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.
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!
So I have no excuse for the time it has taken to make my first blog post. It has been a busy few weeks but I am glad to be back on my week of eating 100%.
Saturday morning I was in Boone so in preparation for the Eat Local Challenge I went to the Watauga County Farmers’ Market. I have been before but everytime it seems to get better and better. We parked two parking lots away due to the volume of visitors and even had to do that stare down the other driver who is trying to steal your spot thing. It was tense. So we got a Fried Apple Pie from The Farmer’s Wife and a Fresh Lemonade (sorry kid, I forgot what your name was but I gave you $1 tip so I hope we’re cool) to calm down. And if you’re reading this guy in the parking lot, remember one thing…I won.
- Honey from Faith Mountain Farm
- Beets, purple green beans, Cherokee purple tomatoes, and beets from Against the Grain Farm (I went to there farm during the High County Farm Tour – it is an amazing place)
- Turkey Burger from I forgot.
- Summer Banana Apples (Particularly excited about these as I planted two of these this year from Century Farm Orchards and have no idea what they taste like – just went with the good sounding description.) Also from I forgot.
- Potatoes from Caroline at Octupus Garden (Hey Caroline!)
We also heard some great tunes from Redleg Husky. It’s nice having music to meander too. Like a farmers’ market soundtrack. The artists, Tim and Misa were very nice too.
If you find yourself in Watauga County and are preparing for a local food odyssey – then make your way over to Ashe County for the cheese. I bought a wheel of cheese from Ashe County Cheese. Won’t say much more than that but if I forget to mention it, just expect everyday I have a chunk.
We didn’t buy anything (sorry owners) but really enjoyed The Honey Hole. They had a wide range of bee keeping equipment, poultry supplies, and good food gift items. The best part was the outside entry and indoor display beehive right there in the store. For all you poultry fanciers, check out the leash option for walking your chicken down Main.
Lastly for West Jefferson, stopped at Boondocks Brewing for a few beers. Really enjoyed the IPA and grew extra hair on my chest from the Campfire Scottish Ale.
Dinner that night was good but it being the last night of not eating local it inherently was not very local. Though the Come Back Shack has local turkey and beef burgers, I opted instead for a veggie burger with fries.
Sunday brunch brought a great feast at Melanie’s Food Fantasy. They had beautiful pollinator gardens on their patio and outside the restaurant. I had a hard time deciding but ended up with local scrambled eggs, biscuit from Stick Boy Bread Co, covered in gravy, bacon, whole grain pancake, and apples. It was a feast and was great.
Sunday evening after getting home I went to the new mega Ingles in Mills River. So fancy that they lights in the freezer section only come on as you walk by…good job Ingles! They had a nice display of local produce as soon as you came in the door. I bought Annie’s Bread, smoked Sunburst Trout, and another tomato. Had a picnic of sorts at home with the Ashe County Cheese.
The picture at the top is from the Mt. Jefferson State Park.
My week of eating local has been going without too much issue. I usually eat from my garden or the farmers market because its cheaper than the grocery store, so it hasn’t been too much of a change. I am, however, missing pasta, bread, pizza, and my guilty pleasure, kettle chips.
Another issue is that local beer and wine tend to be a bit more pricy, but it is always nice when they are gifted, so I have been able to enjoy some wine from Russian Chapel Hill, as well as some beers from Bottle Tree Brewing out of Tryon, NC.
But back to the pasta issue…
For two weeks I have been wanting to make Gnocchi. A traditional Italian dumpling made from potatoes and flour, and usually served with a sauce. Finally I got motivated to venture out of my comfort zone, and make something that is actually pretty hard to get right. I baked potatoes from my garden, pureed them in the blender, added local flour just as the recipe said to….but….they just seemed weird. After boiling the dumplings I gave one a try.
Gross. Not pasta. Not edible. What now?
I had made a tomato sauce to go with the dumplings, but the failed dumplings and disappointment made the sauce equally as unappealing. So….it went in the fridge, to be dealt with at a later time. And you know what I did? I went and got a frozen pizza and gelato. Don’t judge me. I tried, I failed, I failed again. And I can tell you that a little junk food here and there is just what the soul needs.
I made up for it last night with a tasty dinner of sautéed squash, eggplant, and Italian sausage from Chinquapin Farms. And today for lunch I’ve packed some chicken from Mountain Valley Farms and the sad tomato sauce I made on my failed gnocchi night.
So….I have to say, some things just can’t be made, but I’ll keep on experimenting.
Until next time!
Friday: I knew it would be a busy and hot day. I had a small bowl of ‘Grate Nuts’ from Cool Mamas bakery with unprocessed milk. The ‘Grate Nuts’ are locally ground wheat to which are added a few things to make it a slightly sweet hearty cereal. when it comes to milk here are my thoughts. Milk has been a simple staple in the American diet for centuries. I switched to raw milk about 3 years ago thanks to an awesome local homesteading family getting started nearby. We had an arrangement for supply. I now cannot go back to regular processed milk. It is illegal in the state of NC to by or sell raw milk for human consumption. Raw milk can be sold ‘for pet consumption.’ South Carolina allows for the sale of raw milk products. I am not advocating one way or another, just stating facts. To further this- in our household we are completely divided- one half will NOT consume raw milk in any form, the other half will not consume processed. Many thanks to our dairy farmers who provide both, it is a labor of love no matter what.
Breakfast: Fruit and veggie smoothie- blueberries, peaches, homemade yogurt with a touch of honey.
Thursday supper- Long hot day but good. When it is so hot I don’t feel much like eating. I did pick up some corn at the Tryon Market so I quickly put it in the microwave in the husk. It peels off super easy after just 3-4 minutes in the microwave. S and P is all that was needed. An open face tomato sandwich on spelt toast was all I needed. Just a suggestion- Stop by the Tryon market from 4-6pm on Thursday afternoons. It is a low key market but lots of fun because you can really engage with the vendors. They show up every week not to make money, but to make friends and answer questions. They LOVE what they do on their individual farms and they want to share it with you. Worth your time.