Where do the mentors go for mentorship? For Eat Local program staff and participants at Lowcountry Local First, the answer lies just across the border in North Carolina. Despite the close proximity, the local food system in our neighboring state to the North is a more matured landscape with thousands of thriving local farms, hundreds of markets, dozens of cooperatives, and an incredible array of farm support organizations. As we envision the future for our own state, North Carolina is an ideal location to seek inspiration. Although the entire state is full of innovative individuals, we chose to focus on the area surrounding the small but mighty town of Saxahapaw, NC that provided a central location for our visits to Burlington, Chapel Hill, Durham, and the rural communities in between.
With the goal of seeing as many models of success as possible, our small group of 7 food system leaders and farmers set-out on the five hour road trip with high hopes. Everyone that received my itinerary had no doubts that our dance card was full for the 3 day trip: 7 meals, 4 farms, 2 coops, 2 happy hours, 1 documentary & barn dance, 1 food hub, and 1 locally grown t-shirt company. We met over 40 new people that included farmers, non-profit managers, chefs, political leaders, advocates, cooperative consultants, produce buyers, coop managers, and all kinds of localists. Thanks to our great friends Eric Henry and Charlie Sydnor as well as the amazing staff of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, we had many warm welcomes and behind the scenes tours.
The first day set the tone for the trip with a beautiful drive through the country, a farm tour, and then a packed Happy Hour at the Eddy Pub and Restaurant. This was not just any location because The Eddy is nestled in theRivermill Village cotton mill restoration project that in addition to the restaurant included a general store, gas station, co-working space, butcher, ballroom, amphitheater, and housing. It seemed as though every person I met during our “North meets South” Happy Hour was both a pioneer and active member of the community right down to the Chef Isaiah Allen from the Eddy, who in addition to being the Executive Chef, also runs Rocky Run Farm with his wife. Don’t even get me started on the foraged honeysuckle panna cotta he sent out as a special treat- that was like a creamy dream wrapped in a cool summer night- I may never be the same. Afterwards, we were able to participate in the first screening of The Last Barn Dance, a documentary about a local dairy farm struggling with the shifting food economy and the reality of trying return to the old ways of bottling their own milk using new technology. This honest and timely documentary set the tone for our trip as we too found ourselves looking for a path to meet the demand for local products without compromising our values and desire to serve the community.
As the trip unfolded, we found ourselves bouncing between locations and exploring projects that ranged from fledging stage to well established, with lessons to be learned from all. The farm stops included Terrastay Farms,Braeburn Farms, Perry Winkle Farms, and Open Door Farms. Our market stops included TS Designs, Company Shops Market, Durham Co-op Market, andEastern Carolina Organics. These farms and markets were demonstrating innovation, cooperation, market access, employee stewardship, and more than anything an incredibly strong sense of community.
We enjoyed delicious farm to table fare at every meal, during which we engaged in lengthy discussions about the differences in the states, the incredible number of sustainable farms and supporting projects, and considered what ideas we could bring home. Although we share a border with North Carolina, the journey to developing a food system as robust as theirs will be a long one.
Charleston is an incredible leader for the South Carolina in the local food movement and is not lacking in incredible accomplishments. The Holy City proven that we can excel in Farm to Table movement from the restaurant perspective, providing those who can afford to dine out with delicious local fare. Residents in the Lowcountry also have access to over 20 farmers markets running every day of the week and a variety of local Community Supported Food program from which to secure vegetables, eggs, meat, dairy, and seafood. Farmers in the area have access to monthly GOODFarming Workshops; aspiring farmers can take part in the Growing New Farmers program as Apprentices in our Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture course or as participants in the Dirt Works Incubator Farm. Charleston has strong local food wholesalers/distributors, an incredible food bank, an emerging farm-to-school program, and some amazing community gardens. There is a long and impressive list of the incredible non-profits, businesses, and universities that are all working tirelessly to fill the gaps in our food system, not just in Charleston but also across the state.
Despite all of these incredible efforts, awareness and access in regards to local food has still only touched a small portion of the population, most of which are actively seeking the knowledge and have the means to access the products. There is still so much opportunity for our community to expand access through institutional sales, cooperative grocery stores, access in food deserts, local food incentives, procurement policies, farmer cooperatives, affordable land access, multi-lingual consumer education, policy reform, advocacy and so much more. Most of these issues will take the collaboration of multiple organizations across sectors working together to create place-based solutions. We will continue to play a role in these conversations and hope to facilitate the forward momentum in some of these areas. Our trip to NC was the first step in understanding the best way forward for our organization and finding inspiration, ideas, and models for the Lowcountry. For now, we will delight in the fact that all of our farmers that attended have already adopted strategies from the farms they visited and we now have an even larger support network for the long road ahead.
Post originally published on June 29th for Lowcountry Local First.