Our local real-food revolution
I live in Pittsboro (population about 4,000), a rural village on the southwestern edge of North Carolina’s Triangle area, at the heart of a surprising network of farmers, chefs, foodies, entrepreneurs and activists engaged in growing, selling, cooking and eating sustainable whole food.
Eateries throughout the Triangle serve up fresh seasonal cuisine grown only a few miles away on small farms in places like Hurdle Mills, Cedar Grove, Saxapahaw, Silk Hope, Eli Whitney, Hickory Mountain and Bear Creek. Bon Appetit called our region America’s “foodiest small town” because of the collaboration of local farmers and chefs who provide outstanding sustenance through farmers markets, CSA’s, restaurants and co-ops.
During a recent five-year period, North Carolina lost more conventional farms than any other state in the nation (6,000 farms with 600,000 acres gone, thanks in part to “get big or get out” ag policies). Yet during the same time, the number of small farms in the Triangle area increased 10 percent.
I recently counted all of the sustainable farms selling at markets and through CSAs in this region and came up with 250, twice as many as previous “official” estimates that have often overlooked the small-scale farmers who feed more and more of us. And the number of small farms and sustainable food enterprises has continued to grow even as other sectors of our economy have slowed due to the ongoing recession.
Clearly something is happening here that may be instructive for other communities. Within a bicycle ride of my backyard are: the first certified organic farm in our state, the first organic dairy in our region, and the first two-year degree program in sustainable agriculture anywhere in the U.S., thanks to our “green” community college. The same campus also features a unique Natural Chef Culinary Program, churning out graduates who know how to cook and serve sustainable grub. Our region has several incubators where newbie farmers have sprouted on small plots of borrowed land, and an organization that matches farm and food entrepreneurs with local folks willing to lend them money. The county seat is home to an international research organization committed to preserving small farms, another devoted to saving rare animal breeds, several seed banks, a biodiesel operation that grows food and fuel, and a food co-op where I can buy local organic food seven days a week and eat slow-food-from-a-fast-food-bar. And in nearby Chapel Hill and Raleigh there are innovative folks drawing important connections between farmers and low-income families who don’t have access to healthy food.
Our region features about 30 farmers’ markets (several open year-round), several vineyards, the largest annual farm tour in the country, and a network of more than two-dozen community-supported farms (9 in Chatham, including 6 in the greater Pittsboro area alone). In Wake County you can have fresh local vegetables, fruit and meat delivered weekly to your door. Farmer’s markets are accepting plastic and food stamps, and community gardens are proliferating in churchyards and neighborhood plots; a new one at UNC gives fresh produce away to low-income employees.
And to think when I moved to this agricultural county 35 years ago nearly everyone grew food but you had to drive 30 minutes to buy a loaf of whole-grain bread and you couldn’t get a decent tomato in the Piggly Wiggly if your life depended on it, even at the height of the growing season. All that has changed as the area has attracted consumers who demand real food, a new generation of idealistic young farmers who want to produce it, and veteran organic growers who are willing to show them how.
So what is sustainable grub? Ideally, it’s delicious healthy fare made from whole food that is grown locally in a way that sustains the environment and the people who produce and consume it. In addition to nurturing us it should also provide a decent living for the growers and be affordable to consumers. That’s a tall order that’s not always easy to fill.
But thanks to my pioneering neighbors and the new generation of farmers, chefs, activists and entrepreneurs they have seeded, this region is gradually cultivating a real local food economy. It ain’t perfect, yet, but it’s growing from the grassroots bit by bit every day.
I’m determined to discover and share as much information as I can about what it actually takes to give us truly sustainable grub and how our area became a national leader in producing it. I’ll write about all kinds of innovative folks who are cultivating a local real-food economy. I’ll share my posts on Facebook and use my Twitter feed @sustainablegrub to share links to good stuff happening around food across the nation and around the world. Please feel free to share your information and comment.
– Dee Reid