Citistates report: A growing market for local crops

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 12, 2008

By Neal Peirce
For the Salisbury Post
If this region seriously wants to go green, food may be a perfect way to start.
Take chef Mark Hibbs’ “passionate farm to fork cuisine” ó as his business card puts it ó of locally grown foods offered at his upscale Ratcliffe on the Green restaurant in uptown Charlotte. Hibbs advertises his use of locally grown ingredients from food producers in the area such as Ashley Farms, New Beginnings Farm and Laughing Owl Farm.
Any thought that locally grown foods are just a niche market fades when one checks with the hard-headed agriculture experts at N.C. State University’s Cooperative Extension office in Union County. Sure, they say, commodity agriculture in soybeans and wheat, broilers, beef cattle and pork are a big deal in top agricultural counties.
But the new trend the NCSU experts spot: More people recognizing “we are what we eat.” A large, growing consumer base worries about E. coli and other food scares, pesticides, hormones and genetic modifications, as well as the carbon footprint of shipping food long distances. Interest is rising in buying local, for health and freshness, and aversion is growing to the scarf-and-bolt, high-fat, plastic-packed foods pushed by the food industry. Farmers’ markets flourish. Even restaurateurs and chefs are going directly to markets and farms for fresh supplies.
A strong, local farming base makes a region more self-reliant and secure. That seems to be part of the thinking in Cabarrus County, where belief in a farm economy, worries about environment, climate change and energy shortages have inspired a strategy to preserve farmland for current and future farmers.
Such enlightenment is far from universal. Lots of public education is needed, starting with a “healthy eating” theme (and cafeteria menus) in schools. Residents and government officials need to find space for more farmers’ markets, in or near city and town centers ó rather than in accessible-by-autos-only locations such as the state’s Charlotte Regional Farmers Market off the Billy Graham Parkway. Government-business partnerships should push for revised, fresh and local-food diets for cafeterias at schools, hospitals, universities and other sites.
Nurturing the region’s farms ó and markets for their products ó will not only make the population healthier, but provide an economic base for an emerging industry.
When people are exposed to local foods, enthusiasm grows. No sooner was a new farmers market open in Kannapolis’ Cannon Village last year than people were expressing hope that research at the new N.C. Research Campus would start identifying plants with longer growing seasons.
That’s the second challenge: adequate supply. From kale, collards, turnips and sweet potatoes harvested in fall and winter to spring and summer’s spinach, melons, string beans, blackberries and sweet corn, there literally is produce for almost all seasons. But summer’s supply clearly is superior, and most farmers markets lack indoor locations for cold months. Every downtown should look for sites, including covered markets such as Seattle’s fabulously successful Pike Place Market, that can stay open year-round.
There’s another serious challenge: land costs. One answer is to encourage smaller, scientifically planned, higher-yield operations (organic farms, for example) that can turn a profit even on limited acreage. That means recruiting younger, better-educated farmers ó returning not just dignity but status to tilling the land.
Some fascinating entrepreneurial ideas are emerging. One is community supported agriculture. A farmer sells shares of the harvest to customers in a nearby town, delivering a weekly box of what’s in season direct to the buyer. The farmer is paid in advance; the consumer gets fresh, seasonal and local food.
Another idea is the “decentralized urban farm.” A green-thumbed entrepreneur approaches many homeowners and landowners, finds dozens of small plots in a city or suburb, gets the owners to let it be cultivated and then pays them with weekly produce ó and comes away with enough extra produce to make a decent income.
What about big food markets? Chains such as Earth Fare have become major outlets for local foods. So has Wal-Mart, and its tendency is to drive retail prices down to unsustainably low prices. To have a true “green” age, “always less” can’t be the motto.
If price is a big issue ó and in these bad economic times, it is ó there’s the most economical route of all: Grow your own. Eleanor Roosevelt kicked off the Victory Garden campaign of World War II with a plot at the White House. By war’s end home gardens grew an amazing 40 percent of the nation’s produce. Right now, notes leading New Urbanist architect Andres Duany, Americans spend billions a year on lawn care. “Just reapply it to growing crops!” he proposes.
The Charlotte region might consider a multi-city, multi-county program to compost food scraps. Every day, homes, schools and restaurants send tons of food waste, yard trimmings and other biodegradable waste to landfills. It takes up valuable space and produces methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Charlotte already recycles yard waste to make mulch and compost; why not expand it to kitchen scraps?
It’s that kind of program that will convince the world ó and the region’s residents ó that the region is truly green, healthy, resourceful, and a demonstrably great place for self-reliant, 21st-century living.