the Agrarian Tour through North Carolina, with a nod to rural Virginia
On our venture into the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, we – Agrarian Road Trippers – encountered the ugly effects of war, tobacco, and child labor juxtaposed with and transformed into community-supporting small-scale agriculture
Naked children running through a front yard sprinkler. The time is mid-day, lunchtime. We share a garden fresh meal of salad with o-so ripe tomatoes and water melon, as well as some hard boiled eggs from some hard-working chickens. Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding us in the valley. One of the biggest inhibitors for young folks – all folks – to start farming is land. Farming is one of the most capital-intensive careers – inhibitory during a time of economic crisis and in a society where agricultural life is dwindling in the shadow of Big Ag. However, we are in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the midst of wilderness happening. Here we meet Fred and Elizabeth Bahnson – and their two little boys running through the sprinkler. Here outside Brevard, North Carolina, we are in the midst of this New Agrarian Movement. A revival of the rural. The Bahnsons may as well be the poster children for what the small family farm can be. Fred is a writer and student of the ways of permaculture. Elizabeth is a bluegrass fiddler with an interest in livestock. And they have been blessed with family land in the midst of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
[Here is just a snippet of articles written by Fred: Compost for the Kingdom; A Garden Becomes a Protest; Monks, Mushrooms, and the Sacramental Nature of Everyday Eating; Good Soil.]
Where the Bahnsons live is actually a microclimate in the midst of the mountains – a tropical rainforest, receiving nearly 80 inches of rain each year – as much as Seattle. As they build their new house, the Bahnsons have planned to harvest the rainwater, situating their catchment system on top of a hill – to gravity-feed to their biointesive growing beds. In addition to rainwater catchment, Fred has designed swales on the contour of the land to irrigate native fruit trees and prevent erosion on the steep slope on which their farm is southerly-facing. Other highlights of their farm-to-be are living mulches that fix nitrogen (lupine) and accumulate other deep nutrients (comfrey), as well as growing their own grains (Hopi blue corn for grinding). Elizabeth is currently dreaming of a goat dairy.
After leaving the Bahson’s, we head towards Asheville to the Asheville Veterans Restoration Quarters – a converted Super 8 that now houses around 225 homeless veterans every night. Men who have served in all wars from Vietnam to Iraq are housed here – with an average of 51. By request of the men – and with incredible support of a visionary directory, one acre of land was converted into an organic garden to provide therapeutic activity as well as fresh food to the residents of the shelter. The Veterans Victory Garden was started in 2008 and now operates its own Tailgate Farmers Market two days a week. The men have also been able to take courses in gardening and greenhouse production to hone their expertise – as well as working with Master Gardeners to earn the art of canning and preserving. Money earned through sales to the community is supplemented with funding from Tobacco Settlements in North Carolina to sustain the financial success of the garden. Currently the two men maintaining the garden are seeking to become Certified Organic through the USDA. The social worker in me is encouraged to see projects that integrate the rebuilding of soil with the rebuilding of lives.
Our next stop takes us back into the mountains outside Asheville, to Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina. We begin our stay with a lesson in ethno-botany with Chef Marc Williams. Chef Marc guides us through the culinary uses of commonly found wild – and not so wild – edibles. Together we craft our dinner: herbal tea of monarda (bee balm), spearmint, sassafras leaves; pesto of lamb’s quarter and basil; garden salad with more lamb’s quarter and lettuce, garnished with day lilies and monarda; and for dessert, juneberry–blackberry cobbler.
The remainder of the evening is spend in conversation with folks from the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and Association of Farmworker Opportunity Program. The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) started in the mid-1990s with Tobacco Settlement money to help transition farmers in the tobacco fields to organic vegetable production – as well as to build demand for local food. Currently, ASAP works on organizing and supporting farmers markets in the northwest region of North Carolina and working on farm-to-institution projects – such as connecting local farmers to the food services of schools, hospitals and colleges.
The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Program (AFOP) is focused on two main agricultural issues: pesticide outreach to farmworker and children in the fields. Our conversation focused on child labor in the fields. In North Carolina alone, over 150,000 migrants come to work the agricultural season – helping make agriculture the number one industry in North Carolina. However, an often overlooked issue of migrant labor is child labor out in the fields. The Child Labor Law in 1938 does not include limitations on child labor in agricultural fields. Many children are found in the fields helping their parents meet harvest quotas in order to earn enough to live on. As is the case, many students start the school year late and are pulled out before the school year ends – and often drop out before graduating. Beyond educational structure, children out in the field are exposed to pesticides, dangerous machinery and at-risk for muscular-skeletal injuries. Penalties for corporations and large farms caught with children in the field are little more than a slap on the wrist. Just one of many of the ugly truth behind our large-scale agriculture.
Warren Wilson College (WWC) is another crazy liberal arts colleges with a high emphasis on sustainablity. With just over 900 students – and growing, WWC receives increased interest each year in its Sustainable Agriculture and Sustainable Forestry Programs. WWC started in 1894 as a farm school for farm boys – but has expanded much beyond farming, and boys. When asked about the College’s rapport with the Swannanoa community, Sustainable Ag Professor Laura Lingenck tells us she finds locals frequently cruising through the campus, admiring the sight of young buff women not afraid to run a tiller or back hoe.
Students in the Ag Department operate both the Market Garden Farm and Grain and Livestock Production – a total of 150 acres in production. In the Market Garden Farm, garden beds are double-dug according to French intensive methods. Produce is grown for local markets (2/week) as well as a CSA in the summer months for faculty and staff of WWC. Much of the produce is also sold to WWC Dining Services, contracted with Sodexho. (WWC purchases 18% of its fruit and vegetables from its Market Garden and 50% of its red meat from the Livestock Program). Both cover crops and rotational planting are incorporated into the planting schedules, as well as hoop houses for season extension. Throughout the season, chickens in movable tractors are run through the garden beds, to fertilizer and control pests. The Sustainable Ag Program chooses not to certify its vegetables organic.
As for livestock management, the Sustainable Ag Program grows the majority of its own grains for animal feed – typically a profit-eating cost in livestock production. Stock-piling is another way the College conserves money, by allowing its cattle to graze grain still standing in the field even after the first frost. Approximately 175 cattle graze on a 25-paddock rotation – on perennial pastures of corn, alfalfa, oats, barley, and wheat. In addition to cattle, WWC also raises pigs, chickens (which follow the cattle in rotational pasturing) and horses for draft farming, mainly in the Agroforestry Department. Other department tractors (as well as maintenance vehicles on campus) run on locally brewed biodiesel, Blue Ridge Biodiesel.
As if the Sustainable Ag Program at WWC weren’t great enough, the Recycling Department at WWC also features student-constructed industrial compost tumblers, a soon-to-be-built cob house structure, and Free Store to recycle unwanted clothing, furniture, and all other sorts of odds and ends with just a wee bit more life in them – or that can be refurbished at WWC’s woodworking and bike shops. We rough agrarians rummaged for a spare notebook, extra shampoo and souvenir t-shirt.
Before leaving North Carolina, we continued our rebelliously delicious and ridiculously fresh forays into food at Rosetta’s Kitchen in downtown Asheville. Rosetta’s features a number of vegetables and ingredients sourced from the Swannanoa Valley. I ordered the special of the day – pickled maroon and golden beets atop a bed of fresh greens atop fry bread, dressed with a cilantro-cashew sauce. Yum.
We hit the road for one more stop before our final destination in West Virginia. The Harvest Table Restaurant in Meadowview, VA, renowned for its connection to the author and sometimes agrarian essayist Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, owns the Harvest Table Restaurant – and has crafted its menu to include food mainly sourced within 100 miles of the restaurant. Vegetables are a given, but the Harvest Table also sources meat, cheese, eggs and rice (grown in South Carolina) from the region. I ordered a caramelized red onion and beet green frittata and was greeted by the happiest, orangiest of eggs on my plate – a rarity in the dining-out world. Once again our minds – and taste buds – have been blown by the exhausting epicurean delights on which we dine. Oh the glories of local food!
We are passively witnessing the reawakening of rural life. Her pastoral hillsides. Her setting sun to the lowing of cows. Her stars in the pure black night. We now have the responsibility to share the romance we see. To bring sexy back. Not only to rural living and lifestyles – but to agricultural vocation.
End Day Five. End Part Two.