The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

Harvest of Hope Comes to the Table

For the past eight months, Dr. Molly De Marco, Project Director and Research Fellow at The Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, has led Harvest of Hope, a community based participatory research project exploring the impacts of a church garden on food knowledge, health and diet. To read more about the project itself, read this past blog when we had just started collecting baseline data.

Below, Dr. De Marco updates us on the RAFI Come to the Table Conference she and the Harvest of Hope project participants attended.

On the last Saturday in February, 14 Harvest of Hope participants (4 adults including our Community Director, Rev. Bill Kearney and 10 youth) met our research assistant, Meredith Robbins, and myself in Kenansville, NC for RAFI’s biannual ‘Come to the Table’ Conference.  We first heard Dr. Norman Wirzba, Duke Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life discuss food and faith. Dr. Wirzba highlighted the creation story in the Book of Genesis Chapter II. In this text, God is likened to a Gardener who formed us from the dust of the earth. Wirzba went on to talk about our relationship to food saying “Eating is not just about getting fuel, but a way we can commune with each other and the land and God as the life within all of that life.” He went on to say that “Eating can become a sacramental act. Food isn’t a commodity, but something to be cherished.” Read more about Dr. Norman Wirzba and his message here.

Our Harvest of Hope team then went to tour the Eastern Carolina Food Ventures Community Kitchen Incubator in Warsaw, NC, a partnership between Duplin County and James Sprunt Community College. The adults had lots of questions about what can be produced, how bottling is done, and the cost to use the space. The youth were most excited to see how long they could last in the walk-in freezers and coolers

Youth Harvest of Hope Participants

youth see how long they can stay in the walk-in freezer

Last, we traveled from Duplin County to rural Lenoir County (close to Snow Hill, NC) to assist with a garden workday with Mothers without Borders, a group of 17 farmworker families who are joining together to grow food so that they have enough food for the offseason (winter). Mothers without Borders is also working to market their produce to raise enough money so that their children do not have to work in the fields, but can go to school.  We met with adult and youth farmworkers.

Meeting with Farmworkers

Meeting with Farmworkers

Harvest of Hope youth were instructed by farmworker youth to turn the soil to make a large patch for potatoes, to plant seeds (shown in the photos below), and to prepare a bed of compost for the planting of lettuce. Our youth didn’t want to leave when it came time to go.


Harvest of Hope
The first garden workday for the Harvest of Hope project

The first garden workday for the Harvest of Hope project

One of my favorite things about research is that it allows you to be part of a world that’s quite different than your own. Like Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Warrenton, North Carolina, where Dr. Molly De Marco, a researcher at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, and a team of UNC researchers are conducting research about how gardening can influence food knowledge, health and diet. In collaboration with Rev. William Kearney, who leads The Coley Springs Baptist Church, and fifty parish members, the project will entail a 10-month gardening program. The group will build a garden on their church land and will take part in cooking classes using their garden harvests. With many of the older members already knowledgeable about growing food, gardening skills will be taught from within their community, especially to the less experienced youth.

The name of the project is “Harvest of Hope” and it’s another project that I’m happy to be a part of. Last week we headed out to Warrenton to collect data before the parish broke ground to start the garden. As we pulled up to the church, Reverend Kearney gave us a warm welcome. In casual shorts and a baseball cap, he exuded energy and friendliness. He showed us around the sunny church, cheerfully decorated with flowers throughout and lined with photographs of their church members. Outside, the land was beautiful, with old oak trees towering amidst deep green fields. It was completely quiet, and as I walked up the hill to where the garden would be, the pastoral land surrounded me completely. The church owns fifty stunning acres of this land and Rev. Kearney told us how eager the parish was to start a garden on a part of it, “We’ve been talking about doing something with it for a long time, so everyone is very excited.”

Soon, the UNC Health on Wheels van showed up and started getting ready to take people’s weight, height and blood pressure. A traveling van that did such a thing? I never knew it existed! I had to take a peek inside to satiate my curiosity. One of the registered nurses with the van told me that they did this kind of thing all of the time, “It’s great…we get to go directly to the communities.”

The UNC Health on Wheels van!

The UNC Health on Wheels van!

Members of the parish started trickling into the church to fill out surveys on food knowledge and diet. Dr. DeMarco has worked with this community before, and as she checked people in, greeting them with hugs and updates on how she was, it was clear that she wasn’t a researcher in their eyes, but a friend who was part of the community. As more people came, the room filled up with people bent over their surveys, answering questions. A group of teenage boys shouted out identifications of vegetables, “Onion?” “No, I know, radish!” I worked with a man helping him answer questions about his diet. Outside, people lined up for the health van. Members of the parish will do all of this again in 10 months, and in this way we hope to explore if gardening has had an impact on their food knowledge, health and diet.

As I left the survey room to take a quick break, I paused outside of the church sanctuary to listen to the men’s evening choir practice. Their joyful voices filled the empty space, and some of them waved at me when they saw me watching. I mimicked applause and went back downstairs.

When the surveys finished up and we got ready to leave, I chatted with Rev. Kearney about the direction he is taking his church in. “People usually think of church happening on just one day, inside here. But we’re trying to do different things, go outside, have afterschool activities for kids like weightlifting, so it becomes a real community.” We look forward to the garden helping to build this community, and I hope I get a chance to see its bountiful harvest and the people who have grown it sometime soon.

Garden Happenings and Travels to Farmers Markets

It’s been a while now since I’ve posted to the blog, but there has been much going on that hasn’t involved my computer as of late.

First of all, the garden I manage at Lakewood Elementary School in Durham is in full bloom and for the past couple of weeks the kids and I have been harvesting the fresh veggies and cooking together.

Getting the collards chopped up

One of my proudest moments was when a group of fifth graders ate a whole pan of collard greens after telling me they absolutely did not like them in any way, shape or form.  They decidedly stated they were delicious and that they had changed their minds. The secret? (Jamie Oliver take note) Involving kids in the process of growing and cooking vegetables gives them a sense of ownership over their food, which I find helps them to enjoy eating previously thought scary vegetables.

A student sautes them with garlic

Secondly, I had the amazing opportunity to take a trip out west to both Los Angeles and Austin. The best part? Exploring both cities’ local food scene. Though I enjoy the seasonality of foods in our state, it was fun to visit the Hollywood Farmers Market in LA where everything seemed to be joyously in season at the same time. I meandered through 150 vendors selling mostly certified organic, beautiful displays of avocados, mushrooms, citrus, tomatoes, grapes and more. They had meat and seafood as well – my favorite was the farm-raised oysters that they sold on the half shell.

Happily looking at my oyster

Also of note was a Registered Dietician who is hired by the city to hand out healthy snacks she’s made with local ingredients along with the accompanied recipe.

Unlike our local and famed Carrboro Farmers Market, the market did not have any rules about the number of miles farmers were traveling to come sell. One woman involved with the market told me that most farmers come from surrounding counties in Southern California. Also a difference – the farmer was not required to be there to sell. Though the same person told me this was to be fair to the farmer, this way farmers could hit multiple markets in the same day by hiring others to sell for them, I am still grateful for this rule at the Carrboro market where you can be sure you’re talking to the grower when you’re buying your food.

The rules at the Austin Farmers Market (organized by an amazing non-profit, The Sustainable Food Center) seemed more like our own, with the producer required to be there to sell and a maximum number of miles allowed for travel to market. I found this sign about the Texas growing season interesting (sorry for the text cut off).

Sign at the Austin farmers market

They had a beautiful abundance of greens, eggs, meat, seafood and even locally made kombucha!

Both markets accepted EBT (food stamp) benefits, which I’m excited to hear that the Carrboro market will be doing starting May 1st! (Check back to read more…)

It’s nice to be home after my travels and yesterday I was reminded again of how wonderful our own local foodshed is with a feature article in the New York Times. And then a whole weekend to tour our neighboring farms with the 15th annual Piedmont Farm Tour! There’s certainly a lot going on and we’ll do our best to keep you updated on The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project as well as other related news and events as we head into this busy harvest season.

Adventure to Pittsboro! Discovering Angelina’s Kitchen
January 11, 2010, 5:43 pm
Filed under: Food, Sustainable Agriculture, Travels | Tags: , ,
Angelina's Kitchen, a Greek restaurant in downtown Pittsboro

Angelina's Kitchen in downtown Pittsboro

With temperatures dipping below freezing for several days in a row, it certainly felt like winter had settled in quickly. I parked on the main street of downtown Pittsboro and braved the cold as I found my way towards Angelina’s Kitchen, a Greek restaurant that recently opened this past March. (As part of The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project, I was interviewing the owner, Angelina herself.) After a turn onto Rectory Street, a cheerful handmade sign greeted me – “Angelina’s Kitchen – Local Food with a Twist.” I had heard great things about the food and perhaps even better things about the owner for some time now; a visit felt long overdue.

I had first read about the new restaurant on Sustainable Grub, a blog written by Dee Reid, a local gastronome and food enthusiast. Dee raved about Angelina and her commitment to local farmers, calling her a “one woman economic development machine” whose Greek-inspired menu revolves around fresh meats and vegetables raised and grown right in Pittsboro’s backyard. A month after reading the blog entry, Gillings’ project manager, Robin Crowder, and I began compiling a guide listing caterers that focus their endeavors on using local ingredients. I emailed Angelina to see if she wanted to be part of the guide; it required signing a pledge to “buy local when possible.” Compared to some businesses’ skeptic responses, Angelina wrote back enthusiastically. It was clear she went above and beyond the “when possible” requirement. She wrote, “Our relationships with our farmers last all twelve months, many of them happy to sell to us especially when the farmers markets are not up and running (in Pittsboro).” Her website is a clear indication of her strong commitment to farmers as well, with a long list of the local farms they purchase from and a daily message in which she’ll call out to farmers for needed ingredients. (I chuckled at a recent message – “This weather is killing our outdoor greens…I am putting a call out for collards, even if they are frozen – just chop it off at the root and bring it to us.”) Now, a few months after exchanging emails with her, Angelina’s name surfaced again. I recently began contacting people in Chatham County to interview about the intersection of their local food system and the county’s economic development, as part of aim one for this project. On three separate occasions, I was told I should talk to Angelina. One person emailed me, “Angelina is one of the greatest promoters Chatham farmers have (not to mention her food is out of this world delicious)!” Angelina was not only eager to participate in the interview but arranged for several key people to join us (including a person that is a local celebrity to many, myself included, Agriculture Extension Agent, Debbie Roos).

On this extra cold, but sunny day, I walked into the cozy Pittsboro shop and introduced myself to a smiling woman behind the register, who I could only guess was Angelina. She came out from behind the counter, gave me a warm hug, and quickly told me to order anything I wanted, which, she told me, “was on the house.” She named the farmers behind her dishes as if she was naming the ingredients themselves. When asked what she would recommend, she pointed to the specials board with several names of dishes scrawled in marker, all of them made with local ingredients. There was a Greek chicken soup, spinach rice, a vegan potato soup, Smith Angus Farm beef ribs with a tomato bar-b-que sauce, braised cabbage and a green chili beef stew she specifically pointed out, made with spicy peppers grown by Doug Jones of Piedmont Biofarms and beef from nearby Murray Cohen’s farm. All of these specials were in addition to her regular menu of other Greek offerings. After taking her suggestion and ordering the chili, she led me into her small side office which also serves as the restaurant’s pantry. I was struck by the small amount of non-perishable items it held, a few mason jars of canned fruit, some spices and cans of dried beans. The emptiness of the pantry shelves reflected the menu; most all of the ingredients Angelina uses are fresh, arriving daily to be used within hours, even in January.

A delicious gyro - a staple at the restaurant

A delicious gyro - a staple at the restaurant

As Angelina ushered in Debbie Roos and others known for their involvement in the local food system–Neha Shah, Director of Travel and Tourism for Chatham County and Tami Schwerin, Executive Director of The Abundance Foundation– talk turned to Chatham’s farmers. “I love our farmers! I’m going to go out around town with a wooden spoon and bang on other restaurants to get them to buy from them more.” Angelina said, with a laugh I can only describe as a sort of cross between a hearty chuckle and a girly giggle. Our interview, amidst delicious plates of chili, falafels, scalloped dikons and sweet potatoes and crispy baklava made with local honey, was full of stories, lessons learned, enthusiasm and hope for the future. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with all that the group told me was happening within their local food system. To name a few things they mentioned: an increase in farmers (one of the only places in the nation with such a statistic); a prevalence of community gardens; and a multitude of events focused around local foods. Farmers, mostly young and looking happy to be out of the cold, intermittently interrupted to drop off boxes of their produce. As Angelina wrote out a check to one, chatting with him about the recent cold snap that had frozen much of the greens in the ground, I thought of what Debbie Roos had told me earlier in the interview about Angelina’s support of farmers – “If all our businesses were like Angelina’s, oh my gosh!…She’s going to be a great role model for other local businesses in the future.”

It was quite an afternoon — I left Angelina’s with a full stomach, some new friends and over an hour of tape recording from the meeting to transcribe. I knew I’d be back soon – you don’t need another reason to come to Pittsboro, the food at Angelina’s is reason enough, but there are still many more people to interview about how Chatham’s local food system has affected the county’s economic development. A big thank you to some of the biggest forces behind the local food scene: Angelina Koulizakis, Neha Shah, Debbie Roos and Tami Schwerin.

Crispy, handmade baklava

Crispy, handmade baklava

3rd annual peer learning visit to eastern north carolina
Goats at My Sister's Farm, photo courtesy of Kavanah Ramsier

Goats at My Sister's Farm, photo courtesy of Kavanah Ramsier

We all piled on the bus, throwing our coats, still chilly from outside, down next to us. Some of us chatted with a new acquaintance, excited about the places we had seen that day. I suddenly felt like I was in elementary school once again, coming back from a field trip to the zoo. But this trip didn’t include squashed brown bag lunches or monkeys in a cage or even a bright yellow school bus. This was a type of field trip, I suppose, but of a different kind.

Presented by The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program, this trip was a “Peer Learning Visit” – a trip to see first hand what is happening with sustainable agriculture in Eastern North Carolina and learn how our local food economy is growing in a place that traditionally has produced primarily tobacco and large commodity crops. There were more than twenty of us touring four farms located in Bladen and Pender County, all in the south eastern part of our state, no farm more than sixty miles from Wilmington.

To play a part in building a local food economy for North Carolina, those of us working in sustainable agriculture have to start connecting the dots across the entire state — between producers along the coast to producers in the Piedmont to producers in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With 560 miles stretching from east to west, North Carolina is a large state making this an enormous task, with many organizations working together to make it happen. For someone like me, I find it very valuable to connect the dots by personally visiting different areas in our state and learning first hand how farmers are growing, producing and distributing food and how different resources are supporting them.

During the Peer Learning Visit our first stop was Happy Land Farm in Bladenboro, owned and run by Anne and Harold Wright. This incredibly hardworking and innovative couple not only have one hundred acres in production, growing vegetables and all natural pork and chickens, but they engage in a number of entrepreneurial efforts such as trucking, catering and their very own daycare. Mr. Wright says his key to success is to “diversify as much as possible.” In particular, he says being creative and making use of existing and varied resources is essential, along with buying major equipment jointly with other farmers and having his own tank to store his feed. In the past, tobacco farmers, like the Wright’s, used curing houses, known as “bulk barns,” to dry the tobacco.  Now Mr. Wright and many other farmers are turning these barns into chicken houses. In place of tobacco, they now grow corn and soybeans, rotating between each so as to contribute to the health of the soil. In ways like this farms like Happy Land Farm have become truly integrated  and diversified systems that contribute to the longevity and sustainability of the farm. When asked if his many grandchildren participate in farm work, Wright laughed, “Let them drive the tractor and they’re hooked!”

After a delicious lunch of pulled pork Carolina style, sweet potatoes and collard greens (all grown by the Wright’s), our group listened as members of The Twin River Coop, comprised of seventeen farmers in the area, told us about life after the tobacco buyout. One member remarked about the process that, “There were a lot of questions and not many answers.” So the farmers started providing answers themselves – working as a group to explore new directions for their farms and applying for grants as a group fromRural Advancement Foundation (RAFI)to purchase shared equipment such as a manure sprayer and cooler to support these new efforts. The Coop acted as a support network as farmers shared their successful ideas with other farmers and talked about ways to work around failed efforts and strategize about on farm solutions.

Anne and Harold Wright of Happy Land Farm, Courtesy of NC A&T

Anne and Harold Wright of Happy Land Farm, photo courtesy of NC A&T

Then it was on the bus once again, to head to the small town of Burgaw, where sisters Joyce Bowman and Carol Jackson greeted us on their certified organic farm called, My Sister’s Farm. Before we could see their field of organic vegetables however, we had to cross through the goat paddock. That was an experience in itself. “Once you’ve named them,” Joyce told us, “it’s hard to get rid of them.” She listed off some names – Twisted Horn, Baby, Pony, Bangs and Reindeer. As I walked past Bangs, aptly named for his natural hairstyle, Joyce told us that the goats were her sister’s idea. “My sister is the adventurous one – anything that’s different, she’ll buy. I’m the conventional one.” Both school teachers in New York, the two sisters retired and started farming on their family’s unused four acres of land only four years ago. “I gradually eased her into farming.” says Carol and Joyce pipes up, “She conned me!” with a grin. When asked about growing organically, Carol said, “It starts off slow, but it’s great once it gets started.” Though getting certified was a lot of work, Carol said numerous times that “they wouldn’t change it for the world.”  Most customers hear about their farm from word of mouth and come to the farm to buy directly, although they also sell to a joint-farm CSA. As Carol talks about what a change farming is from teaching, both of the sisters’ happiness is palpable, “Now I’m doing what I want to do. I’m digging in the dirt!”

Dinner was held at The Pender County Cooperative Extension and over a delicious, all local, meal of roasted chicken, pasta and salad cooked by Café Liardi of Burgaw, we heard from Southeastern NC Food Systems about how they were trying to boost economic development in Eastern North Carolina by connecting the public back to the area’s agricultural roots. As I listened I looked at a quilt hanging on the wall with individual squares painstakingly stitched with images of corn, strawberries, watermelon, grapes and peanuts. It was clear that Pender County took pride in the food their farms produced. As I saw firsthand earlier in the day, farmers are working hard there and in neighboring Bladen County to produce delicious, fresh food by using sustainable farming methods. It’s important that we support these and other North Carolina farmers by trying to purchase locally produced food in our stores and restaurants when we can.

By the time the visit ended and we all headed our separate ways home, I was tired but excited, my mind still full of all that we had seen. I often find it ironic that though my job focuses on agriculture, I spend most of my time behind a computer. It was such a pleasure to be outside and visit a real, working farm while getting to hear the farmers’ stories. I’m sending a big thank you to The Conservation Fund and Resourceful Communities for organizing and funding this 3rd annual Peer Learning Visit. Click here to view a slideshow of pictures from the trip.

Turnips grown by the Wright's of Happy Land Farm, photo courtesy of Kavanah Ramsier

Turnips grown by the Wright's of Happy Land Farm, photo courtesy of Kavanah Ramsier

Travels to Farmers’ Markets in North Carolina
October Beans

October Beans

I’ve recently begun driving to farmers markets across the state to collect data for the economic aim of The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project led by Mitch Renkow, an Agriculture and Resource Economics Professor at NC State University. I enjoy the work for various reasons; it’s always good to leave familiar surroundings and explore different areas of our state, it’s interesting to talk with farmers, young and old, black and white, part-time and full time and perhaps the best perk, I get to buy from a wide variety of fresh produce, some of which I can’t find at my local market. A couple of weeks ago, I drove to a market far from my own community on a beautiful day with the deep blue sky hinting at fall. I drove through the small downtown, with a Lucky Strike tower climbing above all the other small storefronts. The community had primarily supported tobacco production and cigarette manufacturing, serving as a key location of the American Tobacco Company, which employed large numbers of city and county residents. It was the mainstay of the town’s economy until the American Tobacco Company’s sale and closer in 1994. My hand scribbled directions indicated that the market was further out, so I kept driving, my car winding around country roads that were lined with big oak trees choked with vines. After going a few miles and not seeing anything that resembled a farmer’s market, I stopped at a gas station and asked for directions. Behind the counter, two people stood smoking cigarettes and looking at me in some confusion as I asked if they knew where the farmers’ market was.

“The what?” they asked, as they clearly decided I was not from around here.

I explained to them again, thinking maybe it was my northern accent that was making things unclear. “What are you tryin’ to buy?” one man asked, now seeming concerned.

This was a bit more complicated, but at this point they already thought I was strange. As I explained that I was from UNC and surveying different farmer’s markets from around the state, the other man piped up, remembering where the market was. Though, he said, he wasn’t sure if they were still doing it.

I followed his directions, continuing further into the country, passing fields of red dirt that looked like it had recently been tilled. I noticed a small sign, announcing the market and pulled into a tiny dirt lot. There was a wooden structure with six or seven farmers under it, beginning to pull their cardboard boxes off of trucks and vans. I made my way over, and with a handshake and a smile introduced myself. Mitch Renkow had talked to the market manager by telephone earlier in the week, so the farmers were expecting me. They generously gave me their attention as they set up their goods; giant purple pearls of muscadines, last of the summer’s corn, freckled red apples, mustard greens, kale, boxes of figs and other fresh produce. Some farmers had already finished setting up, and invited me to sit on a crate while I asked them questions and scribbled down their answers on my clipboard. Like any conversation, where questions lead to topics which lead to stories which lead to actually getting to know someone, I began to listen about how they started farming, their family’s history, the price of land, the shrinking size of their farm as they sold it off acre by acre, the scarce number of customers at their market and how many of them could barely afford to make their gas money home. I couldn’t write fast enough and though I had already gotten down the answer I needed, I wanted to record their stories as well.

At this point, the market had officially begun, though only a few customers were milling about. One farmer, surrounded by his homegrown roasted peanuts, jars of light amber honey and rows of okra, interrupted me halfway through my set of fixed questions. “We need to move to a better location,” he said “look at this place – we’re not on a main road, no signs, not much parking. Whose gonna come?”

Another farmer told me that customers just weren’t willing to pay the prices:

One woman came over and asked about my potatoes. I told her a 1.25 a pound. “Well,” she said, “1.25? Not for that price.” and walked away. I remember that kind of stuff. So next time I went to the grocery store, I checked to see what they were selling them for. They had them at a 1.50!

I thought of Gary Grant, a speaker who visited the Politics of Food class, as one African American farmer told me how hard it had been for him in his early days of farming, through the seventies and eighties, to secure loans simply because of the color of his skin.

Despite all of this, the generosity of the farmers with their time and produce had obviously not been affected. One customer, who didn’t have enough cash to pay for a bag of sunset pink October Beans, was about to put them back when the farmer told him, “Take those beans back. Your credit is good here.” As he handed him his bag he told me, “We sell fresh produce at a good price.”

And there were a handful of customers that you could easily tell were regulars who enjoyed shopping at the market. As an older woman approached a table, the farmer cheerfully called out to her, “Hello Miss. Molly! How you doing today?” She walked away with three bags full of lima beans and with a smile looked at me and said, “I’ve got work to do with all these limas!” I listened as one man told a farmer how much his sick mother-in-law looks forward to coming to the farmers market because, he said, “it makes her feel good.”

I left with some beautiful muscadines and honey, both of which the farmers had almost refused to let me pay for.

As I drove home that day, through the beautiful North Carolina agricultural landscape that led back to the ubiquitous highways, I thought of how good and necessary it is to experience different parts of our state. It becomes easy to envision large crowds donned with canvas bags headed to the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning in our more affluent and left leaning Triangle community. Cities like Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham and Raleigh may be the leaders in the North Carolina local food movement, but as such, it’s important to remember other areas in our state and to make sure we don’t leave them behind. In order to truly build a long term, sustainable, local food economy, The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project recognizes it is essential to learn from and work with challenges that face different communities across the state of North Carolina. As cold weather approaches and the growing season winds down, I’ll stop traveling to visit markets, but I look forward to start surveying and learning from farmers throughout our state again in the spring.

Cinderella Pumpkins

Cinderella Pumpkins