even bigger, because his passion for the exemplary flavors of great nut butter is matched by his passion for reinvigorating peanut farming in the South.

"If I want organic peanuts, the closest place I can get them is New Mexico," Overbay says. "There's nothing wrong with New Mexico, but as someone who believes in supporting North Carolina, I made the decision early on to buy North Carolina peanuts. I want to grow our business so we can be a positive market force for sustainable agriculture in the Southern peanut sector. I believe — and I don't think this is a pipe dream — there can be sustainable, organic peanut agriculture in the Southeast. I want Big Spoon to be an advocate for that."

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