Sky-high property values pose the biggest challenge to bringing good food to the masses 

Law of the Land

For farmer Celeste Albers, not owning her own land has been an ongoing challenge

Jonathan Boncek

For farmer Celeste Albers, not owning her own land has been an ongoing challenge

This is Part II of Robert's series, "Can Good Food Scale?" Read part one, "The Premise" here.

"Everything hinges on land," Celeste Albers says. She should know. Albers is one of the pioneers of sustainable farming in the Lowcountry, and she has been an instrumental figure in bringing good, local food back to Charleston's restaurants and farmers markets.

Produce from small local farms like Albers' played a central role in elevating Charleston to the national culinary scene. R. W. Apple of The New York Times highlighted the "sweet simplicity" of Albers' cauliflowers and greens in his glowing 2006 article "A Southern Star Rises in the Lowcountry." These days, though, you won't find any vegetables from her Green Grocer farms on local menus.

"Now I'm selling a lot more just direct to consumer and not dealing with restaurants too much," Albers says. "The only thing I can sell to restaurants now is beef. We're doing raw milk and that's not legal [to sell to restaurants.]"

This shift in focus was due to several factors: changing buyer preferences, the unpredictability of seasonal produce, and uncertainty in the labor market. "For a long time just selling to the downtown restaurants was really great," Albers says. "As long as we had decent labor and everything worked well."

But due to suburban development, it became increasingly difficult to find affordable temporary labor to help in the fields. The Albers started getting out of vegetables and began focusing instead on eggs, which she had begun producing in 2000. Green Grocer also started raising beef and dairy cows.

"The thing about the egg business," Albers says, "Is that it didn't take as many people to run, and it's a fairly steady income."

Ultimately, for Albers, it hasn't been weather or labor or restaurant buyers that have posed the stiffest challenge. The biggest problem has been land.

According to a 2008 Clemson study, South Carolina has approximately 20 million acres of total land. Twenty-five percent of that area is considered farmland. But due to skyrocketing real estate prices, availability, and an expensive rental market, acquiring and actually growing crops on that farmland is growing increasingly difficult.

Albers got into farming because of her family's connection to land. Her father was raised in a Lowcountry farming family, but his career as an accountant for Dupont took him and his family far away to Delaware. After he retired, he returned to the Lowcountry. "He had managed to hold onto 15 acres of what was once a rather large landholding in Awendaw," Albers says.


In 1993, Albers and her daughter moved down from Delaware to join her father. They sold produce at the nascent Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square, which is where she met George Albers. The two married and began farming together.

"We had the first certified organic farm in the county," Albers says. "And the first CSA."

But, Albers says, not owning their own land has been an ongoing challenge. Around 1997, she and George lost the first piece they were farming on Johns Island when it was sold to developers. They moved to 35 acres on Wadmalaw Island, but the land's owners passed away, prompting their children to sell the property at a foreclosure auction, leaving the Albers without any acreage on which to raise their chickens.

The Albers have now gotten out of the egg business altogether, but they were able to move their cows to Rosebank Plantation, where they were already leasing another plot. "The Sinkler family owns Rosebank," Celeste Albers says, "and it's one of the biggest properties left in the area, and they like what we're doing. We're very fortunate."

The Three-Legged Stool

click to enlarge White Oak Pastures owner Will Harris sustainably farms 2,500 acres — and yet his scale is still minuscule - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • White Oak Pastures owner Will Harris sustainably farms 2,500 acres — and yet his scale is still minuscule

No one knows more about making sustainable farming scale than Will Harris, the owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga. Unlike many of the farmers involved in the good food movement today, Harris came to it not from the outside but the inside, which means he started with his own land.

"I operated for 20-plus years as an industrial cattleman," Harris says, "So I was part of that industrialized, commoditized, centralized system." The land he farms has been in his family since 1866. After World War II, Harris' father embraced the prevailing agricultural wisdom and focused on a single monoculture product: beef cattle. He enlisted all the tools of science to maximize efficiency — confined feeding with corn and soybeans, sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics, and chemical fertilizer and synthetic pesticides on the pastures.

After Harris inherited his father's farm, he continued the same practices for a while, but his margins were razor thin and he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the conditions of the animals he was sending to industrial feedlots. Finally, in the mid-1990s, Harris decided to take the farm back to the methods his great-grandfather had used more than a century before.

He took the cows off antibiotics, returned them to an all-grass diet, and stopped putting chemical fertilizers on the pastures. He brought back heritage breed pigs and chickens, and later sheep, goats, rabbits, ducks, and geese. Today, the livestock spend their entire lives roaming unconfined through the same pastures, following what Harris calls the Serengeti Grazing Model. First large ruminants then small ruminants then birds rotate through each pasture, the animals eating grasses and naturally fertilizing the soil as they go.

Over time Harris has built a highly sustainable, vertically integrated operation that includes a USDA-inspected beef abattoir and a poultry abattoir. It's the only farm in the country with both red and white meat-processing facilities onsite. It's also a zero-waste operation, with blood digested, bones ground to meal and used for fertilizer, and the hides tanned and sold. They raise 40 varieties of heirloom vegetables in organic gardens and even have an on-farm restaurant.

Today, Harris employs 120 people to work some 2,500 acres of land, and he sells his meat through big retailers like Publix and Whole Foods. He was named Georgia's Small Business Person of the Year by U.S. Small Business Administration in 2011 and the 2012 Distinguished Conservationist of the Year by the Georgia Conservancy — two awards that typically don't go together.

"The most difficult thing to overcome is keeping the three basic premises of the operation in balance," he says. "There's production — How much can you grow? How many cattle? How many chickens? There's processing — How many cattle can you slaughter per week? How many chickens can you dress? Then there's sales and marketing, moving it out to the consumer.

"That's the three-legged stool. The hardest part is keeping the three in balance," he adds. "As one thing changes, you have to do the others proportionally."

The challenge of processing is finding a local or regional slaughterhouse that will process non-commodity animals. Sales and marketing are thorny subjects that we'll leave to later installments. But, once a farmer manages to solve them, the real practical limit becomes the first leg of the stool: how much can he or she can grow? And the real barrier to growing more ultimately comes down to the availability of land.

Harris had a leg up on most sustainable farmers, since he inherited 1,000 acres from his father. Since then, he has bought 250 more acres and leased an additional 1,250. But even his ability to scale is starting to reach its limits.

"We raise everything we process here ourselves except cattle," Harris says. "We raised about 700 calves a year, but that's not enough." So he established a network of 15 other farmers to grow additional cattle for them, using his protocols and specifications, and he purchases, slaughters, and sells them under the White Oak Pastures brand.

"We would love to raise all of them ourselves," Harris says. "The only reason we don't is we don't have enough land."

There's plenty of arable land in south Georgia, he notes, but "it's under someone else's control. Some of it is in conventional farming, some of it is in hunting reserves ... or timber farming. When some becomes available we pick it up. We bought when we could buy. We leased when we could lease. I would love to have control of 10,000 acres and raise everything myself. The likelihood of that happening is not great."

Even though Harris is running one of the most successful sustainable agriculture operations in the country — a $25-million-a-year enterprise that's one of the largest employers in his area — his scale is still miniscule compared to the giant commodity agricultural corporations. "We slaughter 35 cattle per day," Harris says. "Versus 6,000 cattle per day for industrial plants. 1,000 chickens per day versus 500,000 per day for industrial."

Getting Started With Land

Back in March 2013, I visited the Dirt Works Incubator Farm out on Johns Island. Beneath a slate-gray sky, six aspiring farmers were tucking seedlings into long brown ridges of freshly turned dirt. They had been working the land for only a few months, and by summer, they hoped, the rows would brim with a colorful array of beets, carrots, kale, and radishes.

Dirt Works is run by the Charleston-based nonprofit Lowcountry Local First (LLF), and it hopes to solve some very real challenges in contemporary farming. The nation's farm population is aging — the average age of a South Carolina farmer is now around 60 years old — as more and more of the children of farmers are deciding not to pursue the family business.

At the same time, the recent resurgence of interest in local food and sustainable living has attracted a new generation of aspiring farmers, most of whom come from other walks of life. But the business is a tough one to break into. Establishing a brand and a market for their produce, buying or gaining access to equipment like tractors and packing sheds, even just getting advice from more experienced farmers — all are difficult for newcomers without family connections and resources to lean on. But perhaps the most difficult aspect of all is acquiring land.

Lowcountry Local First's Dirt Works Incubator Farm is in the process of moving its first apprentice farmer to his own seven-acre leased parcel of land - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE PHOTO
  • Jonathan Boncek file photo
  • Lowcountry Local First's Dirt Works Incubator Farm is in the process of moving its first apprentice farmer to his own seven-acre leased parcel of land

Lowcountry Local First has mapped out a three-stage program to help address these challenges. It begins with an apprenticeship program, where novices can work with experienced growers to learn the fundamentals of farm operations. The Dirt Works Incubator farm is stage two. During this phase, those who want to establish their own farms get started on a one- or two-acre parcel of land at Rosebank Farms, where they share a tractor, packing shed, and a walk-in cooler and also get to share ideas and inspiration with their fellow incubator participants. The ultimate goal is stage three, that within three years growers set up their own independent, sustainable farms. And that means helping them get land of their own by matching them with landowners willing to lease them a parcel.

Two years in, Jamee Haley, LLF's executive director, reports that things are looking pretty good. "It's going along really as we have planned," she says. "We are working with our first farmer to actually move them off of the property onto their own land that they are going to be leasing. They're going to be doing about seven acres, so that's great."

Admittedly, when it comes to farming, seven acres isn't a lot. It might be enough to support a boutique producer supplying fresh greens and roots vegetables to a handful of high-end downtown restaurants, but it's hard to see how it could be the foundation of a food supply for tens of thousands of people. We're either going to have to have an awful lot of these small-scale farmers, or they are going to have to dramatically increase their land holdings and production.

A New Approach to Land

If sustainable farmers and processors are going to be able to approach the scale of even a single industrial producer, it's going to take a new approach to acquiring land.

The ideal situation is to own the land you work, but that's almost impossible for a new farmer to do without taking on unsustainable debt. "Most of the farmers we work with aren't interested in doing more than 10 acres," says Haley. "But where most of these guys want to be is Johns Island and Wadmalaw, and that's expensive, so I think most of it is going to be land leasing."

Though Johns Island and Wadmalaw have traditionally been farming communities, things are different today. "Land values are way out of sight here," Celeste Albers says. "It's crazy. People want to live here, which is great. It gives you a great customer base, but it also drives up the cost of buying land. You can't buy any reasonable piece of land for less than $10,000 an acre, and you don't have a prayer of selling enough to cover that."

And that means if farmers want to work land close to Charleston they'll have to lease, which in turn subjects them to an increasingly challenging rental market. When she first got started, Albers recalls, "The standard was $35 an acre and a handshake. People are now asking $500 a month. There are no rules right now, there's no standard."

Even when farmers can find affordable leases, not owning their fields creates an array of problems. Non-farming landowners typically limit the type of agriculture that can be conducted on the land they lease out, preferring less intensive uses. Short-term leases — often year-to-year — are common, which creates so-called "tenure insecurity," the reluctance by tenant farmers to invest in infrastructure and the avoidance of crops that take multiple years to reach peak production.

To make their operations viable, many sustainable farmers are starting to move further out from the urban areas that are their best markets. Brandon Chonko of Grassroots Farms, a sustainable poultry producer, got his start raising chickens and quail in Monroe, Ga., which he describes as a "ruralish" area about 50 miles east of Atlanta. "I leased out this pasture from a woman down the road," he says "And then from her next door neighbor. It was farm country 20 years ago."

But the same pressures farmers are feeling on Wadmalaw and Johns Island pushed him to south Georgia. First, he rented 30 acres in Tattnall County, leaving behind a four-bedroom house to move into an old single-wide on the farm. "It was $600 a month [for the trailer]," he says. "And $800 a month for the land."

As his business grew, he, his wife, and his two young children were able to move into a rented house five miles away in Reidsville. Now he's made the step up to a land owner. "I actually just bought 30 acres in Camden County, a little bit closer to [Interstate] 95," he says. "I got a steal on it."

But, moving further out can be a Catch 22. The further farmers go from urban centers, the more difficult it becomes to market and distribute their products themselves. Finding a distributor to do it for them helps (as Chonko did when Atlanta's Inland Seafood agreed to carry his poultry), but it also distances them from customers who want to "know their farmer" and believe in locavore principles like buying food grown within a 100 mile radius of where they live.

Harris thinks such geographic rules have ultimately done a disservice to the cause of sustainable food. "Putting an arbitrary mileage on it is wrong," he says. "The premise behind [the local food movement] is to know something about your food, to know about the farmer. You can do that best when you buy locally, but when you start putting arbitrary miles on it, you lose a lot of traction ... and end up subsidizing operations that aren't as good."

After all, he points out, "Smithfield, Tyson, Perdue, and Cargill are all local to somebody somewhere."

Who Controls the Land?

The defenders of the current industrial agricultural system argue that sustainable agriculture is little more than a pleasant fantasy, and the availability of land is an important part of their case. Heirloom veggies and grass-fed beef are fine for elite shoppers at farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants, the argument goes, but there's simply not enough land to feed the planet without resorting to industrial, high-yield methods.

In the United States, we conceivably could bump into such a land limit if we were to scale things up to the point where a significant proportion of American food was being produced through lower-yielding sustainable practices. But we are a long way off from hitting that limit right now. Harris frequently addresses this point directly when discussing his sustainable approach versus the conventional tenets of commodity agriculture.

"I want to go ahead and concede up front to you," Harris says, "that if the first thing that we are going to run out of — the first limited resources — is land, then your system is better than my system. You can feed more people on an acre of land using antibiotics and GMOs ... You win. Your system is better than my system.

"But if petroleum is the limiting factor, I produce more food per gallon of petroleum than you do. I produce more food per gallon of water consumed than you do. If polluting the oceans is a limiting factor, then I win. If greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the limiting factor, then I win."

Right now, land is indeed a limiting factor, but it's not because we lack the raw acreage. A two-hour drive through any part of rural South Carolina or Georgia — mile after mile of farrow fields and pine timberlands — makes that clear. "We skipped a generation," says Haley. "That generation didn't want to [farm], so their family land was sold for development or it's just not in use at all."

Clay County, where Harris farms, is the fifth least populous county in Georgia, and it has no shortage of land. The issue, Harris says, is "who controls the land, who's handling the land."

This problem is by no means limited to the South. In states like New Jersey, wealthy individuals find farmland attractive for its so-called "estate value" — big homes with lots of adjoining land. Land prices are at an all-time high in rural farm states, too. The Iowa Land Value Survey, conducted by Iowa State University, shows the average price of an acre of farmland has more than doubled in the past decade, rising from $2,629 in 2004 to $7,943 today.

After the housing bubble burst, institutional investors, seeking a safer place for their money, started buying up farmland in the Midwest, effectively transforming farmland into a new "asset class" seen as a reliable hedge against inflation. These investors typically lease the land back to farmers or hire farmland management companies to work the land via contract. In 2012, Brian Briggeman, a Kansas State University economist, estimated that a quarter of all American farmland purchases were made by investors, not operators.

Where it Goes From Here

How the issue of land availability will play out in the future is unclear, but we are likely to see a fundamental shift in farmland ownership coming soon.

Today, more than 30 percent of American farmers are over 65 years old, and it's estimated that in the next decade more than half of the country's farmers will retire. As the children of farmers increasingly decide not to carry on in their parents' profession, what happens to their familys' farmland will likely determine the long-term prospects for sustainable agriculture.

When Celeste Albers looks back at how things have changed over the past two decades, she is bothered in particular by the huge gap that now separates small, sustainable farming and large-scale commodity agriculture. "You have a lot of really, really small farms, a lot of people working on two, four, or six acres that really are producing foods for the community. Then there's nobody in between. Where are the 20-acre farms, the 50-acre farms? There's none of them left.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to produce enough food to feed Charleston. Not just in restaurants but in kitchens," Albers says. "Where are the people feeding families and not just the boutique growers? It just goes straight to land, accessibility, and labor. That's our problem, and I don't know what the answer is to that."

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