Ellen Gray Gregory grew up in the small town of Lancaster, South Carolina, but spent much of her childhood in the Lowcountry and Western North Carolina. She attended Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas and graduated with a degree in Literary Studies. After graduating Ellen Gray applied to join the United States Peace Corps and was invited to serve as an English Teacher and Teacher Trainer in the Kingdom of Cambodia. While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer on a small Island in the Gulf of Thailand, Ellen Gray was disturbed by the ecological issues affecting this tiny island community, especially those pertaining to food and water security. Upon her return to the US, Ellen Gray felt compelled to pursue a career in conservation and environmental stewardship. Before accepting the position as Outreach and Education Associate with the Polk County Office of Agricultural Economic Development, Ellen Gray worked on trail maintenance projects on Mount Mitchell and spent several weeks working on a homestead in Vermont. She is looking forward to continuing to learn about sustainable food and local food systems in Polk County!
Public consciousness regarding the dangers of industrial scale factory farms is on the rise. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector, which is largely dominated by industrial scale farms, generates more greenhouse gas carbon emissions than all the world’s transport combined. These types of farms also utilize vast amounts of fossil fuels to produce livestock feed and fertilizer and are major sources of land and water degradation. Small scale producers, on the other hand, typically follow more sustainable practices with less fossil fuel consumption and chemical pesticide use through careful management of diversified ecological systems. It is clear that supporting small-scale farmers – the principal demographic in Polk County – goes hand in hand with promoting environmental conservation and responsible land stewardship.
Over the past quarter, I have had the opportunity to interview several of these small-scale area farmers as a part of a “Farmer Needs Survey” that we are conducting in Polk County. The purpose of the survey is for our office to identify areas in which farmers need assistance (like with labor, marketing, etc) and to evaluate ways in which we can help farmers improve their farm businesses. I have learned a lot about the struggles that small-scale farmers face and have gained interesting insights into the history of farming and the future of farming in Polk in conducting these interviews. When asked the question, “What advice do you have for a farmer who is just starting out?” the answer I have received is nearly always the same: “Pace yourself”; “Start small”; “You have to crawl before you can walk”; and, almost overwhelmingly, “It’s nearly impossible to get started nowadays”. I hope that the insights gained from veteran farmers through this survey will enable our office to better support the agricultural community and new/beginning Polk farmers so that they have best chance of succeeding despite the seemingly “impossible” odds.
Conducting the “Farmer Needs Survey” has been a incredibly rewarding and unique experience. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to sit down with local farmers and learn about their struggles and successes. In addition, the data gathered from these interviews has provided our office with tangible opportunities to strength our local agricultural economy and help secure a resilient local food system. From the feedback that we have received from these surveys, we will be establishing a Livestock Swap at the Columbus Farmers’ Market and we will be working to reinstate the local Cattleman’s Association. I’m looking forward to conducting more of these interviews over the coming months and seeing what other ideas emerge.
And one of the best ways that you, the consumer, can make a difference is by coming out to the Columbus Farmers’ Market, which returns this Saturday, April 8th! We will be hosting our first Livestock Swap and are excited to celebrate the start of the market season with you all. Come kick off the spring season with us and help support your local farmers!
Back in November, the Polk County AED team headed out to Durham for the annual Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) Sustainable Agriculture Conference, where farmers and advocates gather together to network and learn about new farming techniques. The weekend was packed full of panels and workshops that covered a dizzying array of farm-related issues, including soil health, livestock fencing techniques, community-scale food policy, new marketing opportunities, and everything in between.
The Friday before the conference featured a series of full-day workshops that allowed attendees to take a deep dive into a topic of interest. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop on mushroom cultivation hosted by Tradd Cotter, founder of Mushroom Mountain in upstate South Carolina and author of the popular mushroom growing guide book Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation. We covered the basic biology of fungi, the various methods of growing mushrooms, and a few of the exciting areas of new mushroom research, including medicine and mycoremediation (using fungi to break down and reduce contaminants in an area).
While there are far too many interesting mushroom tidbits to cover in a short blog post, here is just a sample of some of the possibilities for mushroom cultivation on your property:
- A mushroom patch in your garden or woods:
Check out this great video from Steve Gabriel of Cornell University Extension as he explains the basics of creating a simple, productive patch of Stropharia mushrooms in a bed of wood chips.
- Producing mushrooms on logs:
If you need or want to thin some of the hardwood trees on your property, you can use the logs to grow valuable and delicious mushrooms! Alabama Extension has produced an informative primer on how the process works.
- Growing mushrooms indoors in bags or buckets:
You can start off small with a simple pre-made kit from a company like Mushroom Mountain to provide you with some tasty mushrooms for dinner. Once you get the hang of what it takes to keep one bag going strong, you can scale up to create your own enterprise.
Beyond being culinary delicacies and potentially lucrative agricultural enterprises, fungi also play a critical and largely unseen role in maintaining our natural habitat. This fascinating podcast from Radiolab investigates the hidden world of mushrooms in the forest and the way they connect trees to each other.
I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to learn about the wide world of mushroom cultivation at the CFSA conference. While I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface, I’m excited to try growing my own mushrooms, to hunt for them in the woods and fields around the county, and to uncover more of the secrets of these weird, wonderful fruits.
Between starting the AmeriCorps gig, learning the ropes of Agricultural Economic Development in Polk County, and exploring the diverse communities and landscapes of WNC, the past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind. An exciting whirlwind! Which has included a valuable professional development experience that I’d like to share now that things have quieted down a bit.
From November 4th to November 6th, 2016, the Polk County Farms team got to attend the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham, NC. As someone with a beginner level of agricultural and horticultural experience, I was excited by the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and to learn best practices from food and farming pioneers.
My CFSA conference experience began on Friday with a half-day pre-conference Intensive on fermentation from the team at Two Chicks Farm. Aside from viewing a SCOBY (short for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) one time and being mildly grossed out by the sight of it, I knew little about fermenting prior to attending this workshop. As you may know, fermentation is a metabolic process that converts sugar into acids, gases, or alcohol. Many of us consume fermented products everyday: sourdough bread, cheese, pickles, and, of course, beer. The presenters did an excellent job of sharing the cultural significance of fermentation and the science behind the process; they explained that the SCOBY that I was once freaked out by is, in fact, beneficial for gut health and immune system development.
I also appreciated the fact that the presenters explained the history of Two Chicks Farm, from how they first got into fermentation to how they’ve grown their business over time. They provided valuable tips on how to start fermenting and shared helpful resources on the subject. After walking through some of the basic do’s and don’ts of fermentation, we pulled out our cutting boards and knives for the hands-on portion of the Intensive, in which myself and roughly 30 other attendees got to prepare classic sauerkraut, cortido, and dill kraut & pickles.
Two hours and a banquet hall floor full of cabbage remnants later, I walked out with jars of goodies to take home and ferment to my desired taste. It was awesome.
The “official” conference took place between Saturday and Sunday and consisted of 65 workshops on varying topics: beginner farmer, farm business, specialty crops, food systems, livestock, and more. My weekend looked like this:
Workshop A: I nerded out at a policy presentation from Organic Seed Alliance on the state of organic seed in the US. Bottom line – there is a major need for more skilled organic seed producers in order to keep pace with regional demands for organic crops.
Workshop B: Got schooled on innovative horticultural strategies from permaculture guru, Chuck Marsh. Living & woven fences = majorly cool.
Workshop C: Learned about NC State’s Fork2Farmer initiative, a video project that highlights farmer-chef relationships and trains farmers on agritourism and hospitality best practices.
Workshop D: Attended a thought-provoking presentation on food as an avenue for equality and social change from Garrett Broad of Fordham University. Here is an article written by Mr. Broad for any of my fellow ag-tivists who may be interested in learning about his food justice theories.
Workshop E: Sat in on a truly comprehensive presentation on the production, marketing, and sale of cut flowers from Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm. That lady knows her stuff.
My brain was overloaded with information, both practical and theoretical, by the time Sunday rolled around. Throughout the weekend I got to eat delicious local food and build my agricultural knowledge base. But the value of the CFSA conference extends beyond the educational workshops. The opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals who are working toward a common goal – to build sustainable food systems within their communities – is so important.
To borrow a phrase from Chuck Marsh, I left the conference feeling inspired to “cultivate abundance in a limited world… to consciously rely on living systems again”. I am looking forward to taking the knowledge that I gained at the CFSA conference and applying it to the remainder of my AmeriCorps term and to the upcoming growing season.
For me, food is one of the highlights of the holiday season.
Actually… let’s be serious. Eating is one of my most favorite activities, in general, at any time of year.
However, the act of gathering with family and friends and chowing down on some lovingly prepared holiday food is particularly special to me. And that’s what I appreciate so much about agriculture; the food that our farmers cultivate has an ability to bring people together. I’ve been lucky to get to experience this through the monthly Friends of Agriculture Breakfast that we manage here at the Office of Agricultural Economic Development.
The Friends of Agriculture Breakfast is held on the third Wednesday of each month from 7:00 am to 8:00 am at the 4-H Building in Columbus, NC. That requires a 6:00 am (or earlier) wake-up call for most folks who attend. I am consistently amazed by the number of people who come out each month to show their support for our agricultural community, despite the early nature of the event.
The staple Breakfast menu includes sausage, eggs, bacon, and grits, and we strive to feature food from local farms as best we can. We also make a point of preparing a “special item” dish each month, depending on what’s in season. This month, we baked up some apples from a local orchard and we also made pancakes with eggnog syrup. Yes, you read that correctly. Eggnog. Syrup. You can find the recipe here to try the sugary, buttery, eggnog-y deliciousness for yourself.
Whether it’s gingerbread cookies, holiday ham, eggnog, or whatever it may be – we hope that you all enjoy your holiday food traditions and the company you share it with. Happy holidays from the Polk County Ag Economic Development team!
This past Saturday, I took my nephew Samuel with me for a morning of agriculture related events. Our first stop was to a demonstration of a piece of equipment called a Commercial Brush Mulcher, which was recently added to the line of services offered by a local company. Before we were even out of the car, Samuel said, “That thing is cool!” Now, you have to understand that this statement is coming from an eight-year-old boy who has both of his wrists in casts. The question that is probably coming to your mind is, “How did he manage that?” And my response has been, “He’s an eight-year-old boy!” Enough said. Anything that has a destructive application has his attention, so this piece of equipment was right up his alley. Plus, if you grow up in Polk County and your family has access to heavy farm equipment, you get initiated at a young age….
The Commercial Brush Mulcher, attached to the front of a Skid Steer, clears overgrown pastures, trails, and along fence lines in short order. We watched it clear half an acre in less than 30 minutes. Trees up to eight-inches in diameter became an evenly distributed later of mulch on the ground in minutes. Yes, it was super cool! And a great service for our landowners who have acreage they want “reclaimed” and put to use.
Our next stop was to a local Farm and Landscape supplier in Mill Spring where a “Livestock Event” was taking place. On the way there, my nephew said, “I want to see pigs!” I said, “I’m sure we will see chickens and maybe some goats, but not sure about pigs.” Arriving at the location, I had to search for a spot to park so as not to block all of the in-and-out traffic and livestock trailers. A lineup of vehicles – cars, trucks, and trailers – were easily spotted with plenty of livestock available. Chickens and turkeys in cages beside vehicles were readily seen. Goats in the back of pickups, bleating for attention, could be seen and heard. As we started down the line, asking appropriate questions regarding breed, age, sex, and cost, I finally asked, “Any pigs??”
Three people simultaneously pointed down the line. The last four trucks and trailers had an assortment of swine – black, white, spotted, eight weeks to four months in age. One was being carried around by a cute little farm girl trying to find it a “good home”. The others – not in a cuddle phase, were also looking for short-term good homes… if you know what I mean. Samuel jumped up on a trailer hitch to get a good view of pigs in the back of a pickup. Thankfully, he did not fall in and break his nose. I would not have enjoyed explaining that one at the hospital. We left without any purchases as our farm is currently at management capacity. We did, however, enjoy coffee and doughnuts and conversation with neighbors.
As I was chatting with a local farmer, there was a commotion at the end of the livestock line where a very lively little hen had escaped her enclosure and was being chased down by six helpers. I could tell that she was of the game bird type which are very agile and good at avoiding predators. My first thought was, “She will be seen occasionally down Mill Spring for weeks to come.” But I watched as one farmer, cell phone to his ear deep in conversation, walked up to the circle of helpers, quickly scooped up the bird, and handed her back to the owner – never missing a breath in his phone conversation. My respect for farmers increased again. They do AMAZING things everyday with the attitude of it being a part of a normal day.
Thank you citizens of Polk County for making Agriculture a main attraction in our community.
– Dawn Jordan, Director, Polk County Office of Agricultural Economic Development
… this year’s AmeriCorps Service Members! Amy and Alex will be serving at the Polk County Office of Agricultural Economic Development for the next year and will work to preserve farmland, support beginning and experienced farmers, and strengthen ties between farmers and consumers in the county.
Amy DeCamp – Farm & Consumer Outreach Specialist
Amy grew up in a small beach town on Long Island, NY where she was taught to swim in the frigid waters of the Long Island Sound alongside prehistoric horseshoe crabs and gelatinous jellyfish. She was also lucky to have spent her childhood camping in the Catskill Mountains – floating down the Delaware River and singing songs while bald American eagles soared overhead. She developed a deep respect for the natural world at a young age as a result of these experiences. Amy went on to attend the University at Albany, State University of New York, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. From there, she spent several years working as an executive recruiter in New York. While recruiting provided Amy with valuable skills and experience, she ultimately realized that she wanted to transition her career to focus on environmental conservation and advocacy. Most recently, Amy has worked on small-scale organic farms throughout the South and in Western North Carolina to promote sustainable agricultural practices and to support local food systems. She is excited to be serving as Farm and Consumer Outreach Specialist this year!
Alex Kazer – Conservation Education & Outreach Coordinator
Alex hails from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating from the University of Georgia with degrees in International Affairs and Arabic, he spent two years researching and working on refugee issues in Jordan and another year teaching at the American University of Iraq –Sulaimani. Seeking a change of scenery, he left the Middle East to explore the hidden corners of Europe. During his wanderings, he discovered a passion for farming while working on a goat dairy in Sweden. Alex spent the next three years in Washington state learning to farm and gaining a deep appreciation for responsible land stewardship. He is excited to work with the farmers of Polk County to help preserve the agrarian traditions of the area and to bring more young farmers on to the land.
From: Charleston, SC
School: American University in Washington, DC. Major in International Studies with a focus in Global Environmental Politics
Favorite thing about agriculture: I love that you can recreate history through food, and how much food brings people together.
Favorite Vegetable: Beets
From: Highland, MD
School: Appalachian State University. Major in Sustainable Development with a focus in Agriculture
Favorite thing about agriculture: I love that food has the ability to build community, that there is always something new to learn in the realm of agriculture, and the feeling after working on the farm all day.
Favorite Vegetable: Okra
Hello Polk County! As you may know, the Polk County Office of Agricultural Economic Development has two AmeriCorps members every year who serve Polk County by providing educational and other resources to the area’s farmers and food enthusiasts. We are so excited to be serving in such a beautiful area, with great people. We started in the beginning of September and have been up to some exciting stuff. It was really great to work on the Friends of Agriculture Breakfast and we were excited to meet so many people in the community. We have also been working on the farmland preservation program, beekeeping, and demonstration garden initiatives. In the next year we hope to expand the office’s programs and serve Polk County by supporting a local, sustainable food system. Stop by the Mill Spring Agriculture Center anytime to say hello!