As the busboy clears away the breakfast dishes at a local restaurant, Nikki Seibert calls up a photo on her smart phone and passes it across the table: two middle-aged men, apparently caught in the act of wrestling a goat.
"That's two local farmers, each with something like 30 years of experience, and one is showing the other how to trim a goat's hooves," says Seibert, agriculture coordinator for Lowcountry Local First, a nonprofit group that promotes a shop-local approach to economic health. She advances the frame to a close-up and talks about how the goat-farmer encouraged them to scrape deeper than she thought safe. Yet the goat emerged unscathed, and the Lowcountry's communal pool of goat-knowledge got a plus-one.
"That kind of sharing is valuable," Seibert, a City Paper contributor, says as she takes her phone back and explains the benefits of LLF's local farm-apprenticeship program. Now in its third year, the program combines classroom study with hands-on work with local farmers who act as mentors. It will graduate 29 full- and part-time apprentice-farmers in 2012.
Americans used to pass along this kind of information — as well as their farmland — to their children. But the 20th century broke that chain. Farm employment, the largest sector of our economy in 1900 at 40 percent of the population, dropped to below 3 percent of the workforce by 2000. Farm productivity quadrupled under the new industrial system, driving food prices to lows that family farmers struggled to match. But all this post-WWII progress came at a price. Obesity, diabetes, and cancer statistics rose. Questionable chemicals began showing up in alarming places. The number of American farms dropped from 7 million to 2 million. And those perfectly shaped red tomatoes? They taste like Styrofoam.
Not that there haven't been dissidents. Back-to-the-land movements sprouted in the 1930s and 1970s, and dissatisfaction with the factory-farm system reached mainstream status in the 2000s. But rising demand for local, fresh, and organic food faced several barriers, including a national shortage of farmers.
Given all that factory-farm consolidation, Seibert figures LLF's apprentice program has contributed to the local economy if only by expanding the pool of available sustainable-farming talent. But its more subtle benefits — from farmers swapping useful goat tricks to apprentices introducing their old-school mentors to the subtle marketing magic of Facebook — may prove more valuable.
Still, for all its early successes in teaching and matchmaking, the apprentice program has been merely a prologue to the next step. In the fall, LLF will up the ante on its commitment to sustainable agriculture with a planned 10-acre sustainable-farming incubator at Clemson University's Experimental Farm on Highway 17 South. Six selected start-ups will literally put-down roots at the location and — with the help of mentors and a farm manager — try to earn a living off a small patch of dirt.
Those who don't make it — and the odds say some won't — will join a long list of former farmers. But those who do will take their place in one of America's most interesting trends: a modern back-to-the-land movement, pushed by a young-farmer renaissance that's equal parts idealism and pragmatism, pulled by expanding demand for fresh, locally produced food.
There's nothing magical or new about the idea of an incubator farm. The program LLF chose as a model — the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vt. — has been helping to launch sustainable farm businesses since 1988. You get your hands on some arable land, provide some shared infrastructure and tools, find a manager and some mentors, and then try to get your new farmers through the season and into the black. The successful start-up farmers go find their own land, and you bring in the next round. Travis Marcotte, Intervale's executive director, says his staff works with dozens of groups looking to launch incubators each year.
"We let our local mentor farmers and applicants tell us the model," says Seibert, who toured Intervale and is busily working through the details for the fall launch — a task that includes filling the remaining slots. "We've given them this program and they've fleshed it out for this area, for this market."
There's more to it, of course. Working out agreements and contracts and leases and insurance is always fun. And without irrigation, roads, a tractor, and a packing shed, the start-up farmers would be starting nearly from scratch. LLF plans to reserve one acre as a community teaching plot, so there's some overhead in addition to the cost of hiring a manager (to keep cash flow in check, part of manager Jonathan Mohr's compensation package is his own plot at the incubator). And screening is important, too. The LLF staff is flexible on most stuff — including how farmers pay off their $2,000 plot fee — yet considers hands-on farming experience a non-negotiable.
But the most important factor might simply be the timing.
"It's something I've sort of been stewing on for almost five years now," says LLF Executive Director Jamee Haley. "How do we directly impact the loss of farmers? The apprentice program was a first step. After we'd put about 40 apprentices through the program, it made me realize that the time was right. We've got to give these people a chance to establish themselves and their market."
Here's why the incubator matters: Farmers who get their start through an incubator program are 40 percentage points more likely to succeed than those who don't. If this program matches the success of others, eight out of every 10 farmers who participate will make it in the local food business.
There's a bright line weaving through modern American history that begins with Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, passes through the first issues of The Mother Earth News and Rodale's Organic Gardening in the 1970s, then drops out of sight without quite going away, only to surge back with a web-tech pop in the 2000s, zapping rapidly through DIY, life-hacking, MAKE magazine, and a new bookshelf of farm philosophers. Eventually, that line reaches the towering form of Andrew Werth, who earnestly crushes your hand outside Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer on Vanderhorst Street.
A rootless kid from Wisconsin whose father hopped from one radio station to another, 26-year-old Werth wound up graduating from the College of Charleston in December 2008 with a degree in studio art and no particular place to go. "I laugh about it now, but when I was a kid, people used to ask me 'What are you going to do when you grow up?' and I'd say, 'I'm going to have a job where I'll have some kind of desk,'" he says, trying to explain his generation's disabused notion that professional, rewarding jobs were an American birthright. "We thought it was going to be easy-peezy."
Graduating into the worst economy in 80 years without a career path, Werth took notice when six of his friends found farm jobs. Fascinated by the values of sustainable agriculture but short on experience ("I didn't know what a broccoli plant looked like until I put a seed in the ground and grew one"), he applied for an apprenticeship through a national network and wound up on a farm near Seattle. The work was hard and the pay was awful, but the life appealed to him. After a stint running a community supported agriculture program, he returned to Charleston with a sense of purpose — but still no money.
His friend John Warren, 29, followed a different path to reach a similar crossroads. After five years of working in Brooklyn, he felt ready to get his hands dirty outside in the clean air. Warren worked a farm apprenticeship in Rhode Island before returning to Charleston, where Lowcountry Local First helped him find a job on a Johns Island farm.
Werth and Warren represent one face of the modern back-to-the-land movement: young, educated, idealistic, and skeptical. But there are other faces, Seibert says. Middle-aged professionals looking to downshift into more meaningful and rewarding lives. Retirees. Low-income workers, including farm hands. Even restaurateurs are taking up agriculture, raising everything from arugula to suckling pigs.
Warren and Werth's business partnership was the first selected for the incubator by LLF. Seibert agrees that the friends are part of a youth trend, but stresses that the incubator isn't focused solely on recent college graduates. They'd love to have rural applicants who grew up farming, she says. The difference is, Seibert has to recruit those applicants, while the type of applicants who identify personally with the young farmers from The Greenhorns — an independently produced and distributed 2009 documentary about America's back-to-the-land renaissance — tend to recruit themselves. The documentary and its various online trailers connect viewers to thegreenhorns.net, which declares its mission as recruiting, promoting, and supporting young farmers.
"It's a lifestyle that appeals to those college graduates," Seibert says. "They have an ideal of empowerment, social consciousness, environmentalism."
Werth fits the Greenhorns profile, and with little prompting he transforms into a talking bibliography of books, documentaries, and websites. He breaks into farm-geek territory, describing his preferred approaches to planting (French bio-intensive). He seems to appreciate how many complex cultural threads are converging in the new movement. He contends that crop-mobs — the modern practice of farmers using social media to invite friends to a day of intense labor in exchange for nothing more than music, food, and socializing — is simply a 21st-century version of the traditional barn-raising. Yet when the conversation drifts toward abstraction, he's quick to pull things back to practical ground.
But if Werth represents a generation in search of a reliable place in a shifting world, he also represents that generation's hard-earned economic practicality. He has no thoughts of quitting his full-time job at American Apparel on King Street once he starts farming the incubator plot and shrugs off the long hours. Few American farmers earn their living solely from farming, he says.
Growing good food is one thing, but a successful farmer has multiple jobs: research, accounting, payroll, marketing, sales. Post-war American farming simplified the system, with factory farmers growing one commodity crop and selling to the same middlemen, season after season. But new thinking about food is overturning that model, creating both new opportunities and new pressures for growers.
Here's how Charleston food writer Holly Herrick knew that things had changed: "Along East Bay, what most people think of as 'restaurant row,' a decade ago I used to see Sysco trucks parked outside, delivering food to these restaurants. Now I never see Sysco. I see local farmers' trucks."
Farming per se may or may not be trendy, but there's no doubt that farm-fresh, seasonal-menu, regional cuisine has become practically a requirement at fine dining restaurants across the country.
"It's gone beyond local," says Herrick, the author of four cookbooks and a restaurant critic who believes Charleston's culinary scene has become nationally relevant. "Local is pretty much the rule. Now it's about sustainability, organic, and things like heirloom varieties. All the best restaurants use local produce and fish. It's kind of like this rolling snowball and I don't think it will be stopping soon."
Herrick thinks Lowcountry farmers are capable of keeping up with expanding demand for these specialty crops, but Angel Postell of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival isn't so sure.
"The good news is that a lot of people are using local products," Postell says. "The bad news is there's not enough to go around." The shortage is more apparent with local seafood, she said, but it's a concern with produce as well.
The festival has become one of Charleston's signature events in just its seventh year, pumping $7 million into the local economy each March. Its fortunes — like those of the Lowcountry's tourism industry — rest on the shoulders of the city's restaurateurs. Good eats have always drawn visitors to Charleston, but surveys have ranked food and history as the area's top tourism assets since 2010. With three winners of the prestigious James Beard Award over the past four years, the city's chefs are on a roll.
Given its interest in protecting that asset, the festival's decision to raise money for LLF makes sense. Wine + Food chipped in $15,000 to build the incubator's packing shed, a key piece of infrastructure considering that without a certified packing facility, incubator farmers won't be able to sell to businesses that demand GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification, an audited standard that covers everything from stewardship to sanitation.
Demand for quality organic food isn't limited to restaurants, either. Charleston supports two organic groceries, and conventional supermarkets now make a point of putting "local" tags on produce. Outdoor farmers markets — an urban novelty 10 years ago — are now commonplace. Seibert's list of Lowcountry seasonal markets counts 14 of them.
Still, it's not as if American agribusiness has simply packed up its tent. Most of the calories most Americans consume still come from outside their local "foodshed" (a concept generally described as a four-hour drive), and even though people generally like the idea of healthy food and understand that local farms are better for the economy, industrially grown, processed, and packaged food retains its advantages — including cost.
Just don't try to slip that one past Tom McNamee, a San Francisco-based author whose 2007 book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, described one of the pioneers of America's food revolution.
"The price of their cheap food, of course, doesn't include the cost of cleaning their pig-sewage ponds, finding new antibiotics to replace the ones their chickens have made us resistant to, cleaning up our filthy streams and groundwater so we have somewhere to swim and clean water to drink, and paying for the world's most expensive healthcare system to treat the diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other illnesses that their processed foods are the direct and certain cause of," he said. "Those are the true costs of cheap supermarket food."
Besides, who says that good food has to be expensive? Andrew Werth cites a recent study that found consumers who buy their produce at local farmers markets pay less than shoppers who buy conventionally grown out-of-state produce at the supermarket. The times are changing.
"If we'd started this 10 years ago, all the incubator farmers would have been pioneers," Seibert says. "But people want local food now. The market's there."
That's the bet, anyway.
Lowcountry Local First's goal is to raise $30,000 this April to support its agricultural programs, including the incubator farm. To that end, they've kicked off Eat Local Month and are hosting a series of events designed to increase awareness and help fund initiatives.
According to Executive Director Jamee Haley, "Our sustainable agricultural initiative is designed to grow and support local food systems by connecting local farms, producers, and apprentices to the local restaurants, institutions, and people with a hunger for farm-fresh food and goods. Through a variety of education, outreach, and apprentice programs, we're working to get good people to good food and ensure that our agrarian culture continues to be an integral part of the Lowcountry economy and way of life."
First up is the Eat Local Challenge. LLF has a scorecard on their website, which will let you track your goals for the month, whether that's spending at least 10 percent of your budget on local food or joining a community supported agriculture program (or both). Haley sees the challenge as a way for people to literally invest in the local food system.
Another way to invest is by buying a ticket to Saturday's All-You-Should-Eat Breakfast at Butcher & Bee. They'll have farm fresh eggs, locally made sausage, produce from Thornhill Farm, and blueberries from Blue Pearl. Advance tickets are $15 for LLF members and $20 for nonmembers.
LLF has also persuaded area restaurants that support the local food industry to offer a "Local Plate Special" throughout the month. Participating restaurants include Poogan's Porch, EVO, the Grocery, the Glass Onion, Butcher & Bee, Slightly North of Broad, High Cotton, Old Village Post House, Verde, Iacofano's, Monza, and Swamp Fox.
For those interested in getting a look at where the local food industry puts the tractor to the dirt, the Farm Tours on Sat. April 14 will take you to Ambrose Farm, Charleston Tea Plantation, Irvin-House Vineyards, Joseph Fields Farm, Legare Farms, Rosebank, and Sea Island Savory Herbs. The tour is self-guided and will have guests checking in at the Piggly Wiggly on Maybank and Folly, the Rosebank Farms Stand on Johns Island out near Kiawah, or the Stono Market Café on Main Road. From there, you'll drive yourself to the participating farms, some of which will have local produce and food for sale along with entertainment and kids activities. Tickets are sold by the carload and cost $30 for LLF members and $35 for nonmembers.
It's the fifth year for LLF's Chef's Potluck event, which once again returns to Middleton Place. Local chefs team up with local food purveyors and make all-local-ingredient dishes for you to taste. They'll have local beer, Firefly cocktails, and music from the Garage Cuban Band. Restaurants include FIG, EVO, Slightly North of Broad, Fat Hen, Social, the Glass Onion, Husk, Two Boroughs Larder, Cru Café, The Grocery, and Poogan's Porch. Tickets are $65 for LLF members and $70 for nonmembers.
For more information on Eat Local Month and to buy tickets to any events or to register for the Eat Local Challenge, visit lowcountrylocalfirst.org/eatlocalmonth.