Just west of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River, a start-up farm and food council is emerging with a vision to fill small farmers’ wallets with money and the Charlotte region’s plates with local food.
The collection of farmers, elected officials, health professionals and educators held its official inaugural meeting last week at Stanly Community College. But it was hardly the first meeting for the tri-county Farm and Food Council of Anson, Montgomery and Stanly counties.
The group has gathered unofficially in classrooms and living rooms across the three rural counties for two years. What started as a local group discussing whether to launch a small-scale incubator farm grew into a full-fledged advisory council hoping to make local, sustainable farms financially viable in a region long dominated by traditional agriculture.
|Who's on the council? Click here to see the list of members.|
“An incubator farm is great, but it’s the cart before the horse,” said Nancy Bryant, a Stanly County farmer who is a grassroots leader of the group. “We need to set the stage for a new way of thinking about sustainable local farms in these counties.”
The council membership is made up of a farmer, a government official, a health professional, an interested citizen and a community college representative from each of the three counties and a nonvoting representative from Union County.
Last week’s transition from interim board to formal council was the group’s first step in its plan to establish a local farm and food system. This five-step plan, the “5 Bold Steps,” would:
- Establish a farm and food council.
- Direct a sustainable agriculture public awareness campaign.
- Start a small farm curriculum at the three local community colleges, including an incubator farm.
- Build a processing and distribution infrastructure geared for small farmers.
- Manage a new farmland preservation and food waste strategy.
The council hopes following this plan will combat the weak economic climate for sustainable agriculture and increase the odds of success for current and future sustainable farmers.
Today, agriculture remains the largest economic driver in all three counties. This is good news for conventional farmers, but small farmers in the Charlotte region – where only 10 percent of food consumed is locally grown – still struggle to make ends meet.
Stanly County farmers Jenifer and Dean Mullis have farmed and invested in their own small sustainable farm, Laughing Owl Farms, for two decades, but still don’t feel financially stable.
“We've spent our lifesavings on this dirt. We have no money. It's not financially viable for us to keep doing this,” said Jenifer Mullis.
Both recently had to find off-the-farm jobs to supplement the meager pay of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, or CSA. A CSA is a group of individuals who pledge support to one or more local farms before every growing season. In return, subscribers receive regular deliveries of locally grown produce. This system gives farmers guaranteed funding in advance for their work, and gives subscribers access to local produce.
Even with the nation’s recent increase in awareness of local and organic foods, the Mullises say they still feel financially insecure.
“This shift in trendiness towards organic is great, but it’s not changing the broken system of our industrial food culture. Now we're just getting industrial organic food,” said Jenifer Mullis. “Our sweet potatoes are still $2.50 apiece while the ones down the street, even the organic ones, are 50 cents a pound.”
The Mullises say policy changes, as well as improvements in infrastructure, would help small farmers cut costs, but they see a bigger problem for the council to address: the consumer.
“When people are standing in front of you complaining about how high your vegetable prices are, while they have the latest iPhone in one hand and Starbucks in the other, you just want to start choking them.”
– Stanly County farmer Dean Mullis
“When people are standing in front of you complaining about how high your vegetable prices are, while they have the latest iPhone in one hand and Starbucks in the other, you just want to start choking them,” said Dean Mullis.
The two say that on average Americans spend 10 percent of their annual budget on food, while Europeans average 15 percent to 20 percent, and people in third-world nations average 80 percent to 90 percent.
“Until these numbers change along with buying habits, small-scale farming is a part-time job at best,” said Jenifer Mullis. “Food simply isn’t a priority anymore.”
But not all is bleak for small farmers in the three counties, according to Christy Shi, a local food systems consultant.
The group’s ability to recognize farmer needs surprised Shi as she was facilitating early meetings, she said.
“They started with one thing in mind and in the course of one meeting were able to realize they were only looking at a small piece of the puzzle. It shows resiliency and real potential for success,” said Shi.
Shi says the trend for food councils nationally has been to start in urban areas and focus on food policy, access and justice. She thinks the council’s farm-first agenda leaves it primed to meet the three counties’ specific rural needs.
Bryant agrees. She says the council wasn’t built around elected officials in Raleigh or food policy in uptown Charlotte, but around the farmers at home in Anson, Montgomery and Stanly counties.
“We are not a food policy council like Char-Meck Food Policy Council. They are working on government policies that are barriers to creating a more sustainable local food system. We, on the other hand, are boots on the ground. We are where the farmers are producing food. We are rural counties,” said Bryant, who with her husband, Ron, moved to Stanly County in 2006 after years as environmental activists in Mecklenburg County.
The council has gained the attention of regional and state policymakers. The group was one of 10 local food councils in Raleigh for last month’s North Carolina Sustainable Food Advisory Council networking session and was recently endorsed by all three boards of county commissioners.