Who's Minding The Farm?

Interest in eating locally grown, organic food has never been higher. With it comes an increasing number of people taking up farming for the first time. A handful of alumni farmers share their motivations for choosing the strenuous, financially challenging, and irresistible vocation of working the land.

Every summer weekend, in communities large and small, a familiar scene plays out. Farmers, awake since before dawn, unload their trucks, set up tables and tents, and arrange piles of fresh produce, jars of colorful flowers, and coolers of meats and cheeses. Soon, swarms of customers clutching string bags and wallets are making their rounds, picking up an organically grown melon at one stand, a free-range chicken at the next, and bags of fresh herbs across the aisle. Some customers shop quietly, while others quiz the farmers: What do you feed your pigs? What cover crop do you use?  How would you cook that? Is it organic?

Local chefs give cooking demonstrations, musicians provide a lively backdrop, and basket weavers, soap makers, and quilters sell their wares alongside the farmers. Neighbors and friends exchange weekly greetings while their children tear up and down the aisles and nibble on baked goods. Tie-dyed shirts, cutoffs, and beards appear alongside chinos, tennis whites, and French manicures.

Interest in eating locally grown, seasonal, and organic food has never been higher, and the growth in farmers' markets bears that out. More than 4,500 farmers' markets are in operation across the U.S., up 6.8 percent since 2006. And market managers report a steady annual growth in the number of customers, even during the current economic downturn.
When they're not shopping the farmers' markets, consumers are buying eggs from their neighbors, seeking organic foods in their supermarkets, and frequenting restaurants whose menus are peppered with the names of local farms.

These customers have as many motivations for buying local and organic foods as there are varieties of chard. According to Erin Kaufman, manager of the lively Durham Farmers' Market, located just a few blocks south of the Durham Athletic Park, environmentally minded customers are interested in eating local foods to reduce the carbon footprint of food transportation. Others have ethical concerns and, if they're buying meat, want to know that their chicken was raised humanely, she says.

Fifteen miles away at the venerable Carrboro Farmers' Market, manager Sarah Blacklin sees an increasing sophistication in the questions customers ask farmers. "It used to be that they asked whether it was organic," she says. "Now they want much more in-depth information, like whether a farmer uses bone meal or feather meal." She says many customers want food grown with organic methods because they are concerned about the health implications of pesticides or the environmental impact of fertilizer. Some people don't care so much about organic practices but prefer local food because it is fresher and tastes exceptional, she says.

But enthusiasm for consuming locally grown food is on a collision course with the realities of producing it. Nationally, the number of farms has declined since World War II, although that trend has leveled off in the last ten years. The average age of farmers is now close to fifty-seven, and the number of farmers under twenty-five has decreased, indicating that farmers' children are not staying in the business.

This dynamic plays out quite vividly in North Carolina, a state that has lost 1,000 individual farms and more than 600,000 acres of farm land since 2002. And yet when Bon Appétit went looking for the "foodiest" place in the U.S.—the community most deeply interested in and supportive of food, farmers, and restaurateurs—it found Durham and Chapel Hill, and featured them in the October 2008 issue.

That's not surprising, according to Jennifer Curtis, Project Director for NC Choices, an organization that supports sustainable, local food systems in the state. "We have a rich culture of small farms in the state and a climate that allows farmers to grow a wide variety of food crops throughout the year." Add to that a vibrant system of extension agencies and nonprofits that support small farmers, including the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State University, of which NC Choices is an affiliate.

But what sets North Carolina apart from other agricultural states such as Iowa or Nebraska, says Curtis, is "the amazing dynamism between rural and urban areas, with agricultural land surrounding metropolitan areas across the state." This proximity between producers and consumers leads to a culture in which, as Bon Appétit reported, "foodies not only have a favorite chef, but also a favorite farmer."

Being close to a community of educated people with relatively high incomes is key to such a successful, symbiotic relationship between producers and consumers, says Mary Ann Blatt Pagano '82 of Three Waters Farm in Chatham County, southwest of Chapel Hill. The Triangle offers a customer base of people who are interested in and can afford what Pagano whimsically calls "food with a view," food that satisfies people's concerns about health and environment—and tastes good, too.

The Duke community does its part to uphold the consumer end of the farm-to-fork transaction in North Carolina. On campus, locally produced food is offered at the Refectory Café's two locations, the Nasher Museum Café, the Faculty Commons, and, to a smaller extent, at all food-service operations (see sidebar). Faculty and staff members can participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures by picking up boxes of food from local farmers each week at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

But surprisingly—after all, Duke has no agricultural or horticultural degree programs—the university is also appearing on the production side of the equation. The student group Farmhand hosts workdays at area farms, sponsors sustainable meals, and, with the Apiary Club, has established the Honeypatch, a community garden, complete with beehives, within the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

And a small number of alumni have gone into the business of farming, a time-intensive, financially challenging, and strenuous career path that, despite its demands, has proven irresistible.

The four farmers profiled here belong to a category that could best be defined as "alternative farming," a term that captures their somewhat quixotic turn away from traditional careers (or retirement paths) as well as their practices: All of them farm organically, although not all of them are certified organic because of the expense and extensive recordkeeping required. All have a deep respect for the soil they till, and work to keep it fertile for future generations.

A retired business executive with an environmental message. A young woman looking for a career she's passionate about. A devout man seeking social justice. A science educator who keeps being pulled back to the land. Their motivations for farming are as diverse as their customers' reasons for choosing locally grown food.

Here are their stories.

“I understood commercial agriculture. I understood commercial energy. I saw the complete lack of sustainability in both.” —Simon Rich
Roger Manley.







 Simon Rich '67, Jubilee Farm

On seventy acres near the picturesque coastal plain town of Edenton, Simon Rich has sown native switchgrass, bluestem, gamma grass, and Indian grass, along with winter-hardy fescue and clover to provide a steady diet for a small herd of beef cattle—a bull, twelve to fourteen mothers, and their offspring, one calf per mother per year. Jubilee Beef is sold exclusively at Weaver Street Market, a natural-food co-op in the Triangle.

Rich came to Duke in the idealistic 1960s after spending much of his youth helping his father on a large commercial farm in eastern North Carolina. He rode away on a motorcycle after graduation to work at the Miquon School near Philadelphia, where he taught classes in a tree house he had built himself. He had every intention of leaving agriculture behind.

But he came back, first to help his father and then to launch a farm-management business with his brothers. His career became more conventional than countercultural, eventually taking him from agricultural management to energy; he was chair and CEO of Louis Dreyfus Natural Gas before he retired in 2001.

Over the years, Rich underwent a transformation from environmental renegade to conservation enthusiast. Once named in a lawsuit by the Sierra Club for his role in draining thousands of acres of wetlands, Rich was recruited to the North Carolina Nature Conservancy by Gordon Hanes, his college suitemate's father, in 1975. "I told him he was making a big mistake," says Rich, laughing. "But he said it was like putting the fox into the chicken house where they could watch me."

Rich's environmental enthusiasms expanded when, in the 1990s, he became involved with the Nicholas School at Duke, serving on its board and developing a popular short course on energy and the environment.

"Being on the Nicholas School board gave me exposure to broader environmental issues than conservation," he says. "It woke me up." His research in developing the course introduced Rich to what he calls "the phenomenal intersection of energy and agriculture."

"I understood commercial agriculture," says Rich. "I understood commercial energy. I saw the complete lack of sustainability in both." Rich speaks knowledgeably about "peak oil," the point after which the rate of oil extraction around the world will decline, and about the history of synthesizing nitrogen fertilizer in the twentieth century. And he predicts a day when the price of fertilizer, which is manufactured using oil, will skyrocket, along with the price of fossil fuel.

For many years, Rich and his family had owned the farm in Edenton, leasing its fields to a cotton farmer. Sitting on his porch one day in 2001, he watched a crop-dusting plane fly over his fields and realized it was time to put his convictions to work.

Rich wanted his farm to be carbon neutral—not contributing to greenhouse gases—and as free of chemicals as possible. He achieved the former by installing a solar photovoltaic array that provides the farm's power needs, and the latter through the careful choice of perennial grasses and frequent rotation of the herd. These practices allow the farm to operate without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. "There is nothing in the cows that doesn't come from my seventy acres," he says.

Even though his cattle meet government regulations for organic certification, the only nearby slaughterhouse does not, and so he cannot sell his beef with that label. But Rich maintains the farm's USDA organic certification with the idea of freeing up a couple of acres one day for produce. "I could see myself helping a young person get started, making some land available," he says.

“I could not afford to buy my own food at the prices I charge.” —Elizabeth Haarer
Roger Manley










Elizabeth Haarer '96, Wild Onion Farms

Elizabeth Haarer's seven-and-a-half acres east of Raleigh, in rural Johnston County, were once part of a tobacco farm that robbed the sandy soil of nutrients. Now, in her fourth season on the farm, she is still building up the depleted soil, by careful crop rotation—including cover crops like buckwheat that are planted and plowed under—and with the manure from a small flock of chickens.

Guiding a visitor around the fields where she grows corn, tomatoes, melons, sweet potatoes, chard, spinach, kale, and almost any other green you can think of, Haarer speaks about the farm with a quiet confidence that belies her relative newcomer status. Farming is a career that allows her to be self-employed and to work outdoors, two qualities she yearned for after a few occupational false starts. She is emblematic of a younger generation of farmers who learn their skills from books, the Internet, and occasional chats with other farmers on rainy days at the markets instead of at the knee of a father or grandfather.

Haarer's husband is employed full time off the farm, so she works the land alone —well, almost alone. Her hens are farm workers of sorts, who eat bugs and weed seeds, but, more crucial, "they are an important part of my fertilizer scheme," she says. Using organic farming methods is a choice she made not just because of environmental conviction, but also because they help her build better soil. Plus, the expense of using conventional fertilizers and pesticides would play havoc with her shoestring budget.

Building the soil also will allow her to improve yield without expanding from the two acres she currently keeps in production. That is as much as she can manage working on her own, and a summer day without rain will find her in the field for twelve to fourteen hours.

The greatest challenge for Haarer has not been the hard physical labor but the financial realities of launching the farm and making it profitable. After taking out two mortgages to buy the land, she decided to sell shares in the farm every year, using the proceeds to pay for seeds and equipment before growing season starts. In exchange, the shareholders receive a share of the harvest. This year, her fourth growing season, she changed the shareholder system from the traditional weekly box to a debit system. Customers still pay an annual fee upfront, giving her capital to start the growing season, but they select the foods they want when they want them, rather than receiving the same box as other shareholders.

Haarer supplements this shareholder income with sales at farmers' markets in Wake Forest and in Raleigh at the Moore Square market downtown. The prices she charges there, she says, "are somewhere between Wal-Mart and Whole Foods." And this illustrates the disconnect between farmers' incomes and the price of local, seasonal, and organic food: "I could not afford to buy my own food at the prices I charge," she says.

She makes a profit and pays the bills, but she has no pension or stock portfolio and sometimes works outside jobs in the winter. Still, if her career choice isn't lucrative, it is "the most challenging thing I can imagine doing and the most rewarding thing I can imagine doing," Haarer says.

Customers hug her and ask what they can do to support the farm, and kids line up to buy sugar snap peas. "There's a school near the Moore Square market, and a little girl comes by on her recess every Wednesday and very formally asks, 'May I smell the basil?' "

Moments like that, Haarer says, make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

“About 90 percent of what you need to know about farming is easy, and you spend the rest of your life learning the last 10 percent.” —Fred Bahnson
Roger Manley.







Fred Bahnson M.T.S. '00, Anathoth Community Garden

Nothing in his background prepared Fred Bahnson for raising food or money, but by all accounts he is successful at both. As the director of a church-based community garden, he writes grant proposals and finds money to buy equipment and pay his own salary, and to launch special programs like the one that brings at-risk youth to the garden.

While studying for his master's in theological studies at Duke, he encountered the writings of Wendell Berry Hon. '08, who champions sustainable agriculture and a vibrant rural culture. Later, during a stay in Chiapas, Mexico, with the organization Christian Peacemaker Teams, Bahnson saw Berry's ideas being lived out in a community of independent Mayan coffee growers.

He returned to North America in 2001 "on fire to learn how to farm," he says. He arranged an internship in Chatham County with Harvey Harman '81, who had helped launch a popular sustainable farming program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, North Carolina. From Harman, he learned that "about 90 percent of what you need to know about farming is easy, and you spend the rest of your life learning the last 10 percent."

In 2003, Bahnson and his wife bought eleven acres in Orange County and started a subsistence farm, raising hogs, chickens, lambs, and produce while he also worked as a writing tutor at the divinity school. Then, in 2004, a murder tore apart the nearby farming community of Cedar Grove. The victim was the owner of a convenience store that had once been a haven for drug dealers. He'd kicked them out, and the store had become a community fixture.

Bahnson participated in a series of community meetings held as part of a reconciliation and healing process. The meetings revealed some uncomfortable truths. For instance, there were black churches and white churches in Cedar Grove, but no place where both races felt welcome. And in a rural farm community, people were going hungry despite the abundance of fresh, healthy produce being grown all around them.

In one response, a black citizen donated five acres of land to a white church.  Community members decided they would create Anathoth Community Garden, to revive the fallow land—heal it—and use it to grow food for people who needed it. In a leap of faith, Bahnson quit the tutoring job at the divinity school to write grant proposals to support the project. He became the manager of Anathoth, planning crops, scheduling workdays, and recruiting volunteers, in addition to seeking donations and grant money.

The biblical Anathoth was the product of a war in which the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and took Jeremiah's people away from their own land. Under God's orders, Jeremiah bought a field at Anathoth and created a garden in exile. In an embattled world, the only response was to put down roots, figuratively and literally.

In the contemporary Anathoth, community members pay five dollars annually to join the garden and must work there a minimum of two hours a week. No individual plots are allowed, as it is intended to be a true community garden. Many members are the working poor of all age groups and ethnicities, some of them from families who have lived in the area for years and some newly arrived from other countries. They produce so much food that surplus crops are often delivered to nearby families who are not members. "It's a place where anyone can show up, and they're welcome," Bahnson says. "A place to create peace. A garden is a pretty non-threatening place."

That Anathoth has succeeded in spanning ethnic and socioeconomic divides is evident when Bahnson refers to collards and arugula in the same breath. He mentions the chilies and cilantro that are used in the traditional Mexican moles that one member brings to the garden's weekly potlucks, along with homemade tortillas.

To Bahnson, working at Anathoth is part of a continuum in his life that began with studying agrarian principles, watching them in play, and putting them into practice on his own family farm. That farm is smaller now, and he has temporarily turned much of his managerial work over to two co-managers, after receiving a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to write magazine articles about sustainable food. But as often as possible, he is still in the fields at Anathoth, and at home.

“When we started, everyone thought I was an idiot. Now everyone thinks we’re heroes. And it’s the same darned squash!” —Tim MacAller
Roger Manley.







Tim MacAller M.S. '81, Four Leaf Farm

The Durham Farmers' Market was just two years old when Tim and Helga MacAller started selling vegetables and bedding plants there. About a half-dozen farmers would set up tents in a weedy gravel lot in downtown Durham, and customers could make their rounds in ten minutes or less.

Eight years later, the market is vibrant: Fifty vendors are busting the seams of a newly built pavilion in a thriving downtown district—a street is closed to accommodate the overflow—and hundreds of customers shop for vegetables, meats, cheeses, baked goods, and flowers every Saturday morning, year-round, and Wednesday afternoons from April to November.

The MacAllers farmed in Durham for about five years in the early 1980s, after he got a master's in botany, but after they lost their lease and started having kids, they both took outside jobs. They moved to a two-acre lot in Rougemont, north of Durham, and about ten years ago, started farming again at the urging of their teenage son. Now they work an acre in Rougemont and another half-acre in Durham owned by a Duke contemporary, Norman Budnitz Ph.D. '77.

But Tim MacAller still works full time, and Helga works part time as a physical therapist at Duke Hospital. His job—with the Center for Inquiry-Based Learning, an outreach program that provides training to science teachers—gives him the flexibility to take Fridays off during the growing season. All day Friday is spent picking, cleaning, and packing in preparation for Saturday's market, where they sell produce, vegetable plants, and bedding plants.

Having outside jobs gives the MacAllers access to health insurance, allows them to pay some part-time workers, and provides the capital to invest in the farming operation. But it also means that they "come home from work and go to work," he says. In a few years, when their children are out of college and they've made a number of capital investments in the farm, they expect to be able to live solely on the income from it.

Already, Helga MacAller has been able to cut her work hours from full time to part time, because of the phenomenal growth of the Durham Farmers' Market and the increasing demand for local and organically grown food. They're riding a trend, and Tim MacAller knows it. "When we started, everyone thought I was an idiot. Now everyone thinks we're heroes. And it's the same darned squash!"

But MacAller thinks the local food trend has staying power, not just because of health and environmental concerns, but also because farms and farmers' markets are introducing, or reintroducing, flavors that people had forgotten about or had never experienced. Some of his first customers were older people who "remembered what the food used to taste like," he says. Others have discovered the difference in taste between store-bought produce, organic or not, and vegetables from the farm. "It's just not the same," he says, "because I picked it yesterday."

MacAller also thinks that farmers' markets are feeding a need for community and connection. He notes that people spend an hour or more at farmers' markets, even though their shopping takes just fifteen or twenty minutes. "There's a whole sense of community there," he says. "That's part of the appeal."                                                

Edible Hudson ValleyDukenvironment

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor