Winter on the land

Dec. 7, 2010 12:25 am

This story is the second in a series on North Carolina’s local and sustainable food movement. Read part one here.

Although winter months put a damper on farm activities, community support for the local and sustainable food movement hasn’t shown signs of slowing.

For Orange County farmers, winter is when production is at a yearly low and when many prepare for spring.

The fields at Chapel Hill’s Eco Farm are now covered in sheets of protective plastic. In the past few weeks, the trees have grown barren and a colorful array of leaves have covered the earth. Most of the produce grown at Eco Farm has been moved to the farm’s greenhouse.

Though things have slowed down for most farmers, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems is still working to build awareness of sustainable and local food economies around North Carolina. In the past two years, the center has developed a statewide action guide to outline future goals and has begun implementing initiatives to raise awareness and support for local farmers.

Community-supported agriculture is one way local farmers obtain funds to keep them afloat until the next season. CSAs create a relationship between farmers and their communities by providing members weekly or biweekly access to the farm’s fresh, seasonal produce.

John  and Cindy Soehner, owners of the Eco Farm in Chapel Hill, ran a CSA for about four years.

CSAs provide disposable income for the fall and winter months, Cindy Soehner said.

“That’s money we can use for planting, buying seeds, for repairing things,” she said. “It helps us when we don’t have a lot of produce to sell.”

Mike Perry of Perry-winkle Farm in Chapel Hill said that a smaller farm such as Perry-winkle usually only earns up to $400 or $500 in the winter. Perry said his second job as a mason helps with finances during less active winter months.

In December and January, Perry and his wife sell goods at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, one of the few local farmers markets that remain open year-round. He said that although the market’s pace slows significantly in the winter, he still sells seasonal produce, eggs and meat.

The growing trend of buying local food has not gone unnoticed by farmers.

“Every time you pick up a newspaper, there’s something about buying local,” Perry said, adding that sales had gone up for the farm despite this year’s poor economy.

Continuing into the winter season, campaigns by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems have helped raise consumer access to and awareness of local food.

Recent initiatives have helped increase support for local farmers and communities like CSAs. These initiatives began through a collaboration of knowledge and experience from experts around the state.

Nancy Creamer, co-director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, said the statewide Farm to Fork initiative stemmed from the center’s NC Choices Program, which focused on advancing market opportunities for pasture-based farmers.

While developing market models, Creamer said the program realized that the infrastructure between farm and market was broken — no coherent system existed to provide fresh, local food to the community. Their attempts to bridge this gap eventually evolved into the Farm to Fork initiative.

“It started out as an environmental movement, but now people are seeing it as a solution to a wide range of problems,” Creamer said.

The organization’s efforts gained traction in 2009, when more than 400 stakeholders — including representatives from N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill and dignitaries like N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue — attended a summit sponsored by the center to develop a plan for local, sustainable food initiatives.

The resulting yearlong combination of regional meetings and research produced the State Action Guide, which has since led to initiatives such as the 10 Percent Campaign.

Those involved in the Farm to Fork initiative also helped develop working definitions for terms such as “local” and “sustainable” by combining the terms and ideas associated with these concepts.

According to the center, a sustainable food economy is community-based and emphasizes transparency, making information available to everyone. It also stresses affordability and accessibility in addition to educating consumers and sustaining local farm families.

Cindy Soehner said that one way she and John practice sustainable farming is by rotating crops. This practice ensures that crops are able to obtain the nutrients necessary to grow healthily and prevents soil from becoming depleted of one nutrient through continuous recropping.

Another key factor in creating a local sustainable food economy is protecting land, water and wildlife.

“The food we call cheap, that is cheap when we pay for it at the cash register, is expensive to health and the economy,” said Tes Thraves, the community-based food systems coordinator at the center.

Research has shown that many of today’s agricultural practices threaten sustainability. Large-scale “factory farms” cause soil erosion, reduced soil fertility and overgrazing.

The heavy use of fertilizer has led to the loss of usable farmland and has consequently decreased long-term production, according to a research proposal by Alice Ammerman, a professor in the department of nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

This research shows that salinization has caused a worldwide loss of 1.5 million hectares of arable farm land per year and $11 billion in lost U.S. production during the past 40 years.

Farmland is also threatened by the growing North Carolina population, which, according to the proposal, is estimated to have grown by 600,000 in the last ten years. This population increase could create increased demand for new residential space, possibly leading to further farmland loss.

The effort to better address those issues is happening at both the community and policy level, Thraves said.

She said that because affordable food is an immediate necessity, the center has been working to increase accessibility and affordability of local, sustainable food for people of all income levels.

At the policy level, the North Carolina Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council works to impact the state’s food policy. The council, approved by the General Assembly in 2009, is made up of stakeholders who want to influence the movement on a larger scale.

The movement has brought together nonprofit organizations, government officials, students, farmers, consumers, schools and businesses, Thraves said, adding that she finds the amount of people dedicated to the movement amazing.

“How and where success happens is usually attributable to collaboration,” Thraves said. “Where you see that combination happening, you begin to see change.”

Rebecca Seawell, a senior from Mechelen, Belgium and Raleigh, N.C., is a platform producer for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.