Everyone seems to agree that eating food grown nearby is better than eating food grown far away. Yet the local food movement remains a decidedly boutique affair. Local farmers and entrepreneurs are working together to change that
Charles and Dana Burrage raise chickens, pigs, cattle, and more at their Windy Hill Farm.
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On the first 100-plus-degree day of 2012, the corn stalks lining the rural roads near Charles and Dana Burrage’s farm seemed to be making an archway over the steamy pavement. Their neighbors’ cornfields line their twenty-seven-acre property, aptly named Windy Hill Farm, in New London. It’s possible that the corn they watch grow from their back porch will be the same corn ground at a local mill to feed their chickens, ducks, and pigs this fall.
The Burrages don’t make as much money as they did in their old jobs—he drove a truck and she designed modular homes. Now they take pride in contributing to their community’s health, gastronomically and economically. They’re careful about how their animals are raised, fed, slaughtered, packaged, and sold. They do their best to buy from people they know, fellow farmers they can quiz about their practices eye-to-eye. “My money is going back to my neighbors,” says Charles, which means more to him than any claim on a package’s label because, he says, “‘organic’ feed can come from China.”
After they married in 2004, the couple (he’s thirty-one, she’s twenty-nine) purchased their land to be a play place for their future children (Mason is now six and Brooke is three). It was supposed to be a place to take the kids camping and four-wheeling. Then Charles determined that he was getting sick after eating meat from area restaurants and grocery stores. That’s when they decided to raise their own. They began with a couple of pigs and a few chickens—enough for their family and friends. Now they average ten head of cattle, a hundred pigs, forty sheep, seventy-five to a hundred turkeys, several ducks, and about 500 each of “layer” and “boiler” chickens (which they process themselves) on the farm year-round.
They don’t give hormones or antibiotics to the animals, and the livestock are only allowed to graze on one section of a pasture at a time. This rotational grazing, Charles explains, gives “the land time to heal. It re-greens thicker and stronger.” Charles says he’s really a grass farmer, and it’s his job to ensure the grass never gets too short.
Windy Hill sells its meat through online buyers’ clubs and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. A full order gives customers twenty pounds of meat and two dozen eggs (white, brown, and light green), though customers can request a half order. The Burrages also sell their products à la carte at area farmers markets. They participate in several of them, all within a fifty-mile radius.
The farm is one of thousands in North Carolina that sells directly to its customers. It sounds like a lot, but most of those farms are very small operations, in some cases only serving one or two nearby markets. But they’re the bulwarks of a growing segment of society that’s interested in a deeper connection with its food. You’ve seen it happen in Charlotte, which all of the sudden has more than two dozen farmers markets, some operating all year long. You can arrange to pick up or receive shipments of produce from any of several local CSAs. And area restaurants proudly proclaim on their menus which ingredients are sourced locally.
But the local food movement is still a boutique one. Farming is a difficult lifestyle—difficult and not lucrative. Farmland is expensive and might take years of revenue-free labor to convert for agriculture. For these and other reasons, locally grown or raised food costs more than its mass-produced counterparts. The Burrages, however, are not deterred. Nor are other hearty souls. In fact, a loosely connected group of local entrepreneurs—not all of them farmers—is busy developing creative ways to make it easy for everyone to access local food.
Figuring out how to make a living by farming is more of a struggle than one might imagine, especially for those who primarily raise and sell produce. A major obstacle for some farmers is land ownership—if they have to rent or lease it, they have less long-term security, no matter how in demand their goods may be. Another way for farmers to extend their selling season is to raise foods that have a naturally long shelf life or to make another type of product, such as cornmeal or canned goods.
Seasonal produce is something that Eric Williamson, owner of Coldwater Creek Farms, thinks about a lot as he ponders ways to stretch his selling season. Unlike the Burrages, whose meat products can be produced and sold anytime of the year, Williamson plants about fifty varieties of vegetables on his Cabarrus County farm each year. The problem is, he doesn’t own the land. He leases it.
His other rented space, a booth at the Atherton Market, is full of large green-and-white coolers where the week’s CSA pickings are iced and waiting for the prepaid customers to arrive with their shopping bags. As he talks, he turns a sweet potato over and over in his hands before snapping it in half. It’s one of the many crops he grows that has a long shelf life, enabling him to maneuver around the “seasonal debate,” or the idea that local food can only be consumed in a single season. For example, he sells garlic scapes—the tops of garlic plants used in soups and pestos—and celeriac, the turnip-like root of some celery plants. “We also try to do the bookends: the lettuces, the chards,” he says. Those are plants that are grown in the early spring and late fall. What you will not find him selling, however, are tomatoes. “Everyone grows those,” he says.
While his focus on unique produce attracts chefs and serious foodies to his stall, he’s not sure that he’ll be able to continue farming for much longer. “I can’t plant things that are going to be there in the future because I don’t own the land,” he says. If he owned his land, he says, he’d plant peach trees or berry bushes. Beyond buying land, he estimates that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to get into the farming business. Plus, there is no 401(k) to look forward to after a lifetime of working twelve-hour days in the sun. “It can be love at times,” he says. “There’s nothing better than working outside. But it can also be really hard, and you begin to understand why people monocrop.”
Monocrops—where only one type of plant is grown instead of a variety—are not good for the soil, and healthy soil is critical. Not long after settling down to farm, our ancient ancestors figured out that if you plant the same plant on the same land year after year, the land becomes depleted of certain nutrients, and their crops suffered for it. That’s partially why industrial agribusinesses rely so heavily on chemicals to keep pests at bay and crop yields up—they have to pump the soil full of artificial fillers to convince the plants to grow.
In traditional farming, which is what most local farmers practice, animal manure isn’t stored in slurry ponds that can contaminate waterways. Instead, it’s returned to the earth as a natural fertilizer. And cover crops, such as barley and winter rye, are planted and tilled into the earth as “green manure.” The resulting soil is full of microbes, worms, and bacteria, and it uses water more efficiently, so the plants thrive.
After a plot of land is developed or used for industrial farming, it takes at least three years to work the soil back into a healthy state, as it detoxes from years of chemical treatment and a lack of diversity. During that rehabilitation period, weeds tend to grow in abundance and produce doesn’t, which ultimately means that the farmer isn’t making much money—if any. If the land needs to be rehabbed, it could be years before it turns a profit.