Farmland Is Vanishing, And Old Agricultural Practices Are Dying. Local Innovators Are Looking For The Future of Farming.
Raleigh native Rob Meyer says he took inspiration from the local food supply chains he observed in Ecuador while working with the Peace Corps when he founded the online delivery service Papa Spuds in 2008. Ecuadorian families support each other’s businesses, he says, selling food and homemade goods at community markets. He wanted to build a similar model in the Triangle.
With Papa Spuds, which delivers more than two hundred products to households throughout the region, customers can select fruits, vegetables, meats, and other locally sourced foods—even custom-ordering recipe kits the way you might with a meal-planning service like Blue Apron.
This is a form of community-supported agriculture, or CSA, an emerging model designed to create a direct line between farmers and consumers. Based on what’s in season or abundance, most CSAs offer boxes of pre-selected produce for consumers to pick up weekly or biweekly at a designated location (some, like Papa Spuds, deliver). There are about twenty-five hundred CSAs around the country, including about a hundred in North Carolina—among them Infinity Hundred Urban Farms in Raleigh, Maple Spring Gardens in Cedar Grove, In Good Heart Farm in Pittsboro, and Transplanting Traditions Community Farm in Chapel Hill.
Their goal is to create a more localized—and thus sustainable—food system that works for farmers, consumers, and the environment.
“People need to start caring more about the local land,” says Vera Fabian, a co-owner of Ten Mothers Farm in Cedar Grove, who previously ran the CSA program at Transplanting Traditions.
The old system is no longer viable. Farmland is vanishing. During a twenty-year period from 1992–2012, the American Farmland Trust documented some thirty-one million acres of farmland lost to urban and rural development. In North Carolina, the average farmer is sixty years old, according to a 2017 agricultural census; nationally, there are six times as many farmers over age sixty-five as there are under thirty-five. In the near future, many of today’s farmers will fund their retirements by selling their land to developers. Their large legacy farms, which have in some cases raised livestock and commodity crops for generations, will vanish.
There are lots of factors at play, but the bottom line is that, for new farmers, margins are tighter than they used to be. Land costs are rising, and unpredictable weather patterns associated with climate change are reducing crop yields.
CSAs allow farmers to reduce packaging and transportation costs, which puts more money back in their pockets. Fabian says she’s seen a trend of younger farmers developing smaller operations with less overhead and less risk, much like the one-acre farm she and Gordon Jenkins started in 2015. CSA programs enable them to leverage support from their communities in ways bigger farms can’t.
This, she says, may be the future of farming.
But a sustainable supply chain will also require us to throw away less food away. Nearly a third of all food produced around the world, and half produced in the U.S., ends up in a landfill. Farms account for some of this waste—less than 20 percent—but the bulk comes at the consumer level, from households to restaurants to grocery stores that toss “defective” produce.
Here again, innovators are tackling this problem in creative ways.
In June, the five-year-old Baltimore-based company Hungry Harvest—a recipient of a $100,000 prize on the TV show Shark Tank—which repurposes food that would have otherwise been discarded, merged with the Durham-based produce-delivery service Ungraded Produce. The company, which has locations in Raleigh, Detroit, New York City, Miami, and other big cities, encourages farmers and growers to embrace the idea that a bruised peach or apple is still valuable—and edible—and delivers these imperfect products to consumers.
Most grocery store chains don’t accept suboptimal produce, so farmers don’t bother harvesting these fruits and vegetables but instead till them back into the soil to recycle their nutrients. For many farmers, the so-called ugly produce movement might seem like a fad; for their livelihoods, it’s far less consequential than rising land costs and declining crop yields.
Still, these things go together: Reducing farm waste and stimulating the local food economy is one small step in rethinking how we produce what we eat and decrease the carbon footprint it leaves behind. And in the process, we might just make farming a viable enterprise again.
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