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Chatham Farmers Seed Ground for Exit from the Agribusiness Swamp

by Lea Clayton

Chatham County, North Carolina hosts a burgeoning movement towards sustainable agriculture. This type of farming emphasizes environmental sensitivity, economic viability, and small farm size, as well as making a bid for social acceptability.

Chatham County paves the way for sustainable agriculture with innovative programs and resources that encourage these typically small farms at the local level. Small farms historically use less costly machinery and need less capital, so they provide an agricultural model for a future facing potentially diminished resources and increasing environmental responsibility. Sustainable agriculture provides an alternative to this county's predominant industrialized, energy-consumptive and heavily government-subsidized farming economy.

Sustainable farmers in Chatham County can call on a unique ally for assistance. Mark O'Farrell is perhaps the only sustainable agriculture extension agent in the state. He provides direct assistance to organic growers and tries to find alternative markets and production systems suitable to their needs. O'Farrell works with growers to help small farms form a niche in a market dominated by industrial agribusiness.

A new Farmers Market opened up in Pittsboro on April 3. O'Farrell helps creates farmers markets like this to help promote organic produce. "This area is one of the best markets for organic produce in the Southeast, he said. "Growers from other areas are amazed at the support there is here for organic and sustainable agriculture."

Chatham County's new Farm Stewardship Program also promotes small farms and sustainable agriculture. The program, offered at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, is a series of classes, ranging in subject from market gardening to running a successful small farm business, which are taught by local experts.

"The model of what we are doing can march across the state," said Reggie Smith, director of CCCC's continuing education program.

One student, Bill Butler is a retired civil engineer and the owner of the Oak View cattle farm in Silk Hope. He wants to diversify into organic produce to increase the profitability of his farm.

"I'm really intrigued by Shiitake mushrooms," he said.

Rachel Burton, a self-described do-it-yourself-er, said she enrolled in the classes because "the most direct action to save the planet is growing food and teaching others how to grow food. In this way we may be able to sustain life into the 21st century."

The classes, like other local sustainable agriculture initiatives, are the result of the collaboration of a dedicated group of individuals and organizations. The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Rural Advancement Foundation International and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy are local organizations that work toward agricultural reform on a national and international scale -- and all are head-quartered in Pittsboro.

The small farm is on its way back in Chathan County thanks to cooperation between growers and concerned citizens. These folks are on the cutting edge of agricultural reform through their promotion of sustainable agriculture on the community levle.

"What we're doing is not a new thing," said local organic and permaculture grower Harvey Harman, of Sustenance Farm in Bear Creek. "Folks have been building a strong farm community for 15 years now. We promote the economic viability of the small farm as well as preservation of rural farmland and community."

Harman continued, "The sum of what is happening is a part of envisioning and moving us towarda more reliable future. The great thing about Chatham County is a group of farmers sharing this vision and giving each other strength."

  Article written with editorial assistance from Monica Gfoeller. Lea Clayton works on Sustenance Farm.  

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