Friday, July 11, 2014

Farm Visit


Leah Wagner stands behind the small island in her kitchen, displaying a colander full of imperfect potatoes.  Over her shoulder, a square window frames the pastoral image of her two children pitching hay in a nearby field.  A large plastic bowl on the island holds shelled peas; on the kitchen table sit small containers of ripe tomatoes.  In the basement beneath our feet, a dozen newly-hatched guinea hens huddle in a plastic tub under heat lamps.

Pointing out the divots and dark marks on the potato in her hand, the energetic wife and mother explains, "Our family eats the ugly produce.  We sell the pretty stuff.”

I’ve come to Carlea Farms to see how Leah and her family—husband Carl, son Chet, 20, and daughter Jennie, 17—use the food they grow.  In the open yet cozy kitchen of their modest brick home, Leah is preparing one of their regular meals, a fall casserole.  Well, sort of, seeing as it’s July.

"If it's not in season, we don't eat it," Leah explains as she places the quartered potatoes in a pan of water and drops Carlea-raised pork sausage into a pan on the stove. Normally made with sweet potatoes and October beans, a request to make the dish in summer has her substituting yukon golds and purple hulled peas. A hearty combination of meat, starch and fiber, the nourishing meal is a favorite of Chet's, a rising junior at NC State. After every visit home, the robust, cheerful student invariably brings some back to school with him.

"He eats it almost every night," Leah says, explaining that unlike most college students, her son won't live off of pizza and fast food. Jennie is much the same.  Describing one dinner when she tried to sneak in grocery-store ingredients, Leah says, “She took one bite, and said ‘These aren’t our potatoes.’”  Almost no store-bought produce enters this kitchen since the family started growing their own food, all of it according to organic principles.

Although the land we’re standing on has been in his family for six generations, it was only after Carl’s retirement as an instructor at Central Piedmont Community College in 2007 that Carlea Farms really took off.  His wife, who still holds a full-time job as an engineer at NCDOT, is no less a partner in the business.  “We always had a garden.  I knew he wanted to expand it, but I didn’t know he was gonna go crazy,” she says in mock exasperation.

While she puts together her casserole and the two children throw hay bales onto a tractor-hauled trailer, Carl is gone, retrieving this year’s flock of Thanksgiving turkeys.  So dinner in the oven, Leah leads the way outside for a visit to the other livestock already in residence.  Just past a high-tunnel greenhouse sheltering tomatoes, the pigs arise from their shaded wallow inside a small square pasture fenced by electrified netting, eager to see what treats have arrived.  Leah tosses a couple dozen small tomatoes on the ground, and the bright red orbs disappear immediately into the pigs’ dusty snouts.  Leah points out where their corral was situated last week, and then indicates the field next to us, currently waist-high in cover crops, that will be their home soon.


Once the pigs enjoy themselves mowing down the grasses and flowers used to protect the otherwise fallow field, the chickens will follow.  “Not only do they clean up what the pigs have missed,” Leah explains, “but they eat the grubs in [the pigs’] manure,” serving as natural, effective pest control.  Pigs, chickens and crops all rotate through the fields, each providing a key element in the natural management of the land.

Our  visit to the the chickens, also kept on grass in movable runs, is interrupted by Carl’s arrival with the turkey poults.  Pulling up to the brooder, a chicken-wire version of a Conestoga wagon, he extracts from his truck a single cardboard box holding 50 tiny birds.  About six inches high and two feet square, it is pierced on the tops and sides with round holes that erupt irregularly with orange beaks and downy yellow faces, like a cartoon version of whack-a-mole. 


Carl climbs up into the brooder, and I guard the door while he introduces each tiny turkey to the concept of drinking.  As much as he grumbles about the difficulty of managing the “stupid” birds, he handles the chicks gently, even talking to them fondly as he dips their beaks into the water.

In the meantime, Chet and Jennie have finished unloading their trailer of hay, and the tired young man is especially eager to tuck into his favorite dinner.  After releasing Carl from the turkey brooder and serving ourselves glasses of cold, sweet well water, we gather around the dark wood dinner table.  Served in sturdy white bowls, the warm, filling casserole exudes the freshness of potatoes and beans that were pulled from the ground within view of our plates. 

While a salt shaker sits near at hand, the best seasoning for this meal is knowing that Carlea Farms has a secure future.  Both of the Wagner’s children intend to return to this land after receiving degrees in agricultural sciences, making it their own.  The farm will certainly change under their care, probably sprouting herds of cows, but it will certainly remain true to their parents’ vision of stewardship of the land and living seasonally.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Farm to You

I don’t care about “organic” food.  I don’t look for “vegetarian diet” on my egg cartons.  Those are empty phrases invented to dull the sensitivities of consumers seeking superficial reassurance.  The only food buzz words I care about are “sustainable” and “local,” and the only place I know I can reliably find them is at my farmers markets. 

The effort to support local providers, processors and vendors is a fight against Americans’ purposeful ignorance about our food.  Factory farms and high-volume processors have gotten enough bad press that most consumers are afraid to learn much about the plants and animals that feed them.  It’s understandable to seek comfort by looking no further than the word “organic” stamped over the picture of a smiling cow on a clean, bright package.  The bigger business farming has become and the more inscrutable giant food corporations have grown, the more separation has developed between consumers and the dirt.  We are no longer comfortable seeing dirt on our potatoes or heads on our chickens.  What used to be—what still are—the facts of life are now rejected with the equivalent of “Ew, gross.”

No matter how you do it, making food is hard, dirty, often dangerous work, and in most steps of the process, it doesn’t pay very well.  Whatever your food source, someone has to break a sweat to turn the soil, clean the barns and pick the squash.  Someone has dirty their hands washing vegetables, cleaning carcasses, sorting, packaging and delivering the end product.  Whether it’s a carrot or a calf, it’s not going into our stores or restaurants until it has been transformed into a pristine package belying its earthy origins.

Yet, the more you understand how plants and animals get to the American plate, the more important local food sources become.  For me, supporting local farming means I have to drive further than the nearest grocery store, pay a little extra and still have to wash dirt from my potatoes.  I say I’m doing it to support my local farmers, but the end truth is that I’m helping myself.

The benefits to me are inherent in the small business model.  As independent owners, the vendors at my market make decisions for the health of their flocks and fields, rather than that of their shareholders’ portfolios.  They can give more attention to each acre of corn or litter of piglets than can managers of thousand-acre corporate farms. The vegetables they bring to market are harvested only a day before I buy them.   

This means more than happy pigs and crispier lettuce.  This means healthier food in my fridge.  The fresh lettuce I buy at market has more nutrients than plastic-wrapped grocery-store greens that have been in transit for two weeks.  The meat I buy comes from animals that don’t require antibiotics to survive crowded feed lots, and they lived on varied diets resulting in more nutrients in their flesh.  Also, all the farmers I know either kill their own animals, or transport their own livestock to slaughter, rather than paying an intermediary to ship them hundreds of miles. Even if I didn’t care about better treatment for the animals, I do appreciate having fewer potentially health-damaging stress hormones in my pork chops.

The treatment of the humans on farms can also affect my health.  Small-scale production means less risk of an underpaid worker squatting in a field to relieve himself because the nearest bathroom is two acres away and he can’t afford to lose the production time.  This obviously mass-produced poster shows the chances are better than we’d like to imagine.

Pig roast SC 05 (48)

My local farmers simply cannot afford to treat their workers like equipment.  As smaller businesses with fewer employees, they must give them more responsibility than workers on corporate holdings with assembly-line tasks.  With those additional responsibilities come additional training, and I have heard over and over from farmers that trained workers are a nearly irreplaceable resource.  They will do anything feasible to keep those valued employees in place, including paying them a livable wage.  A rising tide raises all boats.

So that’s what I get by sacrificing my Saturday mornings to put a few extra dollars into the hands that raise my food: Healthier food.  Safer food.  Better-off neighbors.  Better-off me.

When I choose whether or not to eat locally, I have the power to support my neighbors or to drive them out of business.  Given the alternatives, it’s not a hard choice to make.