Producer Spotlight: Stephanie Vinat of The AppaLatin Farmstead
Stephanie Vinat and her husband, Jeremiah Batla, run The AppaLatin Farmstead, a small organic farm focused on Latin American cuisine. They started the farm after leaving comfortable finance jobs in Los Angeles and traveling through Latin America to reconnect with Stephanie's Cuban and Puerto Rican Roots. They obtained their certificates in permaculture design and developed a passion for food justice.
Stephanie took the time to talk to us about her experience and how the farm got started. Listen to the interview below, or scroll down to find the transcript. The AppaLatin Farmstead's aji amarillo paste, a traditional Peruvian chili sauce which Stephanie profiles in the interview, is on sale in our market now!
Kade: Well, I guess to start from the top, how are you doing today, Stephanie?
Stephanie: I'm great, thank you. I'm ready for spring, but other than that I'm really well.
Kade: All right. So let's get started. Can you tell me about yourself a little bit, and your farm, for anybody who doesn't know?
Stephanie: Sure. My name is Stephanie Vinat; I'm the owner-operator of The AppaLatin Farmstead in Marshall, North Carolina. My husband is co-owner, co-operator, Jeremiah Batla. We started this farm together in 2018. We own about six-and-a-half acres out here in Marshall. Currently we have about a tenth of an acre in production, and that's what we call our market garden. That's where we're growing most of our vegetables and produce that we offer at market, and also all of the peppers, garlic, onion, that make our sauces are grown on a tenth of an acre. We're considered a small farm.
Kade: That's really neat. How did you get started doing this?
Stephanie: It's a bit of a story! I'm originally from Florida, my husband's originally from Texas, and we were living in Los Angeles. We were both in finance up until 2016, and our careers were great. It was a good thing, we were doing well, but we weren't feeling fulfilled. In 2016, after careful planning and careful consideration, we sold our homes in Southern California, and we decided to travel for a few years. During our travels, we spent a lot of time in Latin America. Specifically Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Belize. Really the focus was to spend more time in nature, reconnect culturally. I was raised in a bilingual household. I'm Puerto Rican and Cuban, and growing up in the United States, Spanish definitely became a second language. I was actually starting to forget a little bit of my upbringing, so traveling and spending this time in Latin America, speaking Spanish on a daily basis, it really helped to fulfill that void in my life. Being closer to my culture, being closer to the language I grew up with, all of that. It was very fulfilling.
My husband actually was able to attend Spanish-learning classes for English speakers while we were there. He did a six-week program in Costa Rica, which was amazing. During that program, he met a gentleman who had recently gotten his permaculture design certificate there in Costa Rica. He opened our eyes to this world of permaculture, and we ended up attending the permaculture school in Punta Mona and getting our permaculture design certificate. That was really the inspiration behind starting a farm, focusing on regenerative and permaculture practices, working with the land, and really just changing our lifestyle from this urban Los Angeles hustle in finance to this more...laid back, I guess I could say? You know, farming is not always laid back. [laughs]
Kade: [laughs] Yeah.
Stephanie: But you know, just a grounded approach to life. All of that kind of came together and led us in the direction of honoring my upbringing, honoring the Latin culture. And then also realizing that there were certain gaps in the United States food system, especially when it comes to food justice. Growing up, a lot of the Latin American offerings available at a typical grocery store had a lot of preservatives and a lot of sugar, and what we've seen is that the rate of diabetes in the Latin American culture is really high, and a lot of that has to do with food justice. So our mission on the farm is to grow healthy, highly-nutritious food and then make it available for the Latin American community so that there's access to organic, highly-nutritious Latin offerings rather than the highly-processed stuff you typically get access to.
Kade: Right, right. That's really neat. I didn't know that you had that food justice angle, too. That's awesome. How did you end up here in Southern Appalachia, if you did all that traveling, and you're from all of those places?
Stephanie: My husband and I were always a bit nomads. We set out when we left California to find a place where we wanted to settle down and raise a family and lead a different lifestyle than what our path was at that time. We really searched, and it was actually at our permaculture school in Costa Rica, when we were talking about climates in different areas of the world, that our teacher identified Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, and Northern Georgia as the most biodiverse area in North America. Just before then, we had done some camping in the Smokies, and we just loved this area. We kept coming back to Asheville, mostly, for camping trips and hiking trips. When we heard about the biodiversity, and we really studied the area and the climate, we decided we'd start looking for property in this area. We took a wide approach and looked in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and we just kept coming back to Marshall. There's something about this area that really just drew us in. We found what we felt was the ideal property.
Kade: It's really beautiful out there.
Stephanie: Yeah, it's beautiful, and one of the things we also learned from our travels is that we love living amongst the trees, amongst the mountains, and we knew that for us, the urban lifestyle--we had already done that. That's kind of how we grew up, so we were really looking for something different. More rural, more country, and again, it just pulled us in. We just loved this area.
Kade: I guess you found rural and country, for sure.
Stephanie: We did! It was a learning curve. It's definitely different in so many wonderful ways.
Kade: How long have you been out there, now?
Stephanie: We moved onto our property in November of 2018, so it's only been a couple of years.
Kade: Tell me more about the food justice piece. Is that something that you're currently able to work with much on your farm? Are you selling to Latin markets?
Stephanie: We haven't been able to sell to Latin markets, but what we have been able to do is source from Latin markets. As I mentioned, our farm--what we have in production--is only about a tenth of an acre, and so many of our recipes have garlic and onion and garlic and cilantro, and some of the items we can't grow the volume that we would need. So we have partnered with other farms and markets in the area to source some of those items to fill the void of what we can and are able to grow on our land. We hope to move into that space eventually; we're still a young business, still trying to find our footing.
Kade: Well, that's really neat, though, and it reminds me a lot of what we're trying to do here at Patchwork, where we're trying to connect small farmers and growers and makers of all stripes to each other to have that kind of resource sharing. Like, If you don't grow enough of something, or don't have access to something, how do you source that locally and support someone else local for what you need, as well as what you're producing.
Stephanie: Yeah. And I think we're in the very early phases of that. So, our value-added products we launched in June of 2020, so it's a young line of products. As I mentioned, some of the sourcing we're able to collaborate with other farmers and markets, but I anticipate that that will really grow as the product line grows.
Kade: That's awesome. Well, tell me about your value-added products. I grew up here, in this area, and I don't have much exposure to Latin American foods, and a lot of them are kind of unfamiliar to me, like the aji amarillo paste. What is that?
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. Just to give you a little bit of an introduction, in Latin American cuisine, one of the things that I love and that I know my husband loves is this idea of flavor, really robust flavor, and a bit of spice. Although in Cuba and Puerto Rico, which is my background, we don't use a lot of spice--it's more flavor and savory items--when we spent time traveling through Central and South America, we were introduced to a little bit more spice. We were introduced to the aji amarillo pepper when we were traveling in Lima, Peru. We fell in love with this pepper because it has that medium heat--it's not like it's gonna burn your face, it's not so spicy. It also has this really great sweetness, and as we traveled through Peru, not only is this food wonderful, but there's always an availability of table sauces--sauces you can add to your plate. Once we moved out here, we were able to get the aji amarillo seeds to grow the plant, and they're very prolific. They grow very well in Appalachia, and we got super excited about that and started playing with recipes. The aji amarillo is the most popular pepper in Peruvian cuisine. It's used in a lot of their traditional recipes. We use it here on the farm, and our clients use it as an alternative to a chili paste. So any meal where you want to add that little bit of spice, where you want to have that flavor, you can use the aji amarillo paste. Traditionally it's used with chicken. We also love it with shrimp and as an ingredient for stews and chilis. Especially during the wintertime, in the cold months, it adds that little bit of heat, that flavor, to something really warm. So that's what we love about it, and that's a bit about the background.
Kade: It sounds delicious. I haven't had it yet, but I’m thinking now that I might go and get myself some.
Stephanie: It is really delicious. My husband and I were vegetarians for a good period in our lives, and we made a lot of veggie curries and butternut squash and coconut milk, and all these things, and the aji amarillo paste just goes so well with those kinds of flavors, and that kind of comfort food. So we really love it. It's one of our favorite peppers to grow, because it is such a prolific plant, and it does really well in this area. We get so much rain, and actually, if you look at some of the growing conditions in Peru, and compare them to here in Appalachia, a lot of the Peruvian varieties of not just peppers but potatoes and other things--they grow really well here. I think it's because of the elevation, and also because of the water--you know, the amount of rain.
Kade: Yeah, that is really satisfying to grow a plant and have it put out so much. So what are some of your other value-added products that you have?
Stephanie: Sure. So, sofrito is probably one of our main products. Sofrito is a flavor base in Latin American cooking, and I grew up making sofrito with my mom and my grandma. It really is a combination of mild and sweet peppers, onions, garlic, and sometimes cilantro, but more traditionally we use culantro. It is designed to really save you time in the kitchen. Mom and I used to make sofrito on Sundays, and we'd get all of our peppers and ingredients together, we'd do all of the chopping, and then we would freeze it. So throughout the week, as you're preparing meals, you take a little bit of your sofrito, and that's how you start the meal. What it's designed to do is really save you time on prep work. Rather than having to chop an onion and chop up garlic for every meal, you just take a scoop of your sofrito, and that's how you get your meal started. That's what I grew up with. Now our recipe, the AppaLatin sofrito recipe, is slightly different from the recipe I made growing up.
Growing up in Florida, we often times did not have--actually most of the time--did not have access to the peppers that are traditionally used in sofrito in Puerto Rico and Cuba. Specifically the aji dulce pepper, which we grow on the farm and we use in our sofrito. We ended up just using bell peppers a lot when I was growing up. I think we were missing some of that flavor, so on the farm we started experimenting with--okay, what's our favorite green mild pepper, and what's our favorite sweet pepper? We landed on the cubanelle pepper as our favorite mild pepper and aji dulce as our favorite sweet pepper, and so those are the peppers we use in AppaLatin sofrito. That's kind of the core product. That was the first product we thought of when we decided that this was going to be the focus of the farm. Some of our other products come from what we love to grow and what we love to eat, and also influences from traveling. We make a fire-roasted salsa and a jalapeno hot salsa which is our nod to our time in Mexico. We also do spice blends. We have an adobo spice blend. I grew up with adobo--you know, sort of the store-bought brand that's high in MSG and yellow #5 and all those things you don't want to read when you look at the ingredients. What we do is use organic spices. For example, instead of yellow #5 in our adobo, we use turmeric, which gives you that natural yellow color without, you know.
Kade: Without the yellow #5, yeah.
Stephanie: And then our all-purpose...growing up at home, we ate two types of beans primarily throughout the week. We ate frijoles negros, or black beans, and that's where I use my adobo spice, and then we also ate a lot of red beans--kidney beans or pinto beans. Those, we would use cumin and paprika, and that's what our all-purpose spice blend is designed for, the red beans and rice. And again, all the ingredients are organic, so it's giving you those comfort flavors, but with healthier organic and sustainably sourced ingredients.
Kade: Yeah. I love how simple that is, too, like you can just throw that into your beans that you already have cooking and kick it up a notch.
Stephanie: Yes. Given where we are with folks eating more at home, spending more time at home, spending more time in the kitchen, a lot of our products are designed to make that meal prep easier. So having a spice blend means I don't have to mix five or six different spices to make this meal, I can just use a bit of this.
Kade: Sprinkle a bit of it on, and off you go.
Stephanie: Exactly. That's exactly what it's designed for.
Kade: I love stuff like that. Like, you can't go out to eat in a restaurant or anything like that right now, but with something like what you're doing, it's an easy way to inject some different flavors and different stuff into your kitchen that you might not normally think of or do.
Stephanie: Yes, and I think also it's important to realize that you can make a lot of non-Latin recipes, if that's the correct term. You don't just have to use sofrito to make a Latin meal. You can use sofrito in your spaghetti sauce. You can use it in so many other things. Where else would I like some chopped onions and garlic and peppers? Oh, I'd like that in my stir fry, or oh I'd like that in my pasta sauce, or whatever it is. You can use it for more than just the Latin recipes.
Kade: Easy, love it. Well, I know that you can buy all of your stuff, of course, through our market at PatchworkAlliance.com. Where else do you guys vend your stuff?
Stephanie: Our value-added products are available on our online store, TheAppaLatinFarmstead.com, and then during the season--April through October, and maybe even into the holidays, November and December, on Saturdays we're available at the Hendersonville Farmers Market, and mid-week we're actually looking to add one or two Asheville markets. We still haven't heard back from all of our applications, so I'm not sure where we're going to land mid-week, but we'll definitely be in Hendersonville on Saturdays.
Kade: Right. I guess it's pretty early in the season, and farmers markets are still getting set up, but I hope you make it out here in some of these Asheville markets. It'd be great to see you around.
Stephanie: Yes. We have applied, and we're just waiting to hear back.
Kade: All right, well, fingers crossed! I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about all this.
Stephanie: Absolutely, absolutely! Thank you for taking the time to learn more about us and what we're doing. It's really important to us to promote food diversity, to promote food justice, and have those healthy organic Latin recipes out in the market. Even though we're just getting started, we do see more products being available in the future, and hopefully at more locations so it's more widely available.
Kade: Right. Those things are such a big part of Patchwork's mission, too. I'm really glad we have you in our producer selection.
Stephanie: We're happy to be part of the team.
Kade: Well, thank you Stephanie, I hope you have a great rest of your day!
Stephanie: Thanks, you too!