North Carolina Tackles Going Local and Sustainable
22 Apr, 2012
North Carolina is a state known for its agricultural production—tobacco, corn and soy. It is also the number two pork-producing state in the nation. Yet since 1994, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)—a joint effort between two of the state’s leading universities and its Department of Agriculture—has been heavily researching and promoting organic, sustainable and local agriculture. Today, CEFS’s impact is being felt statewide, creating highest-ever demand for local and sustainable production and setting a remarkable example for many other states in the nation.
“Prior to our beginnings in 1994, there were a lot of environmental issues emerging in the state around confinement hog operations,” Dr. Nancy Creamer, CEFS director at North Carolina State University, told Organic Connections. “There was considerable pushback from environmental groups and sustainable agriculture groups. The university then pulled together a sizable task force made up of people from different parts of the community—conventional ag, sustainable ag, organic ag, environmentalists and business leaders. The number one recommendation that came out of that task force was to develop a research station that was focused on sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture. And so that’s how CEFS got started.”
The resulting facility—Cherry Farm near Goldsboro, North Carolina—is today a nexus of research and a broad range of hands-on training in organic and sustainable agriculture. “The Department of Agriculture funds the basic operation of the farm,” Dr. Creamer explained. “There are staff there that run the dairy, tractors and equipment. The university faculty and some of our partners write research grants to do projects there. Over the years we’ve developed a lot of really great research funded mostly through USDA, but also EPA and some other sources.
“The farm is 2,000 acres, of which about 1,000 are tillable. We have 100 certified acres of organic production. We have a pastured dairy that’s doing research on transitioning to organic, and a pastured beef operation. All of those units draw in researchers and graduate students. We also do an internship program there, so students come from all over the country—and the world, really—in the summer for two months. They live there and learn about sustainable and organic agriculture. We have a farm apprentice program too, and then we do a lot of extension outreach and training from there as well.”
Dr. Creamer herself comes by this work honestly, having been in agriculture her entire life. Raised on a chicken farm in Hemet, California, she went on to attain a master’s degree and worked at the University of California Davis Student Farm, managing the farm and the sustainable agriculture program. After obtaining a PhD at Ohio State University, she took her present position—and is very much dedicated to its mission. “I think there are many ways in which farming systems have a major impact on the environment,” she said. “There is plenty of potential to shift our farming practices to be more environmentally sustainable, especially now there’s a resurgence in interest; and I think that rebuilding our local food regionally across the country is a really important thing to do from a long-term sustainability and food-security standpoint, so it’s great to see the public interest in it.”
CEFS’s work has now gone far beyond the research facility. “We’re asked to give talks all over the state about what we are doing and the impact that it can have on economics, health, environment, land preservation and farmers,” Dr. Creamer continued. “County governments have seen this as a real job creator in their communities. With obesity trends, people are looking at fresh food conventions in a way that they haven’t in a long time.
“We have also established a legislated sustainable local foods advisory council, and it is working to address all kinds of issues around the food system, including raising public awareness. We instituted a big initiative across the state that resulted in the publication of a hundred-page guide on what the state and private entrepreneurs could do to move forward local food systems.”
Instead of targeting conventional agriculture as an enemy, CEFS has been working to show farmers the many advantages of creating local food systems—and bringing them on board. “We’ve really been very fortunate in this state; a lot of us are coming together around local food,” Dr. Creamer remarked. “We’re building bridges with conventional agriculture. There are many things we all agree on—profitability for farmers, keeping farmers on the land, and bringing young people into agriculture, to name a few. One way to accomplish these things is to shorten the chain and get more profit, which means local food systems. Now the North Carolina Farm Bureau has partnered with us on what we call our `10 Percent Campaign,’ in which we are working with individuals and institutions, getting them to commit 10 percent of their food dollars to local food. That would mean 3.5 million dollars every year that stays in the state. The Farm Bureau put that campaign in the centerfold of their magazine, which went to 60,000 people across the state.”
Dr. Creamer and her team have discovered that to make local systems work in North Carolina, a whole new infrastructure needs to be created. “We found that there was a huge demand developing for local food, and we had farmers interested, but there was all this infrastructure in the middle that was kind of broken,” she said. “For example, we were working with a number of environmental groups who wanted pork production changed. We partnered with them so they would be willing to buy pork products that were coming off of farms that met their environmental ethic. Sierra Club in the state had 17,000 members; thus it could be a big market and they could help pull production in the way they wanted, creating market demand instead of following regulatory or lawsuit routes.
“So we had a market and many farmers who were interested, but there was really almost no place to get pork slaughtered, processed and packaged in a way that we could sell it locally. It’s the same for fruits and vegetables—we don’t have processing. If you wanted to put a salad bar in every school here in North Carolina, you couldn’t do it. The schools don’t have kitchens; there’s nowhere to bag and cut and wash lettuce, carrots—it’s all just missing. So that’s why we started working on this, and that’s where there is a lot of job creation potential.”
In establishing local food systems, it is apparent that the only way to go is up. “There’s much to do,” Dr. Creamer concluded. “We have new projects we started this year with beginning farmers, and setting up a network of incubator farms across the state, partnering with county governments and municipalities. We wrote a grant to work with a major grocery store chain here in the state, and are also working with our major military base, Fort Bragg, getting local food supply teams into those venues. We’re starting to work more with the health community because they see local foods as a real answer to some of the food-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity. So I think we’ll have many more and stronger partnerships with those that see how to address such issues with a local food system.”
For more information on CEFS, visit www.cefs.ncsu.edu.