Thursday, May 5, 2011

Veggie Might: Farm Tourist

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

Spring makes me want to dig in the dirt and make green things grow. I begin to picture a fire escape container garden with trellising bean vines and hanging tomato plants. But two things prevent me from making this yearly urban-farming fantasy a reality: my tiny New York City apartment gets no direct sunlight, and I’m terribly absentminded. So I water my low-light houseplants and leave the food growing to the pros.

Plus, the best part about buying fresh produce is chatting up the farmers at the farmers’ market. My neighborhood market draws the same group of upstate New York and eastern Pennsylvania farmers every year, and they become a part of our community. The Morgiewicz family supplies the majority of my vegetables from April through Thanksgiving, and the folks Breezy Hill Orchard from rock the best stone fruit I’ve ever put in a pie.

But even that can’t beat spending a day on a farm, seeing firsthand where your food comes from. Such was my weekend when I trekked south for the 16th Annual Piedmont Farm Tour sponsored by Carolina Farm Stewardship Association in April. The tour brought together 40 farms across Orange, Alamance, and Chatham counties in central North Carolina, on the eastern edge of the state’s Piedmont region.

Accompanied by my best friend Angela and her hubby Jesse, who live in Pittsboro, in Chatham county, my boyfriend CB and I got to take a peek at four farms in two days despite thunderstorms and tornadoes. We met farmers and talked to sustainable agriculture enthusiasts; we dined at restaurants that served locally sourced produce, dairy, and meats; we made friends with a few animals; and we marvelled at compost—twice.

Our first stop on Saturday was Harland’s Creek Farm in Pittsboro, a certified organic farm that produces flowers, vegetables, herbs, and pastured poultry. Harland’s Creek provided a tour brochure so guests could wander the grounds at their leisure.

Their flowers and herbs are grown in a formal parterre garden of raised, geometrically shaped beds, which reminded me of photographs of English country estates. The stunning historic farmhouse added to the illusion. As we pinched off tiny bits of herbs to smell and taste for identification (fennel and lemon balm or was that lemon verbena?), CB made fast friends with a pair of cats. It would be a recurring theme for the weekend.

Next up was Aryshire Farm, also in Pittsboro, which we visited after waiting out the thunderstorms. We were lucky to be farmer Bill Dow’s last tour of the day, and gratefully slogged through red clay mud to see and hear about his certified organic pear, apple, and peach orchard, blueberry bushes, and vegetable terraces. About halfway through the tour, we were joined by a group of beer-drinking senior citizens who enjoyed themselves as much as we did, but perhaps for different reasons.

Dow grows primarily lettuces and greens for local restaurants, working directly with chefs to produce the produce they want. "I'd never heard of rapini before I started growing it," he quipped. Rapini, mizuna, arugula…he plants what they serve.

He also asks the chefs who visit his farm to bring their waitstaff with them, since as he puts it, "They're the ones talking to the people who eat the food."

Dow explained how he prevents erosion and conserves water on farm. By building terraces on the gently sloping land, water that would normally wash down the hillside is trapped and used by the plants at each level. And he distributes organic fertilizer (manure and compost) from the back of a beat-up old pick up truck that it is the envy of teenagers county-wide.

In late fall, he plants cover crops, like red clover, that are turned into live mulch in the spring. He pointed to the clover tops that were just starting to turn pink explaining that they were most nitrogen-rich and ready to be turned. He then walked over to a small three-sided shed, that housed a small tractor, hand tools, ropes, and buckets. He pulled out a garden hoe, much like one you might use in your backyard garden, except the handle was nearly as long as he was tall.

“The Dutch are better than us in two things: art and gardening.” He then demonstrated that with this Dutch-made, long-handled implement, you could turn the soil or break up weeds without stooping and hurting your back. He offered the hoe for one of our party to try. She passed her brewski to her husband and marveled at its ease of use.

As the tour wrapped, Dow’s dog Kate joined our posse and made fast-friends with CB. She followed him back to the car where we said our goodbyes, but not before Dow offered us a terrace for lease. The four of us looked at each other in contemplation. CB and I quickly said no; but I suspect we may be hearing about Angela and Jesse’s farm-fresh rapini in seasons to come.

Sunday, we set out for central Orange County to visit Avillion Farm, a fiber farm in the small Orange County burg of Efland. A fiber farm raises sheep, goats, and/or rabbits for their fleece which is spun into yarn or thread for knitting, weaving, crocheting, and countless other fiber arts. I’m a knitter/stitcher, so I just had to see the fuzzy animals, which Avillion had in abundance: adorable sheep, goats, and bunnies at every turn. More friends for CB.

Another self-guided tour, we learned from posted signs that, while Shetland sheep and Angora rabbits produce Shetland and Angora wool respectively, Angora goats produce mohair. We also saw a demonstration of vermicomposting of the rabbit poo and cleaned up at a homemade foot-powered hand washing station made of recycled water cooler jugs. It was well worth the hour drive north, and I managed to avoid spending my life’s savings on yarn.

With daylight on our side, we made one last stop: at McAdam’s Farm, also in Efland. A former tobacco farm, McAdams is a conventional farm that produces strawberries, flowers, produce, and raises beef cattle. Howard McAdams is the fourth generation of his family to work the land, making the switch from tobacco in 2000.

McAdams took us on a tour of his produce and strawberry fields, explaining just how labor intensive a crop of strawberries can be. Depending on soil quality and climate, the planting window can be as little as a week, and they must be replanted every year to ensure a healthy, productive crop.

Compared to blueberries, which are mostly at eye-level, strawberries are close to the ground; so harvesting is backbreaking work. That explains the popularity, among farmers at least, of pick-your-own strawberry patches, and why berries come at such a premium.

McAdams uses conventional farming methods, like black and white plastic mulch, along with chemical herbicides and pesticides to keep unwanted plants and critters at bay, and commercial fertilizers to enrich the sandy, coarse soil. He explained, laughing, that his land, unlike much of the surrounding rich red clay was great for tobacco but not that great for vegetables.

Angela made this trip an extra special experience. She is not just my best friend since high school; she is also an incredibly active member of the vibrant sustainable agriculture community of Chatham County. She is the manager of the Pittsboro Farmers’ Market and has been a champion of organic, local food since I can remember.

She asked so many great questions of the farmers, showed us the organic student farm used by the Sustainable Ag program at Central Carolina Community College, and took us for some amazing local fare. Every restaurant we visited, even the greasy-spoon diner and the burgers-and-fries sports bar, boasted local produce, meats, and dairy products.

A stand out was the Saxapahaw General Store in the tiny former-mill-village of Saxapahaw, in Alamance county. A combination restaurant/biofuel gas station, it’s a green oasis where you can fill up your converted minivan with cooking grease and your belly with maybe the best mac and cheese ever to pass these teeth.

In the weeks since my return to the big city, I’ve been thinking about the cost of food, particularly conventional versus organic produce, and I think I get it even more than I did before. Neither are easy to cultivate, and both are subject to the whims of weather, pests, and proper planning. In two days I saw vastly different farming methods in action and met the hard-working people behind them. It was suddenly plain to me why, organic or not, berries are so very expensive, and why organic produce comes at such a premium. Hearing Dow describe spreading manure from the back of a pick up truck with a shovel made me laugh in the moment—as CB said, “I’ve never met an unfunny farmer,”—but now I realize just what it means.

Farming takes commitment and passion, no matter what the scale. Dow is connected to his crops—he knows every plant and tree—and his reward is great, though his output is smaller than a conventional farm. McAdams takes a more business-like approach to his farm, focusing on the big picture of managing a mid-sized operation, and he clearly takes pride in carrying on his family’s legacy.

I’ll also remember how much time and sweat and pollen goes into raising food the next time I start planning my imaginary kitchen garden. This was one of the most eye-opening and delightful trips I’ve ever taken to my home state. My only regret is that I don't have a picture of farmer Dow showing off his superior Dutch hoe.


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