What makes one farmer, one market, one system more successful than another? Are these lessons transferrable to other communities or is the success so deeply place-based and too nuanced to replicate? As someone passionate about building a strong local food system (and not reinventing the wheel) I am fascinated by all of the variations and models of getting food from the farms to the table in communities around the world.

If you work in the industry, you know that in agriculture, everyone’s way is the “right way” and it likely looks very different than their neighbors “right way”. These days, I dig down to the root of individual successes to understand WHY a technique, method, or product was working so well. It often takes looking closely at the variables associated with people, place, price, process, and preference in each situation to understand what ingredients create the ideal blend.

Most of my lesson are learned close to home, focusing on those projects gaining traction in the Southeast, navigating the region’s nuanced culture, climate, and clientele but sometimes you need to get out of your own pasture and look over the fence to see if perhaps the grass is greener. I plan to spend the next few posts sharing some of my adventures farther afield, starting with visit to an island across the ocean.

This Spring I found myself exploring a hidden gem known as Terceira Island, home to more cows that people and more cheese than one would think possible for a 150 square mile radius. This dairy and livestock haven is a part of the Portuguese Azores archipelago, located in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean and due to the temperate climate, the grass really IS greener. Beyond the ecological and cultural appeal of the island, their approach to dairy farming was of special interest given the challenges facing our local dairy farmers at home. In case you weren’t aware, the American dairy industry is in a crisis, with small farms being forced out of the business by continued drop in prices and vertical integration of larger companies that cut-out the remaining dairy cooperatives. After a few emails and phone calls, I was able connect with Dr. Moreira da Silva, a professor at the University of the Azores willing to provide a behind-the-scenes tour. Through his connections we were able to meet a diverse range of individuals across the food system of the islands from farm to table and understand the special ingredients (place, people, process) helping their farmers to thrive.

The Place: After a surprisingly short direct flight from Boston (direct to the island!!) my stepmother and I arrived at sunrise to discover a magical place combining the emerald Scottish countryside with picturesque colorful Mediterranean villages. Town and country alike, there were cows everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE: in the road, tied in front yards, and next to the beach.

Throughout the island, walls of volcanic rock enclose lush fields of green, interspersed with clustered coastal communities full of simple whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs punctuated by incredibly colorful ornate churches. Although small, the island is packed full of diverse landscapes beyond the fields including lava fields, caves, eucalyptus forests, and rocky ocean baths. As we traveled through the city center of Angra do Heroismo on our way to our hotel, we quickly realized why the area was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site with its cobblestone roads, unique building designs, and cliffside views of the ocean. It was here we were able to connect with our gracious host Dr. Silva at the University of the Azores where we discovered an incredible range of tours, introductions, and experiences for us (his wonderful wife Maria even picked us up).

The People: Dr. Silva gave us the rock star treatment, introducing us to his entire agricultural network. Our tour began at the University with a meet and greet with all of the department heads and many of the students (to my delight it also included multiple tea breaks). My academic side glowed hearing about research extremely similar to studies found at my own home base at the College of Charleston including studies of sea-level rise, impacts of climate change on the natural environment as well as the economy, and the island’s biodiversity. On the agricultural side the studies ranged from testing probiotics in yogurt and agricultural marketing to milk fat and artificial insemination. Despite my lack of Portuguese (I naively thought Spanish would work) everyone enthusiastically shared their industry insight and were curious to hear about life in Charleston, South Carolina.

Following the on-campus tour, Moreira and his colleague drove us to the off-campus Experimental Farm and Dairy where we met calves (mini-moos!), cows, herding doggos, and cross-eyed farm cats before visiting the milking parlor and checking out the equipment, feed, and fertilizers. During the tour, we discussed how their dairy industry has traditionally operated with many individual farmers rotating small herds through the fertile fields of grass and milking their cows using portable parlors. Milk is either sold to cooperatives or processed for a variety of dairy products (primarily cheese). This system has allowed residents to participate in the industry without a lot of infrastructure (barns, parlors, processing equipment) and the ability to stay at a smaller scale. Cows grazed on healthy pastures produce better milk and since farmers get paid based on the quality or grade of their milk, there is a built-in incentive on the island to rotate cows regularly and not overgraze. The result: beautiful pastures, happier cows, delicious dairy products, and more profit for dairy farmers. It is important to note that the island is not only in great proximity to European markets but also enjoys a grass-loving climate that stays between 55 and 80 degrees and regular rainfall, two keys to their success harder to replicate at home.

One of Dr. Silva’s former students joined us to share her insights on the agricultural industry in the Azores and gave us a glimpse at the future of farming on the Islands. Alexandra M B Ramos operates a small beef cattle operation while also managing the marketing for the local Beef Cattle Breeders’ Association that focuses on a regional certification for the Azores. Initially considered a secondary by-product of the dairy industry, beef has become a burgeoning market for the islands and Alexandra is interested in making a name for grass-fed beef raised on the lush pastures of the Azores. She invited us for a morning on the farm to get a first hand perspective into the industry at her farm AMBR-Lady Angus Beef. Across an entire ocean, it was comforting to connect with a fellow woman agriculture shamelessly kicking ass (while driving a pink tractor AND truck, no less).

Another highlight of the agricultural adventure (outside of driving a pink tractor) was having the opportunity to meet a group of aspiring farmers and the faculty supporting them. At the request of the program, I provided an overview of the US agricultural system and shared stories of the farmers I am proud to work with in the Southeast. After spending time with Dr. Silva, it is clear that he passionate about connecting students from abroad. Paired with the University of the Azores supporting visiting groups through housing and travel aid, I would highly recommend US universities take advantage of this opportunity!

Process: Throughout the tours, the topic of cooperatives came up frequently and with my interest in both local value chains and food hubs, I was curious how these systems were working on the islands. Dr. Silva coordinated a private tour of the newest local agricultural cooperative and I was completely blown away. Funded with government grants, the facility was completely decked out with full security measures, gleaming white walls, shining stainless steel equipment, large wash/pack lines, and spacious coolers. The facility was capable of processing a diverse range of product including dairy, fruits, vegetables and during two months of the year the processing, packaging, and export of over a million and half stems of protea flowers. The cooperative was distributing product all across the island as well as into national and international markets. One surprising element to the operation: farmers that sell their product to the cooperative were not allowed to sell into any other markets.

After touring farms, we obviously made time to sample the fruits of the labor and visited farm-to-table restaurants to sample cheese and local fare that ranged from small batches on cheese boards to commercial production with an agri-tourism focus.

What were the take-aways and thoughts from our agricultural adventure?

Invest in Farmers: The European Union invests in farming through direct payments (including those linked to environmental practices, small farmers, and those industries facing a volatile market) as well as incredible investments in new farmers under the age of 40 through grants to help launch their businesses and acquire land.

Small but Mighty: The dairy industry seems to be successful because it focuses on utilizing their most abundance resource: grass. Paired with low-infrastructure, portable parlors, and small herds the system allows for less risk and less overhead. The resulting high quality milk and cheese are in steady demand, helping keep the price of the product high enough for continued farmer participation. Interestingly, on my tours I realized I had traveled across an ocean to see a set-up just like one in my own backyard at Sea Island Jerseys and Green Grocer on Wadmalaw Island operated by Celeste and George Albers. Perhaps there is an opportunity for mid-sized dairies in the US to adopt some of these methods in order to participate in local markets hungry for grass-fed, small batch milk and dairy like that found in the Azores.

Cooperatives: The majority of products are processed and sold by cooperatives with much of it exported to the mainland, creating a culture where farmers don’t focus on marketing or sales but stick to production. All of the cooperatives we discussed provided additional benefits to their farmers such as training, equipment sharing, breeding support, and profit sharing. Based on the conversations we had throughout our trip, most farmers were okay with this system but there were definitely a few were interested in learning about direct sales.

Focus on the Future: Young farmers are facing similar challenges regardless of location: land access, financial limitations, need for training in business and production, and the inability of the existing systems to keep up with their changing needs, changing markets and their desire for innovation.

Crowdsource Ideas: There are incredible opportunities for students to travel to the Azores to exchange ideas or host students from the islands in the US to expand their horizons.

My unsolicited advice: As a burgeoning tourist destination with unique natural ecology, the island could greatly benefit from a stronger farm-to-table movement, a focus on agri-tourism, and the increased adoption of organic practices to secure a higher market price while preserving the natural beauty of their land.

In the end, I left with something much more valuable than information or insight: friendship. In the future, I hope to bring students to visit this incredible island to build an even stronger bridge between our communities. Obrigada to Dr. Silva and Alexandra for your incredible hospitality!

Written by Nikki Seibert Kelley