Issue Features

Learning & Growing

Apr 01

The Sustainable Agriculture Movement

Elizabeth Mann

Growing up on a dairy farm, Jillian Wolf remembers the hum of milk pumps, the softness of the fur behind their cows’ ears, and her grandmother serving fresh eggs, piles of juicy sliced beef, sweet garden vegetables, and fresh picked berries in thick cream for breakfast. Even though her mother wanted nothing to do with farming upon moving to Los Angeles in Wolf’s teen years, Wolf always knew she wanted to be a farmer.

Today, as the home-grower programs and outreach coordinator for the Organic Growers School (OGS), sustainable farming is her focus. “I'm at my happiest when my hands are dirty but have also learned how critical growing is to our planet,” Wolf said. “Environmental sustainability and food system resilience depend upon local efforts to grow plants that are useful to our burgeoning human population.”

As home to Appalachian State University, which houses the oldest recognized sustainable development program in the country, Southern Appalachia has long been a leader in sustainable agricultural education. The school established the program in 1991 and has one of the largest teaching farms in the nation. In North Carolina’s Ashe County, roughly 35 acres of pasture, 130 acres of woodlot and woodlands, a large greenhouse, and late-19th century barn make up the university’s Sustainable Development Teaching and Research Farm. The farm gives students the opportunity to complement class coursework in lessons about agroecology, agroforestry, and sustainable farming practices.

But one doesn’t have to be campus bound to get educated on sustainable farming. The OGS, which began in 1993, started as a group of volunteering farmers and extension specialists that met to talk about crop growing specific to Western North Carolina. Since its inception, the organization’s Organic Growers School Spring Conference has grown from just over 100 participants to more than 2,000. Farmers, gardeners, chefs, and educators travel from more than 18 states and Canada, making it the largest event of its type in the Southeast. The school’s offerings have also grown and it now provides both coaching and consulting for anyone that desires to learn how to grow more sustainable foods and plants. Students can attend programs on-site or through Skype for those that are outside the area. The school also provides internship programs where students get hands-on experience through events, programs, and shadowing opportunities.

“The number of people who want to farm or pursue careers as agriculture professionals nationwide has increased dramatically in the last several years,” said Lee Warren, executive director of the Organic Growers School. “Many are returning veterans, second career seekers, college graduates, and young people with no prior farming experience.”

Indeed, a sustainable gardening and farming movement seems to be growing. According to Allison Perrett, a researcher and administrator at the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program (ASAP) Local Food Research Center, data shows from 2004 to 2016 the number of farms growing food for local markets increased 360 percent, from 131 to 603. Over that same time period, the number of farmers markets nearly doubled, from 34 to 64. The number of farms with community supported agriculture (CSA) increased more than 400 percent, from 15 to 77. Meanwhile, farms with u-picks, which means customers can harvest the produce they want to buy, increased 300 percent, from 35 to 141.

ASAP is also moving to the forefront when it comes to cultivating the land in a sustainable way. It serves to support local farms by linking farmers to markets and supporters. “This movement has the potential to empower us as eaters and citizens to create a food system that is equitable, environmentally sustainable, economically viable, and health promoting,” said Perrett.

The organization not only supports large-scale farmers, but it also helps train individuals to start school gardens so children can learn responsibility and nutrition. ASAP’s Growing Minds Farm to School program is at the center of this movement and currently has outreach at schools in 60 Appalachian counties. Children are able to go on field trips, learn about starting edible school gardens, and are given the opportunity to taste test local foods in the cafeteria.

Simply, sustainable agriculture is rooted in the idea that farming and food production meet the needs of people while preserving those same resources for future generations. According to Warren, now is the time. “We must end our over-reliance on industrialized food systems and create a region of inspired, educated, and confident food growers.”

Elizabeth’s tips for starting a sustainable garden project:

  1. First, find a location where you can start your garden. In limited space, you can have container gardens. Choose a place where they will receive enough sun and have access to water.
  2. Life is in the soil so get a soil test beforehand. To build up the soil, add plenty of nutrient-rich compost. If you are limited in space and live in an urban neighborhood, try worm composting.
  3. Once you’ve established the site and the soil is ready, you’ll need plant babies. If you feel confident enough, start with seeds. This will allow you to grow organic and heirloom varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation of farmers. A second option is to buy transplants that are ready for the garden. Harden them off first, which means slowly increase the amount of time they are outside before planting.
  4. Finally, keep your garden well watered, pull weeds by hand instead of using chemicals, and when the pests come, opt for organic methods like diatomaceous earth, which looks like a white powder and is fossilized remains of marine phytoplankton. It sticks to insects causing them to dry out, which for gardeners means victory! If you do your research, you will find that there are many organic methods that can be used in order to protect the environment while saving those tasty vegetables.

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