CFSA Sustainable Agriculture Conference Highlights

I had a great time this year at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference. I met a lot of great people, including the amazing CFSA staff.

Probably the best way to learn about agriculture is to see it first hand and get your hands dirty. Here are a few tweets/photos from the weekend.

I started off with the beginning farmer tour (sponsored by where I visited Bio-way farm:

I saw some neat take-home ideas that included small-scale tilapia production systems:

I also did some hands-on learning about oyster mushrooms with Tradd Cotter:

And at the lunch that followed, my friends Tradd and Olga got a big surprise!

Beyond the things that I saw and experienced over the weekend, I learned quite a bit about the farm bill from Sarah Hackney, who works at NSAC:

I strongly encourage all of my readers to join the NSAC action alert mailing list and figure out who to call for the 2012 farm bill day of action on November 15th. (In my next post I’ll cover a bit more about the farm bill, that post was getting too long to include in this wrap-up post).

The farm bill and our dysfuntional Congress provide a great contrast to the empowering and collaborative environment I experienced at CFSA. I came home with some great ideas a lot of new connections to work with into the new year.

Thanks so much, CFSA. Here’s to a fruitful 2012!


CFSA #SAC12 and Extreme Healthy Life Choices

This weekend, I attended CFSA’s annual sustainable agriculture conference (SAC12) where I met some amazing people doing awesome things to build healthy communities. In addition to meeting all those amazing people I had the immense pleasure of meeting George Throop of through Couchsurfing is a social networking site that helps travelers find community and hosts. Like most of the people that attended SAC12, George cares about connecting to his community and making healthy life choices. Unlike anyone at SAC12 or indeed anyone in the world, George has spent the past few years walking the long way from Washington State to Washington, DC.

George’s mother died of cancer when she was 33. Over the years leading up to his own 33rd birthday in 2009, he decided he needed to do something special to honor her memory. And now, three years later, he’s walked from Washington State to Greenville, SC and is now creeping his way up through the Carolinas. He and I shared some meals and beers together and his story is quite amazing. I can encourage anyone that attended SAC to invite him over if he’s traveling through your area. He’s spoken with children at schools about healthy habits and I bet he’d love to check out some of the work CFSA members are doing in community gardens around the Carolinas.

Check out his website at and join him for a walk or invite him for a meal! You won’t be disappointed.

More updates about CFSA to follow!



Building a New World in the Shell of the Old at #PBOPepperFest

Had a great time at the Pittsboro Pepper Festival yesterday. The 2012 Pepper Festival is the 5th annual fundraiser run by the Abundance Foundation, a neat organization provides an organizational umbrella for community projects. (Check out their website: here.) The festival hosted good music, great food and some amazing people. My top food items were a super spicy Burmese lemongrass fish from the Non-profit education/refugee-run Traditions Community Farm (covered in the Indy: here) and a polenta/pepper crostini with basil-habanero chevre (I think from 6 Plates in Durham?).

One thing that really stood out about the event was the location: Briar Chapel. Briar Chapel was planned as a gigantic planned development between Chapel Hill, NC (home of the University of North Carolina) and Pittsboro, the center of a major upswing in local farm production. The development was apparently the center of some controversy before it was eventually approved. (I must mention that some locals like parts of the development, especially that the developers provided space for two schools and mountain bike trails.) The neighborhood was planned as three parts, but apparently only one has been mostly finished because of the effects of the housing crisis.

Yesterday during the festival, struck by my surroundings, I captured this photo:

Most people didn’t take much notice of the people hanging out on the stoop of an unoccupied house, but to me it symbolized a lot about what is happening in America right now. Two economic models are living side by side; one is anemic and aging, while the other is new and promising, but in need of care and nurturing. The old system has demonstrated it is vulnerable to price shocks and a declining middle class. This decline is the result of a big confusing mess that has been created by a “bipartisan consensus” that has written ever more complex policy that caters the needs of big business and top donors rather than average Americans and their small businesses.

During the recession, this new system has made surprising progress. In my last post, I talked about innovative new online communities that support hundreds of “lemonade stands on steroids.” Community garden and farm projects are also benefitting from this wave of innovation, with social media helping raise awareness about new projects and bringing in volunteers as well as Kickstarter donors.

While this wave of innovation is inspring, projects related to food have more difficulty than websites like AirBnB (an innovative peer-to-peer network of room rentals for people with a spare room). Over the past 50 years, many barriers have been put in place for food-related enterprise. For example, Here in Durham, it’s technically illegal to grow food on basically any residentially zoned property (a major reason I’m involved with the hugely important Durham Food Prosperity Council, coverage here). More onerous examples are documented in the film “Farmageddon,” in which federal agents seize multiple farmers’ food products and livestock.

Sometimes these barriers may frustrate us as much as the news of job losses and record earnings by key figures in the economic collapse, but we are confident in the future of this new world that has been born. With nurture and love for one another, this new economy will create more wealth for more people than was ever possible under the old system.

Collaborative Consumption and Trust

Just watched this neat video featuring Rachel Botsman discuss how the “new economy” will involve trusting people online:

In my view, local agriculture has so far been missing out on the potential of these new social technologies. Bringing back traditional covered markets for farmers’ has been a huge boon, but they take a lot of resources to get started and expand enough to house the revolution that I think we need for a new local food economy. That’s the biggest reason I’ve been working to bring the platform to Durham.

LocallyGrown has a lot in common with websites like, Kickstarter, Etsy and other websites that make it easy for people to start “lemonade stands on steroids.” Built around community and personal connection, these marketplaces build peer-to-peer networks between providers and consumers.

In my experience, Athens’ LocallyGrown market supported an even stronger community than these online marketplaces. This community is strengthened by weekly in-person gatherings for drop-off/pick-up. LocallyGrown gives members a few other things these other communities can’t: a chance to know your farmer and try your own hand at growing food (and a place to sell the extra if you grow too much!). In my experience, few things are more empowering.

So, what holds us back? All of these communities take a small leap of faith, especially when the community is first starting up or a new provider joins the community. The result is that people start to trust one another, often people they have never met.

With that in mind, please stay tuned to this space. I’m hoping I will be able to announce some exciting developments that I think will kickstart a new LocallyGrown marketplace here in Durham.

The trouble with tweets (and carbon models too!)

Saw an interesting tweet in #agchat on twitter:

The link in the tweet is to a neat paper in PNAS (Burney et al., 2010, PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.0914216107): “Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification.”

The thing about tweets is that you can only fit so much information in them. The tweet above highlights a point from the paper about how yield improvements may have prevented the conversion of native ecosystems to agricultural production. But, a yield-first approach is not always resilient and often has unintended consequences. To some extent, the authors recognize this fact:

careful and efficient management of nutrients and water by precision farming, incorporation of crop residues, and less intensive tillage are critical practices in pursuit of sustainable and increased agricultural output…

yield gains alone do not necessarily preclude expansion of cropland, suggesting that intensification must be coupled with conservation and development efforts

In the same way the above tweet leaves out information from the paper it links to, carbon models must also simplify the world. Here are important things that I think their model leaves out:

1) The authors “assume that after a conversion to agricultural land, soil organic carbon content remains the same” (emphasis mine). While it is true that most carbon is generally lost in the first 5-20 years, conventional tillage and related erosion processes continue to cause small losses of carbon (see Davidson & Ackerman, 1993).

2) Maximizing potential yield (which is incentivized by America’s crop insurance program) doesn’t necessarily increase average yield. This is especially true in the face of record setting droughts which have caused record crop losses in the Great Plains during the summers of 2011 and 2012. Because potential yield maximization often causes of soil organic matter loss and can negatively affect other ecosystem services, it can not only destabilize the resilience of the landscape, with the assistance of other factors (like erosion) it can lead to a totally degraded landscape.

3) The model assumes yield increases in the west prevented the conversion of new cropland in the developing world. However, into the 1980s (when we reached a plateau of food production per capita), yield increases went beyond global food production needs and instead of merely preventing agricultural expansion, depressed prices and put third world farmers out of business. Taking croplands out of production is well and good, but can leave behind a vulnerable economy. Also, without active restoration efforts, carbon stocks on these landscapes may be difficult to recover.

On current marketplaces it’s a lot harder to buy/sell/eat carbon than food. In addition (I’m making assumptions here, please comment if you disagree) smallholder producers are likely to have less of their food wasted because they are closer to their consumers. Far outside the scope of their is economic effect of more farms in more places compared to fewer highly productive farms concentrated in the developed world.

In summary, there is something to be said for the yield gains we’ve made in industrialized agriculture. It’s true that boosting soybean yields in the Great Plains can make it less attractive to convert Amazonian rainforests into soy production. There’s even more to be said for new moves toward precision farming and conservation tillage. However, when we summarize these benefits in a tweet it’s impossible to account for how complex these issues are. In the same way, it’s important to question the models and the assumptions they make, before you use them to build your world view.