CHAPEL HILL - Monday’s 15th annual Orange County Agricultural Summit will highlight how the local-foods movement has changed farming here for the better.
“There’s a definite change and transition going on in Orange County,” said Michael Lanier, economic development agent at the N.C. Cooperative Extension. “The whole local-food movement has the ability to create more than just farms. Farmers use accountants, too.”
The event will be held at the Schley Grange Hall, at 3416 Schley Road in Hillsborough. Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs will deliver the welcome at 8:30 a.m. Topics will include historic farms in Orange County, an update on new agriculture legislation, and direct selling and wholesale marketing opportunities for livestock and poultry producers, among other topics.
Though today could be too late to register for the event’s catered lunch, the grange hall has space exceeding the usual 100 to 120 attendees, and there will be a proverbial seat at the table for anyone wishing to come Monday. The admission fee will be $10.
The local food movement has reversed a decades-long trend toward big agribusiness and national supply-chains that depend on long-haul trucking.
“Over the last 30 or 40 years, farms have been getting bigger and bigger,” Lanier said. Commodity farming on a small scale had not been economically feasible until recently.
“You hear a lot about local foods but it probably only accounts for one percent of all foods,” he said. “But it’s growing.”
Farmers markets, the organic movement, and farm-to-table restaurants that offer steady demand for Piedmont growers have contributed to a growth spurt among small farms.
New crops are sprouting up in Orange County – blueberries, blackberries and apples, as well as vegetables more obscure to the American palate: snake gourd, yardlong beans, Chinese okra, and bitter melon. Common to Eastern cooking from China and southern Asia, they are some of the vegetables the Indian restaurant Vimala’s Curryblossom Café obtains locally.
“You can go down to the farmers market in Carrboro and get a lot of vegetables that you couldn’t find grown here a few years ago,” said Rush Greenslade, chef Vimala Rajendran’s husband.
“More and more farmers are growing some of these eastern vegetables,” he said. “We have a kitchen garden ourselves, where we grow some of the weirder ones.”
Not every ingredient can be supplied locally, especially in winter. Vimala’s can change its menu based on what’s available, but some vegetables, like eggplant, must be supplied year-round. “Obviously we can’t get local rice, can’t get local turmeric,” Greenslade said.
Courtney Webster, a bartender at Linda’s Bar & Grill on East Franklin Street, said she recently expanded her home vegetable garden to begin providing vegetables to the kitchen there.
“I gave them an extra hundred square feet in my garden, specifically to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer,” she said.
Local farmers markets have proliferated, too.
Current data on North Carolina farms is being collected, but statistics from the latest USDA Agricultural Census in 2007 showed that the number of Orange County farms selling direct to consumers had risen to 78, from 25 farms a decade earlier. The value of direct-to-consumer product sales had risen from $28,000 in 1997 to $683,000 in 2007.
“The Durham [farmers] market’s not all that old and it’s doing quite well, and there’s a lot of other markets around,” Lanier said. “There’s a real strong connection between some of the high-end restaurants and some of the local farmers.”
The Breeze Farm, located about five miles north of Hillsborough, is an example of the burgeoning success of smaller, localized growers and suppliers. On a farmstead donated by the family of Col. William Breeze, local growers can rent plots and use shared equipment to start without heavy investment.
“We lease land in quarter plots, so they don’t have to sink money into expensive equipment,” Lanier said. “We know of 22 farms that have started from people who’ve come through our classes.”
During the slow winter months, the Orange County Center at 306 Revere Road in Hillsborough holds Wednesday night classes on topics like irrigation, equipment, insects, mulches, diseases, livestock and marketing.
There is also the Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center, a resource for distributors in Orange, Durham, Chatham and Alamance counties. Monday’s event will include a tour.
The consumer-driven local foods movement has created jobs and brought business to veterinarians, equipment suppliers, distribution companies, insurers and lawyers.
“It’s hard for us to see that big picture from here,” Vimala’s Greenslade said. “We’re just trying to serve the best food we can, and the best and most flavorful is what’s grown around here. It’s nice to hear the domino effect has been beneficial.”
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.