Panelists talk sustainable agriculture at Ag Awareness Week Forum

The second season of the Commissioner’s Speaker Series began March 23, as a panel of agribusiness leaders joined Steve Troxler, state agriculture commissioner, to talk about local and sustainable agriculture, as well as their activities in the local foods market. The series is a joint project of N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This first forum in the 2011 series took place in Williams Hall near the College’s Ag Awareness Week activities on the Brickyard. The forum was hosted by the N.C. State chapter of Alpha Zeta, the oldest fraternal society in agriculture.

Following a welcome by Dr. Barbara Kirby, CALS Agricultural Institute director, Matthew Greene, Alpha Zeta chancellor and a CALS junior in agricultural education, introduced Troxler, who led the discussion.

The inaugural 2011 Commissioner’s Speaker Series event took place in March during the College’s Ag Awareness Week activities on the Brickyard.

“This is a great way to kick off our series, especially during Ag Awareness Week at N.C. State. I can’t tell you how proud I was to see tractors on the Brickyard,” Troxler told the audience of about 60 CALS students, as well as faculty members and other guests. “We started this series as a way to complement what students and faculty are doing in the labs and the classrooms,” he said. “This is the beginning of things I will do at N.C. State this year.”

Another series forum, “Innovation and Efficiency in Agriculture,” hosted by the Ag Institute, takes place April 14 (at 4:00 p.m. in Williams 2215). And in fall Troxler teaches  a two-credit-hour CALS course called Agriculture Perspectives and Opportunities (AGI 95 and ALS 495).

But today, said Troxler, “We’re here to talk about sustainable agriculture in North Carolina.”

As defined by the U.S. Congress, sustainable agriculture means “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices” that over time will “satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends; make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and integrate, where possible, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm/ranch operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers/ranchers and society as a whole.”

“One thing I know about farmers is they are environmentalists and probably North Carolina’s most valuable environmentalists,” said Troxler, as he introduced the panel of sustainable-ag and local-foods-use practitioners: Bob Nutter, a lifetime dairyman and co-owner of Maple View Farm in Orange County; Allison Nichols, director of the Maple View Farm agricultural learning center; Myron and Sarah Smith of Smith’s Nursery Inc. in Johnston County; George Teague, whose family owns and operates the organic dairy and organic feed provider Reedy Fork Farm in Guilford County; and Jason Smith, chef and owner of the Raleigh restaurants 18 Seaboard and Cantina 18.

Nutter spoke about sustainable and value-added agricultural practices at Maple View, where Maview cows produce more than two million pounds of milk each year; its milk products and butter are sold in approximately 50 local area stores. Almost all milk produced on the farm is processed and bottled at the plant there.

“You have to devise a way to make more money than you spend. We chose to bottle milk in our bottling plant. Skim has always been our best seller,” Nutter said. Milk is available in returnable glass bottles, with recyclable plastic pints of a few products available – efforts mindful of conservation of landfill space and environmental concerns in Orange County.

“We have put conservation easements on 180 acres of our land, so it won’t be developed,” said Nutter, who noted that Maple View “is interested in biomass and uses methane from the cows to generate electricity. There’s a lot of possibility in using waste. With a digester you take the methane out of the waste and use that to generate power. The remaining animal waste becomes fertilizer.”

Maple View also buys local strawberries and blueberries and sells honey in its store, Nutter said. “The closer you can get your food to and from market, the better it is for the environment. We try to stay in a 60-mile area for delivery of our milk and ice cream, so the trucks won’t be on the road as long.”

Steve Troxler, state agriculture commissioner, speaks with Dr. Barbara Kirby, CALS Agricultural Institute director, and Dr. David Smith, CALS associate dean and N.C. Agricultural Reseach Service director, as students line up for some locally produced refreshments, provided courtesy of Cape Fear Farm Credit and the N.C. Peanut Growers Association.

Picking up on that point, Troxler said, “Who here knows how far the average food supply travels to the grocery store?” The answer, he said, is 1,100 miles, making the point that the farther the truck travels, the more the pollution.

Nichols, Nutter’s Maple View colleague who also works in his three ice cream stores, described the learning center, a public attraction that opened at the farm in 2009.

“Our classrooms are set up so that kids get lessons and activities in a plant room, soil science room and a dairy science room, and there’s a kiosk to teach kids about sustainable energy,” said Nichols. “They learn about composting, insects and wildlife habitats. And in the dairy science room, they learn about nutritional needs of animals and how much milk a MV cow will produce in a day.”

Outdoors, she said, “we have a barnyard where people can touch the animals, milk cows, go on a hayride and see production steps.”

The center started programming for elementary school kids, but now, said Nichols, “Students range from pre-school to senior citizens – our oldest student is 101!”

And as those groups get schooled in sustainable ag with lessons in gardening, soil and water conservation, and working with extension, Nichols said, “We encourage kids and their families to buy local!”

Promoting local foods is an integral part of Smith’s Nursery Inc. in Benson, where Myron and Sarah Smith sell high-quality fruit, vegetable and horticulture crops, while maintaining the sustainability of farming in North Carolina.

“I’m here to tell about what sustainability means to us and our involvement in the local foods movement,” said Myron, a 1975 CALS horticultural science graduate.  “My father bought our farm in 1953. He raised tobacco primarily, had a few hogs, crops (sweet corn, watermelon), and my mother canned.”  In 1980, Myron and his wife, Sarah, a Peace College graduate from Wilson, turned the farm into a nursery and landscape business, then an agritourism enterprise and produce market.

The business now includes, in summer, a U-pick strawberry, blueberry and blackberry season, along with a full garden center with landscape plants and trees for sale. In fall, they have pumpkin picking, hayrides, millet maze, goat walk hiking trails and fishing, along with a garden center and farm stand (with meat products, dairy, eggs and baked goods throughout the winter). They also hold community-sponsored events such as an Easter egg hunt, Mother’s Day art festival, CSA days and fall festival. Smith’s Nursery is a North Carolina Farm Fresh Certified Roadside Farm Market.

“In the late ’90s, we started our first agritourism ventures, teaching children about farms, having field trips,” Myron said. “To expand income, we expanded our field trips to fall field trips and selling to farmers’ markets. We sell Maple View products, fresh eggs and our strawberries.”

They also provide CSA boxes – “good local products from a farmer you know and who uses good safe practices,” said Myron. CSA stands for “community supported agriculture,”  wherein people pay for a share for a portion of a grower’s crops up front, and the farmer delivers boxes of produce to that customer.

“We take the boxes to people who can’t visit. We deliver our CSA boxes to drop-off locations and farmers’ markets. Our selling point is that the produce is local, not traveling from far away,” he said.

Panelists await questions from the audience after describing their activities with local and sustainable agriculture.

“People who are interested in local nutritious food care about the environment,” said Sarah. “We partner with other farmers and producers so customers can get a good variety in that box: milk from Maple View, asparagus from Sampson County, bread from local bakers. Strawberries and vegetables that we grow and get from local producers, we take to farmers markets. It’s a great sense of community that we build with sustainable agriculture.”

They also observe sustainability on the farm “through good conservation practices to control erosion, maintain vegetation in ditches, limit use of pesticides and capture irrigation water,” Myron said. “We provide local foods and promote awareness of buying local and provide farm-related educational opportunities.

“We try to be good stewards of our land. And profitability is a big part of sustainability.”

Profitability was on George Teague’s mind in 2006, when he toured an organic dairy farm in Pennsylvania. “I saw it could be done,” he said, and he soon began the transition to organic of the 800-acre dairy operation that his father had started in 1950. In 2007, Reedy Fork Farm became a certified organic dairy farm, which means it uses no antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or herbicides.

“The biggest challenge was we were the first in the state to do it,” Teague said. “We milk around 110 Holstein and Holstein/Jersey cows now.”

The farm is a member of the Organic Valley Co-op and its milk is sold under the Organic Valley label. Reedy Fork also sells organic beef and custom organic animal feed off the farm. An early obstacle they faced in becoming organic “was where we would get our grain. Working with Organic Valley, we became the organic grain provider in North Carolina. We built this feed mill last fall to provide to the dairies but also to provide to people who were interested in organic grain to feed their animals,” Teague said.

“Sustainable mean taking care of the environment, and it’s been nice working with living things in the soil — not killing things in the soil – and working with animals,” he told the group.  “We were worried at first about not spraying and not using antibiotics, but those have been the least of our problems. I’ve learned more in the last five years than in the 30 years before.”

Troxler remarked that farmers need buyers to sell their products to, as he turned to one of those buyers, Chef Jason Smith, who includes seasonal local foods on the menus at his restaurants.

“Buying local is one of the reasons 18 Seaboard is successful,” said Smith. “We use local ingredients for two reasons. First is to get the best possible ingredients you can. Getting fresh local ingredients makes my life easier, because the food tastes better, and my clientele like it that we change menus with the seasons.”

Second, he said, it just makes good economic sense to buy local. “We do business with people who do business with us,” he said, noting that he buys catfish locally and thus not only knows where the food came from but also that it is free of antibiotics and hormones.

Also, “it’s very fresh and a quick process, better than being shipped a long distance from the gulf,” said Smith, whose restaurant’s shrimp come from Pamlico Sound. “My clientele appreciate that I buy local. They can taste the difference, so they come to my restaurant more often.”

Buying local is simply “good business,” said Smith, whose seasonal house sangria is produced using purees of North Carolina-grown fruit. “We go to farmers’ markets, and we do make large CSA commitments.”

In fact, he said, “I dream to have a farm that produces primarily for my restaurant.” – Terri Leith

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