The Face of Sustainable Agriculture by Larry Newlinadmin | Monday, March 5th, 2012
We recently returned from the Southern small farmer reunion, the annual conference of the Southern Sustainable Agricultural Working Group (SSAWG). All 1,250 of us met in Little Rock http://www.ssawg.org/ for dawn to dusk workshops. It was one of the most diverse group of people you can imagine – indeed, some fit the stereotype of young and crunchy; but there were just as likely middle age and older African American and Latino farmers, conventional farmers (and conventionally looking) converting to organics, and older Baby Boomers like us following a passion.
One of the speakers, Herbie Cottle, hails from Rose Hill, NC in one of the poorest counties in the South, Duplin, where Larry’s Mom was raised. It is hot and humid in the coastal plains, but the soil is sandy in which the addition of organic matter through cover crops, compost, and manure grows wonderful vegetables. Herbie stumbled onto organic farming as he was advised to cover crop a “dead” field with a high nitrogen-fixing, high biomass cover crop, hairy vetch. After mowing it for three years, he plowed it in and planted vegetables. The ladybugs appeared on the farm for the first time in years as did honeybees. The harvest was the best he had ever had on what once was the poorest three acres. What is it like to convert from conventional to organic farming? Herbie, the former tobacco farmer says, “It’s like changing your religion – it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Hard, yes – but profitable. Instead of being left to the pricing of “cut-throat” wholesalers, he is now a farmer owner in a farm co-op, Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) based in Pittsboro, NC. ECO sells to high-end restaurants; niche grocers such as Whole Foods, Saxapahaw General Store, and Weaver Street Market; and institutions such as Duke University’s food service. (Our Peaceful River Farm also sells through ECO and harvests in-season on most Mondays and Wednesdays.) What you harvest is pre-sold, and you don’t have to expend precious time selling door to door to restaurants and grocers or manning a booth at the farmers market. Herbie now has 90 acres in organic production and is one of ECO’s top producers, accounting for 70% of his sales. ECO, in turn, has doubled its sales in the past two years and is now moving to a larger warehouse this spring in Durham’s old tobacco district. Organic has become the ticket to success for many farmers.
However you picture an organic farmer, we bet Herbie doesn’t fit any stereotype you had in mind. His farm has come back to life; he employs 25 workers seasonally and eight full-time including an older African American woman who is his best bean picker and who Herbie calls his “grandmother”. “She can out-pick any of the younger guys, and when I ask her to get out of the heat of the sun to take a rest, she admonishes – “Who do you think is going to pick this row in time to put on the truck to ECO!”” Another worker in the summer is a local UNC-CH student – cute and vivacious; Herbie tells us she is one of his best. When he tells the crew that today they are going to dig potatoes, she bubbles, “I’ve been wanting to dig potatoes!” Herbie slyly whispers to a standing room only crowd , “She out-harvested all the guys.”
“I believe organically grown food is healthier and tastes better. It’s what I want to feed my kids and my customers. Growing organically has kept my multi-generational farm in farming,” Herbie concludes. Meet Herbie and other ECO growers through videos at their respective farms on the ECO website, http://www.easterncarolinaorganics.com/farmer.php?farmer=herbie+cottle
NC leads the nation in the loss of farmland — an inauspicious claim. Nonetheless, our bustling, sustainable ag region in the Research Triangle is seeing an increase in the number of new farmers (though not total farmland). Statewide in North Carolina we spend about $3.5 billion a year on food with about 98% of that food coming from faraway places like California, Arizona, and Florida. If just 10% of North Carolinians’ food budget ($1.05 a day) was locally focused, we’d be pumping $3.5 billion into our state economy. That would mean fresher and more nutritious food, less childhood obesity, a much smaller carbon footprint, lower health expenditures, and a whopping 90,000 +/- additional jobs in a state that desperately needs new jobs! We now have 440,000 unemployed (9.9% — one of the worst records in the nation). A focus on buying locally produced food would reduce that number to 350,000, or something in the neighborhood of 7.5% unemployment making us one of the best in the nation.
What does California have that NC doesn’t? We have a more sustainable supply of water, but California generally has richer soil. Soil can be improved by adding organic matter and cover cropping, but Califonia’s persistent droughts are curtailing some agricultural activity – so there! California is three times larger with three times more people, but if you turn North Carolina upside down, our climate zones are essentially the same – Northern California is in Zone 6 like our western mountains, the fertile Central Valley is Zone 7 like our fertile crescent from the northeast to below Charlotte, and Southern California is in subtropical Zone 8 like our Wilmington area. Oh yeah, and California is 3,000 miles away, and its large farms have had their share of food-related scares and recalls. So, tell us again why we are importing over 90 percent of our produce and fruit from the West Coast when we can grow almost everything California produces.
One of the exciting aspects for us in jumping headlong into the sustainable food tidal wave is meeting the local heroes of the land like Cathy Jones and Mike Perry of Perriwinkle Farm (Cathy has mentored us at the Fearrington Farmers Market); Bill Dow of Ayrshire Farm (NC’s first organically certified farmer and a fellow worshipper at Spring Friends Meeting); the Hitts of Perregrine Farm, who first pointed us to the available land that is now Peaceful River Farm; Ben and Noah of Fickle Creek Farm in Efland; Doug Jones of Piedmont Biofarm in Pittsboro, where Larry has taken workshops; and Suzanne of Cozi Farms in Saxapahaw, who welcomed us to her farm following torrential rains last spring on the CFSA farm tour and later sold us her first chicken tractor. We’ve met dozens — there are thousands more. The average age of today’s family farmer is 57, but there are loads and loads of young people wanting to take their place.
The obstacles to entering farming are enormous – high land prices, lack of capital and collateral, lack of a profitable track record, etc. And yet there is this dogged determination to become one of the 20 million sustainable farmers that Author Michael Pollan predicts we will need to develop a sustainable farm economy. At a showing of “Greenhorns” last fall at the Silk Hope Heritage Farm Center (a documentary about new farmers across America) there was standing room only in a hall packed with passionate wannabe farmers. http://thegreenhorns.net. Larry’s Sustainable Ag classmates at Central Carolina Community College are young, bright, and motivated – many earned a college degree already and are looking to make a difference in the world – the program has increased nearly twofold in a short period.
Our friend, Joanna Lelekaks of Dancing Pines Farm in Efland, heads up a statewide initiative, Bringing New Farmers to the Table. http://www.ncacc.org/annualconf/2011-cefs.pdf There is also a new effort to fund start-up farmers and food enterprises, Slow Money, with low-interest loans from interested individuals http://slowmoneync.org/our-loans/how-it-works/.
We bumped into Larry’s cousin, Charles Newlin, at a showing of “American Meat” www.americanmeatfilm.com/ at the Saxapahaw Ball Room www.hawriverballroom.com/. Charles used to be a conventional dairy farmer with his late father, Larry’s Uncle, David, but Charles had to lay that business down due to the flooding of cheap dairy products from the Midwest and West. Inspired by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia (Joel is profiled in the American Meat film and has spoken to packed audiences in the Triangle plus has written a number of books including Salad Bar Beef, Larry’s cousin is taking steps to begin farming again with grass-fed cattle. There are thousands of farmers like Charles, who have been challenged by the tides of industrial agriculture’s commodity pricing, and who are now looking for a more profitable (one of the key ingredients to sustainable farming – profitability) entry back into family farming.
Sustainable agriculture equates to stronger communities. Our arugula, tatsoi, and lettuce were served to 800 farmers and foodies at the annual Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference carolinafarmstewards.org/ in Durham this past November. Eating and conversing, whether with 8 or 800, is a powerful glue that binds us in community. The Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw is taking that notion to the next level with biweekly community dinners. Featured farmers provide most of the food for the evening dinner and tell their story afterward. We are on tap to tell the Peaceful River Farm story on Thursday, March 22nd www.theeddypub.com/.
We are selling our produce to the Eddy’s sister business, Saxapahaw General Store, where we took our daughter, Kathryn and son-in-law, Steve, on a recent Sunday for lunch. Every table was filled, and there was a line of 15 people at the register placing their order (we cheated and ordered by phone). Little mill town, Saxapahaw — where Larry’s great, great, great uncle, “Dear Me” John Newlin, built a mill on the Haw River in the early 1800’s – this little village is amazing and the happening place of the Triangle. It is Foodie Central where bluegrass music fills the air at the summer music series ands hosts vendors at the farmers market providing fresh and prepared food.
At dawn this morning there was a hawk perched on the phone pole, screeching out a warning that a stranger (Larry checking on his transplants) was approaching. He/she flew off to perch on a pine tree at a safer distance. A herd of teenage deer in the meadow near the retreat center were startled by this same stranger’s footsteps and hopped and pranced to safety. Up above in the market gardens, there are bluebirds seemingly on every post of the deer fence, and goldfinch are flitting about in anticipation of more spring blooms and seedheads to come. The robins bob for worms after a rain. Further down the slope we gaze up at the small V of geese overhead with an errant threesome flapping hard to catch up. When they fly over the axis of the Haw River, they make a perfect angled line that would make any geometry professor or Blue Angel pilot proud. A moment later a majestic blue heron parallels their path down the Haw, but at a lower altitude, scouting for food from the river and making our morning magical.
After an abundant day of tasks, accomplishments, and a growing list of things yet to do, we pause to gaze at the star-filled sky. It is a moment of awe and reverence – unspeakably beautiful with sparkles that we should be able to pick out of the sky. All this is sustainable farming. It is magical, mystical, hard work, rewarding, important, even essential, and restorative – and hopefully profitable one day. We, too, are the face of sustainable agriculture and loving every minute.
-Larry Newlin March, 2012