Foot Caught in the Foodshed Door

Tomorrow Tami and I drive to Carlisle PA. At night I am speaking at Matt Stieman’s Collegiate Biodiesel Conference. On Saturday I am speaking at a Local Food Conference. Here is what I am going to say:

I have a deep love for Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. Largely because it is about a traveling salesman, which, at the end of the day is what I am.

For those not familiar with that play, the poor fellow falls in love with a local girl and decides to stick around. He calls it “getting his foot caught in the door,” which is a term I often use when describing my wife, Tami.

But the idea of getting my foot caught in the door and sticking around also applies to my relationship to our local foodshed.

I am going to simply tell you this story in the hopes of illuminating something along the way.

I’m going to start with sweet potatoes. Doug Jones is a master agricultural genius that moved to an intentional community in our North Carolina county years ago and produced in a single season more sweet potatoes than anyone could eat.

I laughed. Nutcase. I had eaten sweet potatoes at Tami’s grandmother’s house. They were in a casserole topped with marshmallows and they were down right nasty. Of course no one would want to eat them.

Doug abandoned his work at the community and plugged into Central Carolina Community College and was instrumental in propagating a “land lab,” and the sustainable agriculture program, and a college based CSA.

At the time I didn’t know what local food was. Much less cared. I did value the program at the college. I could see how having a unique sustainable agriculture program was good for our economy and our community. I’m a business guy. I like to see people moving product, and I was pleased to see Doug moving students.

I was teaching a renewable energy class at the college, so I was allowed to participate in his CSA so I started picking up food in boxes. It was annoying. It often meant an extra trip to the college, and at the time I was running around on precious homemade fuel. But I wanted to support the venture.

I’m not sure my family ate most of the food out of most of those boxes. I think a high percentage went to compost. Because we didn’t really change our eating habits. We simply added a new box of weirdo food.

When Doug became restless at the community college we decided it might be a good idea for him to set up a commercial farming operation in the front lawn of our biodiesel coop. And he did that. He transformed a vacant lot into a fecund and remarkable growing operation.

That’s when I learned that the sweet potato should be a staple in the North Carolinian diet. That’s when I started cooking them six ways from Sunday and started using them as food. Tami and I have two pre-teen boys under foot, and I often turn the kitchen into ‘Estill Family Food Labs” where I do science experiments on actual human subjects.

Just as I was helping Doug launch his new sustainable farm, my wife Tami was launching Chatham Marketplace, which was a startup Coop grocery store. She banded together with the other founders, made phone calls through the dinner hour, and they raised a million bucks and opened a grocery store in an abandoned mill on the edge of town.

I had a front row seat. I guaranteed the rent. I watched Tami table, and call, and cajole, and suffer, and survive, and celebrate the creation of a brand new outlet for food.

That was about the time when Plenty came out. That’s the book written by a couple from British Columbia who introduced “the Hundred Mile Diet.”

I was intrigued. I was hungry. It registered with me that if I were to eat on a hundred mile diet it would line the pockets of folks like Doug, and Chatham Marketplace, and if that if both of them could be prosperous by means of having enough eaters, I would also benefit.

Eating locally was in my self-interest.

I should say that I am a gardener. My yields are pathetic, my discipline is non-existent, and if I were tasked with the notion of growing enough food to feed my family I would last all of ten minutes.

I dabble with horticulture. I propagate some plant material, which I give away. I grow some ornamentals badly. And I play around with vegetable production. Let me say that I did not achieve my current girth and stature from food I grew myself.

I come from the Harvey Harmon school of agriculture. He is the brain behind Sustenance Farm who suggests that all of us “grow some of our own food.”

I do that. And my efforts inform me that I should worship the farmer or starve.

I am also getting acquainted with some of the basic economics of sustainable agriculture. It’s very simple. In order to make a living from the land all you need is “Soil, Water, Market.”

But as I go down that road I find it to be false. If you want to grow anything in Chatham County, North Carolina, you need to add “fence” to the list.

And that corollary begets others. It turns out that to properly run a viable sustainable farm in our parts you need soil, water, market, fence, equipment and cash. To that, we need to add “human habitation” since interns are a valuable part of the equation.
Our biodiesel project migrated from the back yard to a farm scale cooperative to an industrial plant, and I have moved with it at every stage.

In my life biodiesel is big. And local food is little. Lots of people want to talk to me about sustainable biodiesel. But it is also fair to say that I have a toe-or perhaps a foot in the door of our sustainable foodshed.

When we built our commercial biodiesel plant we had some empty buildings on hand, and we leased some space to Eastern Carolina Organics. They are a distributor. They have fourteen farmer members in their cooperative, which bring their wares into cold storage, which they then ship out on refrigerated trucks to fancy restaurants and high-end grocery stores in our region.

ECO is the darling of our foodshed, shipping over a million dollars worth of organic produce each year. It is hard to go to a local food conversation in our state without someone wishing for an ECO in his or her community.

ECO is like a roommate of ours. We share a kitchen and a loading dock and a driveway. When they get a load of fingerling potatoes they can’t sell because of visual imperfections, the freegans on our project live large.

I should say that at Piedmont Biofuels we have a bunch of dumpster diving, low on the totem pole, small footprint folks who are delighted to live off the largesse of the “machine.” While it is hard to think of ECO as part of the machine, it is easy to enjoy organically grown local strawberries that cannot be sold for one reason or another.

Let’s face it. Today there is a terrific amount of waste in the purveying of food. Consumers are fickle, chefs are hot tempered, and perishables have a tendency to perish, if not eaten first.

Food waste, by the way, is a hobby of mine, since that is what we tend to make biodiesel out of. When I started making biodiesel out of waste cooking oil to power my tractor people thought I was quirky. When biofuels became the answer to America’s fuel problem I became immensely sexy. And when biofuels were accused of driving up the price of food, I became evil incarnate.

One of my early answers to the “Food Versus Fuel” debate was that it had nothing to do with biofuels and everything to do with distribution. My line was this: “On one side of the fence is a dumpster full of food, and on the other side of the fence is a hungry family.”

And I was right about that.

It turns out that when it comes to fuel versus food that is merely problem number 36B. Because it is a complex web.

Piedmont Biofuels is best thought of as a “project.” We do have a bunch of eaters. Each Friday we seat dozens of people for lunch and if it is your week to cook you will take heat for using “far away ketchup” in one of the recipes.

It’s a hardcore bunch. I think there is a chance that we came for the fuel and stayed for the food. Much of what we eat is now grown across the street.

Which is not to say we don’t splurge from time to time. Matt Steiman has come through town on a number of occasions. I think he passes through Piedmont on reconnaissance missions. One night I was so delighted to have Matt and Frankie at my kitchen table that I deep-fried some Oreos in their honor. They weren’t actually Oreos. They were the Newman’s Own rip-offs and they were a far away luxury.

My advice is to go on the hundred-mile diet so that you can cheat.

And the point behind deep-frying an Oreo is that you can live a little. Sustainability doesn’t need to be grim. Plus we all need to eat as much fried food as possible.

When Doug Jones left the vacant lot in front of our biodiesel Coop the place filled up with weeds for a time.

But the Board of Directors rightfully decided to open the space back up as an “incubator” where potential new farmers could try their hand at the trade to see if it had appeal. Jason and Haruka moved in from Japan and brought the land back to life.

They loved the bed structure and the soil amendment and the irrigation and the greenhouse, and with help from all of us they added a fence to the equation.

Soil, water, market, fence, equipment, cash, and housing. That’s all it takes to make a go of it on a sustainable farm in North Carolina.

“Making a go of it” is important to us. At Piedmont Biofuels we tend to think in terms of “making a living for one.” Whether it is a hydroponics lettuce operation in the yard, or the vermiculture digestion project next door, we tend to focus on projects that generate enough income for someone to make a living.

We have accidentally created a project that is rich in food, and community, and sustainability. What we lack in thread count we make up in lunches together.
We have accidentally built a little eco-industrial park in which one activity feeds off another. Screech runs a hydroponic lettuce operation, and some of his wares come out of the greenhouse and get delivered to the wholesaler across the street. One of our guys makes tempeh from organic soybeans and a bunch of us depend on his deliveries.

One little chemical plant makes biodiesel to be used in cars. And another little chemical plant on the top floor of the mezzanine turns biodiesel into insect repellant. On the ground floor people work hard not to make emulsions. Two flights up they are making emulsions out of biodiesel.

In the language of economic development we are a “cluster” or related industries. The difference between our project and the theoretical projects that come from the academy is scale. Lots of our endeavors are targeted at making a living for one. Or part of one.

I think that is a really important thing to note.

Most of our people are striving for a smaller footprint life. Most of us are obsessed with ways of living lower on the totem pole of consumption. We are conservationists.

And despite this, there is an element of our lives that requires cash. It might be student loans or car payments or braces for the kids or mortgages to feed.

But the scale at which we tend to implement projects is targeted for at least a living for one.

The reason I say this is that I have seen other projects that skipped this point. You can dabble in solar, play with micro wind, grow a few beds of greens for the farmer’s market, have a little biodiesel operation, keep some chickens, and create the work for many and the living for none.

We have a vermiculture digester on project-and even it was designed and built to make an economic contribution to the farm. The idea was 1000 pounds of Chatham Marketplace food waste in each month, and 500 pounds of castings out.

That is, we didn’t go into vermiculture in a bucket. We went into it with sustenance in mind.

We have student groups and tours and a bunch of economic development folks come through our project. They want to have one in their town.

And one of the things I counsel is to do it with food. The last pair was from Greensboro, North Carolina, and my suggestion was that they launch the Greensboro Diet as a marketing campaign for growers and processors in the area.

I had a grand opening at our biodiesel plant. Chatham Marketplace catered it. Politicians came to speechify. Coop members converged on our facility. And industry types. We cut the ribbon. But you know what people are still talking about? The food.

Food is a unifier.

I am a friend with a local surveyor who favors and finances right winged candidates in our town and county election process. He writes out checks to the right. I write them out to the left. We used to constantly bump into one another at the General Store Café. In the early days I went there constantly so that it could “get off the ground,” and I believed he went there nightly because he doesn’t much care for cooking.

And I used to joke about how nice it was that we could both set aside our differences and agree on how great it was to have the General Store Café exist.

While food prices are not a “leading economic indicator,” food can easily lie at the heart of a relocalization effort. It’s tangible. Unlike biodiesel, we all use it. And growing it demands tangible things.

Like a fence. Or a tractor. People can wrap their heads around that.

And I think it is important to note that not everything we are working on is tangible, or in reach. Little things, mostly, like peak oil, or climate change.

It’s one thing to say I need a fence for this vacant lot so that I can grow some food. And quite another matter to say, we need to become “carbon neutral.”

When I suggest we move to a carbon free economy, I sometimes get the objection that we are made of carbon.

Good grief.

Let’s do some easy math. That’s actually the only kind of math I like since I am more of a poetry guy.

When we take a hard look at how we produce calories we quickly realize there are multiple systems at play. You can fetch hundreds of dollars per acre from highly mechanized, petroleum heavy grain production. Or you can fetch thousands of dollars per acre from intensively cultivated produce.

In North Carolina our family farms are stuck. They are too small to play in global commodity markets, and too large to convert to market gardens. For a while there we were growing golf course communities, which was great for our farmers because they could sell out to real estate developers.

I was recently in California, and had a chance to chat with Richard Heinberg-the genius behind the Post Carbon Institute, and the author of a bunch of books that should be required reading for everyone in America. He had two clarion calls. One is for fifty million new farmers. The other was to stop our vanishing farmland.

Wrong. He is right about the fifty million new farmers. But land has nothing to do with it. We can produce all the calories we need on vacant lots. We probably can’t eat meat-but that’s OK-meat is a rather inefficient use of energy anyway.

Heinberg correctly claims that our generation is charged with a moral imperative to change our land use to farming. At the heart of his argument is that guys like me are the ones who own the land. And it is too expensive for the passionate twenty something farmers who are emerging everywhere. His is a radical notion. What might we call it? “Land reform?”

We should tell the academy to stop fretting about vanishing farmland and start modeling what it would take to rip out pointless lawns and put them into food production.

Today we offer tax deductibility on home mortgages, because as a society we thought the most important thing we could do is get folks owning homes. That kinda worked. For awhile. Today our Byzantine tax code smiles on industrial agriculture. Perhaps it should be retooled to shine on sustainable growers.

We don’t need more space. We need more brains. We need more eaters. We need more passionate people who are wanting to conserve energy. We need to get it. Forget your budget. We know that depression 2.0 is upon us and we know you are worth less on paper than you were a year ago. Who cares? Sometimes it is in your self interest to spend more.

Your actual budget comes from the sun, and the question is are you living within it?

If you are not chasing down your energy footprint, and not growing some of your own food, and not limiting your diet to food that is produced within a hundred miles from your plate, you are not really in the game.

It’s not time for curiosity. It’s time for action.

Besides, I’m not sure the economy has hit bottom yet. We might still have some depression left to go.

What I tell my kids is that there is a depression on.

And we might as well eat well.

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One Response to Foot Caught in the Foodshed Door

  1. gerrick brenner says:

    Trying to reach Lyle Estill. Please call Gerrick Brenner from WTVD at 919-452-1824 regarding “Plenty,” the Pittsboro scrip/currency as described in USAToday. Thx.

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