(This article from 2005ad is no longer available, so the pictures do not translate.)
Of course, only God thru his Son Jesus Christ can save what is left of the South. But with Christ as the foundation this article nails it!
Tonight for supper, we are having chicken baked in a cream sauce, little red potatoes cooked in butter, onions, spinach, asparagus, cooked in butter (notice a pattern?) The butter and cream came from our Jersey milk cow, and we raised the chicken and vegetables.
Tonight we are eating “Clean Food”, I know that for sure. This article talks about “Clean Food”. I like the term better than “certified organic”. We do not need government certified “organic” anything, but my family and your famly need “Clean Food”.
I am %100 convinced, unless we see some significant small number of our people, move to form intentional communities; where among other things, they either grow, or support Southern growers of “Clean Food”, it is all talk. I think this article outlines part of the way to our eventual feedom, one family, one Southern community at a time.
Can Sustainable Agriculture Save the South?
Story and Photos By HEIDI THOMAS
Bouncing down a long, dirt road in Leesville, passing mobile homes nestled among Carolina pines and Confederate flags flapping in a warm summer breeze, it’s strange to think the South may be poised on the brink of a cultural revolution. It’s even stranger to think that here, at the end of the road where goats lazily graze and bees meander through corn stalks and rows of summer squash, is where the rebellion begins: on the farm.
|Round River Farms is a community supported agriculture co-op offering organic produce and eggs for sale.
At first glance, Round River Farms in Leesville is like any other small farm, with chickens clucking in coops and tomatoes creeping up trellises. What’s different is in how the food is grown: there are no chemical fertilizers making the corn grow and no pesticides keeping the tomato worms away. Round River Farms grows organic foods.
Lately, local supermarkets and health food stores have seen a surge in the popularity of organic foods and in response, those stores are stocking organics in greater amounts. Most people probably would not equate organic farming with incendiary social upheaval. Sure, organic food has long been associated with West Coast liberals and back-to-earth hippy types known for going against the grain. But organics — or clean food — is simply food grown without chemicals or pesticides, which could be considered more a healthy lifestyle choice than a revolutionary idea.
But clean food is more than just a healthy food choice, according to Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA)’s South Carolina coordinator, Emile DeFelice, who has had his eye on the clean food market for some time.
“The only true alternative position left is in food production,” DeFelice says. “The home used to be the center of production and now it’s the center of consumption. It’s the production versus consumption dichotomy that offers a window into how people can change their world through choice. Eating organic food is more a world-view way of thinking.”
This is the revolution, says DeFelice: Small, diversified farms like Round River supplementing food produced by other local clean food growers and replacing distant industrial agriculture. In DeFelice’s vision, local agriculture provides local people with healthy food, good jobs and clean bills of health. Get rid of distant industrial monoculture farms —farms that produce one or two big crops rather than several small, diverse crops — and local job opportunities grow and rural communities stay strong rather than deteriorate.
The clean food industry in the South is on the cusp of a marketing explosion. DeFelice says that nationally, organic farming is a $12 billion industry growing at a rate of 20 percent each year. But South Carolina has only one organic certifying agency, located in Clemson University, and as of 2002, only 174 certified organic farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That amounts to only 895 acres out of the 4.85 million acres of farmland in the state.
Most of the foods sold in local stores are shipped in from the Midwest, California and even South America. So, with industrial agriculture firmly embedded in the Southern farming community and with organic culture only recently gaining momentum, why would DeFelice — or anyone else for that matter — think clean food could herald a new shift in the agricultural paradigm of the South?
|Lately the Earth Fare and Rosewood Market produce departments have seen a surge in customer interest, but high prices of organic produce keeps some customers at bay.
The Unknown Ideal
“If you eat, breathe, drink, you are part of it,” DeFelice says. “What you do at least three times a day is a voluntary choice. That’s what I think about it. You make a choice when you choose what food to buy.”
DeFelice is the go-to guy for information on organics in South Carolina: Even Bill Brooks with the S.C. Department of Agriculture, who is listed as the State Organic Contact on the USDA web site, will refer inquisitors to DeFelice. CFSA’s headquarters are in North Carolina, but DeFelice heads up the newly opened South Carolina satellite office: a maze of rooms in the creaky hardwood-floored building above the Nickelodeon Theatre and Immaculate Consumption coffeehouse. He bounces energetically around the old office, empty save for some furniture, a few unpacked boxes and a couple of 18-month-old pork shanks dangling from the ceiling in a corner.
He may be the lone CFSA representative here, but he hardly has a moment’s peace. DeFelice is at the center of a vortex of agricultural producers, suppliers and consumers. The CFSA has more than 800 members regionally, and its main purpose is to unite and educate farmers and consumers in the Southeast. DeFelice says he’s always getting calls from people interested in organic foods or the pastured pork business he runs near St. Matthews. That explains the aging pork shanks. DeFelice raises free-range pigs: He allows them to root, wallow and forage on his farm, and his pork is in high demand.
Like many local farmers, DeFelice can’t certify his meat even though he employs organic methods on his farm. He says it’s an infrastructure issue. Many farms in South Carolina have trouble finding the organic materials or funding they need to qualify for certification. In his case, he can’t find enough organic feed for his pigs (that won’t cost him a fortune to have it shipped in from elsewhere). But a farm like DeFelice’s is still in demand simply because he grows clean food — free from pesticides, hormones and genetically modified materials, and the methods used to grow it employ sustainable or environmentally responsible techniques.
“The ramifications of a crappy food supply are unbelievable,” DeFelice says chatting over a cup of organic coffee in his office on a pleasant June morning. “Little farmers are disappearing. The few people who are doing [organic farming] are doing it for wholesome reasons, not for money. It’s dangerous. You have better odds in Vegas.
“It’s not a promotable idea. I don’t need chemicals, medications, etc. [on the farm], but there’s money behind that. If there’s not a lot of money behind it, it’s hard to get the message out,” DeFelice says.
His vision, a sort of idealized version of the agrarian Old South combined with the diversified marketplace of the 21st century, means a great number of changes to the current supply-and-demand system dictated by consumers. Can it work? Maybe. Maybe not.
|David Van Tassel trains a horse to plow on Round River Farms in Leesville, in the hopes of doing away with petroleum-powered equipment.
Revolutions begin with the idea that something could be better than it is. The so-called agricultural revolution, which lasted from 1750 to 1900, was essentially a social paradigm shift. The agrarian society of the 1700s segued into the post-industrial economy of the 21st century as machinery, and later, chemical science, automated much of the farm work and forced and/or allowed farm families, formerly tied to the land, to move out of the country and into urban centers. Modern technology has allowed farms to transform into monolithic industries, and with the advent of highways, those industries ship their crops quickly to all corners of the world.
Modern industrial agriculture is the result of this revolution. Food is cheap and consistent. Stores like Wal-Mart offer tomatoes in winter and apples in spring, and plenty of both. Sure, the produce might not be ripe — long-distance transport requires produce to be shipped well before it’s natural maturation — and because of that, flavor and nutrients can be lost. But as the success of Wal-Mart can attest, consumers have preferred cost and convenience over quality for some time.
And that might explain why organic farming has been slow to come to the South. With organic food’s popularity only recently ripening in the region, industrial agriculture, also called conventional farming, has long been more lucrative than organic techniques and crop diversification. And until recently, organics were considered a fad market, confined to fringe groups and health nuts.
But to some experts like Tobias Lanz, an adjunct professor of environmental and comparative politics at USC, organic agriculture is a perfect fit for South Carolina farmers, many of whom embrace tradition and old-fashioned techniques — trademarks of organic farming. The first step in introducing organic techniques to South Carolina farmers is to bridge the political gap that’s keeping many of them at bay.
“It’s important that people realize that clean food is not just left-wing political activism out of California,” Lanz says.
DeFelice stresses that land and soil stewardship is a major tenet of organic farming. According to DeFelice, petrochemical farming has helped to pollute the state’s waterways so that much of South Carolina’s fish is rendered dangerous to eat.
“This is a big tent kind of movement,” DeFelice says. “It doesn’t matter if you love Rush [Limbaugh] and think environmentalism is stupid. You’ll care if you can’t hunt and fish. Environmentalism is not just a liberal issue.”
He explains that monoculture farming has led to soil erosion and the stripping of soil’s nutrients. This, in turn, leads to chemical fertilization of crops, which leads to chemicals leaching into the ground and groundwater, and a nasty cycle begins.
“When I talk to farmers I play the heritage card,” says DeFelice, who is a native South Carolinian. “I say to farmers, when you send a boat payment to [chemical producer] Pete Dupont in Connecticut, that money would be better spent in the South. We need to link our actions with the bigger picture. Organic farmers are incendiary. We’re giving the finger to the chemical and petroleum companies.”
Lanz also says conservative Southern farmers should be concerned.
“Petrochemical farms are Northern companies who have colonized us in a different way [than the post-Civil War reconstruction]. The whole modern system forces you to be dependent on the market and the government for food.”
|David Van Tassel will live and work on Round River Farms through the summer.
Earth Fare produce manager Jim Taylor has been watching the rise in interest in organics over the last 15 years, five of them at Earth Fare. He says that the Columbia health food store carries 85 to 90 percent organic produce. His department grew between 25 and 40 percent last year, the highest growth of any of the store’s departments, suggesting that people are coming to Earth Fare for organic produce.
“[Since] the USDA took over the organic industry, there’s been a lot more press,” Taylor says. Although the Organic Foods Product Act was drafted in 1990, the USDA’s organic labeling standards went into effect in 2002. “Standards were established state by state. And in a way it’s legitimized the industry,” Taylor says.
He says his customers understand the health benefits of clean food, because it is expensive and they likely wouldn’t pay as much for something that was just a fad. But still, customers want what they want, when they want it. And Taylor scrambles to fill the market’s demand.
“A lot of people complain that we buy from California, but California farms have been doing it for years and their produce is beautiful,” Taylor says. He says produce from North Carolina and Florida — what he considers local since organic produce from South Carolina is virtually non-existent — often has spots or is expensive, both of which will almost certainly turn customers away.
“I wish I could have more local farmers, a lot more local farmers,” Taylor says.
But they just aren’t available. DeFelice points to a number of reasons why many farmers are reluctant to make the switch from chemical-based to organic farming. Smaller farms have a hard time competing with the monoculture of large farms that have automated much of the planting and harvesting. Monoculture farms also have the ability to harvest early and time deliveries so that produce ripens at the store or in the customer’s refrigerator. Local and small farmers often simply don’t have the resources to compete.
|Michael Evette and Erin McVey were attracted to the opportunities Round River Farms offers for experimentation in sustainable agriculture techniques and permaculture.
Seeds of Change
Round River Farms sits on 22 acres of rolling hills and meandering creeks near Leesville, at the end of that long, dirt road to revolution. It’s a community supported agriculture (CSA) co-op: Customers buy shares of the season’s crops, and receive a weekly box of produce and eggs weighing between 5 and 15 pounds. The produce is grown and tended by three farmhands in a 3/4-acre garden using organic techniques, though the farm can’t afford to pay for certification. And although what this farm grows is in demand, it’s too small to supply any major markets, and too few customers even know what a CSA is.
The people who work the farm look right at home in the garden, with their sun-kissed skin and fresh faces. Erin McVey, 24, and David Van Tassel, 20, moved to the farm from Asheville, N.C.; Michael Evette, 22, came from Greenville. They will all stay here through the growing season, but haven’t decided if they will stick around after. Like their student predecessors who have worked the farm since 1999, these three were students when they met the landowner’s son, a professor at Furman University in Greenville. They jumped at the chance to run the CSA, because here they can experiment with sustainable agriculture techniques and permaculture — utilizing the earth’s natural environmental cycles in farming. The farmhands are experimenting with using animal labor to replace petroleum-powered equipment, pond water to irrigate the garden and portable chicken coops to fertilize the soil.
They stoop to examine a baby squash here or pull up weeds there, as they talk about the farm. Once a week, the group will take the shares of produce to Rosewood Market in Columbia to distribute them to shareholders. What’s left over, they sell to the market or eat themselves. Round River recently lost a number of shareholders in the Upstate who switched to a CSA farm in Greenville, and unless they can entice more people to sign up for produce, they could be eating plenty of squash and tomatoes this summer.
“It would be nice if we were bombarded with shares,” Evette says. “I know there’s lots of people in Columbia interested in organic produce and supporting local farms. We just need to get the word out.”
McVey shoves a clod of dirt with her work boot. “I wonder if people are interested in the idea of organic, but when you get down to it, there’s holes in the greens and you can’t get squash every week,” she says. “I still think it’s important to support us.”
“You can buy organic [food] throughout the season at Rosewood [Market], all the time,” Evette says. “But it comes from California. We’re local.”
“And here you can see where your food comes from,” Van Tassel adds. “There’s that disconnect [when you shop at a supermarket].” He says shareholders are offered a discounted price when they sign up to work at the farm or in the garden at least 10 hours during the summer. Shareholders are also welcome to just visit the farm to see where their food is grown and to enjoy the peaceful beauty of the place.
“The problem is that people prefer convenience over supporting local agriculture,” Evette says. “Even if they do, it’s so easy to walk in the store and buy produce.”
“I’m interested in building a community,” McVey says. “People come together to work together to grow food and share it. The organic food movement is growing in Asheville and it gives me hope that it can grow wherever you go.”
McVey moved to Asheville from California to attend college a few years ago. As a child, she witnessed the rising popularity of organic foods on the West Coast (and that well-established history explains why so much of the organic produce at local health food stores is from California). McVey says she’s now seeing a similar agricultural shift in the Carolinas.
Lanz is a California transplant as well. And while the local cuisine took some getting used to, he now grows okra and collard greens in his own private garden in Columbia. South Carolinians need to stop seeing organic enthusiasts as an elitist group that eats tofu while everyone else eats grits and barbecue, Lanz says. Instead, he stresses that local organic agriculture is good for the environment, good for the economy and good for the soul.
“Cheap food has a cost,” Lanz warns. “Big farmers have taken over mom-and-pop farms. The industrial economy keeps people from working [outdoors], which leads to obesity. The idea to be self-reliant on farms has given way to modern farmers scrambling to meet market demand. You used to drive by farms and see barns, chicken coops and gardens. Now you see larger mono-crops.”
Lanz says that consumers are much to blame for the change, but they also hold the key to its reversal. “It’s easy to walk into the Piggly Wiggly, so you destroy the whole farming culture,” Lanz says. “Consumers need to eat in season. Consumer paradise has destroyed local paradise.”
That’s one of the biggest problems that Taylor notices at Earth Fare. With popular items like grapes, if there is little or no organic product, or it’s too expensive or quality-poor, he is forced to buy from conventional farms. In addition, those farms must be approved by Earth Fare’s corporate warehouse, so smaller, local farms like Round River have little chance of competing.
Rosewood Market, also known for it’s clean produce, doesn’t have quite so much red tape. Produce manager Kevin Brumfield scours the state Farmer’s Market daily and prides himself on providing the freshest and best-tasting produce, but he runs into trouble keeping up with demanding consumers as well.
“We try to get as much as we can locally. Unfortunately the season here is so short,” Brumfield says, noting that 60 to 70 percent of the produce they offer is organic. He has watched the rise in local interest in organics, but sometimes has trouble getting good organic produce. He’s not convinced that just because produce is organic that it’s a better product.
“Some people say the quality [of organic] is better than conventional, but that’s not true,” Brumfield says. “It’s how it was taken care of in transit and stuff. [Organic producers] don’t put ice on it, so it doesn’t last as long. It’s more work for me because I have to bring it back to life.”
That’s one big advantage conventional produce has over organic. Organic food is often vine-ripened, which shortens its shelf life. If markets can move the produce quickly, that’s not a problem. But it’s much easier to let unripe produce sit in market bins than ripe, ready-to-eat produce that might not sell right away.
Another benefit is the productivity of industrial agriculture. The mechanization of farms, advances in plant and animal breeding, and development of inexpensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides have increased agricultural productivity by 1.9 percent each year between 1948 and 1999, according to an online USDA information bulletin published in June.
Back to Our Roots
DeFelice suggests that at this early juncture in the Southern organic market, consumers should support local produce whether or not it’s organic. If local farms are doing well, they might be more inclined to experiment with diversification and organics. Until then, large producers will dominate the local market and because they can move so much produce, they can afford to offer cheaper prices.
But Lanz calls this “artificially cheap” food. He says no one factors in the increase in health care costs associated with food that has not developed its nutritional potential because of premature harvesting (or simply isn’t nutritional in certain cases). No one factors in the cost of petroleum for transportation and chemical development, which includes not only monetary costs, but national security and war costs as well. And no one factors in the human costs, as small farms go out of business, destroying jobs as well as the rural landscape of America.
In fact, since the agricultural revolution, the last century has seen a dramatic change in the rural landscape, largely because of industrialization and farm specialization, according to the USDA report. As farm jobs are automated, rural-dwelling people move to cities to work, which puts a strain on urban economies and infrastructure that is already bursting at the seams. This can cause unchecked growth and out-of-control development, which infringes further on the rural landscape, as farmland is paved over with subdivisions and mini-malls. In fact, farm subsidies provided by the U.S. government help to combat rural poverty by encouraging struggling small farmers to stay in business, according to an article on agricultural policy in the online encyclopedia Nationmaster.
But there is a significant flip side to the problem. Conventional food may be artificially cheap, but it’s cheap nonetheless. As skyrocketing gas prices, housing bubbles, high debt ratios and unemployment threaten consumers, often the last thing consumers want to increase is their food budget. Taylor says cost is the biggest factor he takes into account when deciding whether Earth Fare will carry an organic product or its conventional counterpart.
Lanz suggests that this is the first thing people need to change. “Start at the basic level,” Lanz says. “Do what you can at your own household. You put money into your DVD player, cable TV, cell phones. Why can’t you spend more on broccoli?”
DeFelice suggests that consumers educate themselves about the benefits of clean food, and investigate what options they have concerning local agriculture. The CFSA publishes an annual guide to local and organic food that lists local farms and suppliers by county. He says consumers should ask their local markets and restaurants about which local and organic foods they offer and to encourage them to support local agriculture as well.
DeFelice and Lanz both agree that ultimately, the greatest social change must occur in the consumer’s own kitchen. “Consumers have it best,” DeFelice says. “They can find their farm and have a relationship with their farmers. I challenge people to destroy their connection [to industrial agriculture]. It’s not a left thing, right thing. It’s a people thing.”
“Food is central to our culture,” Lanz says. “Sitting down around the dinner table is a symbol of family coming together. You could have a revolution if you started thinking along those lines. Organic food can’t be a commodity. It has to be part of the culture.”