Molly Rousey tends her produce garden near Wilmington, N.C. She farms to live off the land like her grandparents did in the 1900s.
Photos courtesy of Feast Down East unless otherw ise noted.
Farmland acreage in the U.S. has declined since towns and cities started to grow. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the number of farms in the U.S. peaked at 6.8 million in 1935, while the population rose to more than 127 million. As the population has grown even more, the number of farms has nose-dived, standing at about 2 million.
At the same time, the number of farmers has declined while the demand for agricultural products has risen, according to the EPA. In fact, the 1997 U.S. Census reported that 285 million people lived in the U.S., but of that number, less than 1 percent claimed farming as their occupation.
Activity at Feast Down East's processing and development center is brisk during the growing season.
Dr. Leslie Hossfeld, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, says that from 2002 to 2007, 54,886 acres of farmland were lost in North Carolina's 7th Congressional District.
And farmers are aging out: Hossfeld says the average age of North Carolina farmers is 58, just above the average age nationally of 55.3, according to a 2002 Census report by Rich Allen and Ginger Harris with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service. Hossfeld says African-American farmers especially have been marginalized.
With the steady decline of farms and farmers, a group in North Carolina decided to do something about it. In 2006, Feast Down East (www.feastdowneast.org) began the initiative to grow the next generation of farmers. "Feast Down East is dedicated to supporting limited-resource farmers in southeastern North Carolina," says Hossfeld, who is executive director of Feast Down East.
The USDA defines limited-resource farmers as "socially disadvantaged." Thus, the list of Feast Down East farmers is primarily female and/or African-American. Hossfeld says both groups have been left out of the "big agribusiness model." Her group is working toward establishing resourceful farmers and supporting low-income communities so they can "advance their own food security," she says. "Our mission is to join institutions, agencies, farmers, businesses and consumers together to support, coordinate, expand and sustain the production and consumption of local foods, particularly by and among limited-resource farmers."
The group also plans to create economically viable, regional food systems and public and private partnerships that benefit farmers, businesses, food services and consumers. As part of that support, Feast Down East provides technical assistance, marketing aggregation, a distribution program and new markets through institutions such as retail, local schools, colleges, universities and military bases.
"We help bring farmers to market," Hossfeld says.
Feast Down East operates in about 11 counties in southeastern North Carolina. The group partners with North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University and organizations to support new farmers. In addition, the group works closely with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and the Carolina Farm Stewardship program.
Besides helping African-Americans and women, Feast Down East works with new and beginning farmers who wish to participate in what Hossfeld calls the "local food movement."
The group provides new farmers with technical assistance, grants and training to participate in new markets. "North Carolina has a strong local food systems movement," Hossfeld states. "We are leading [southeastern North Carolina] in creating a fully integrated food system that supports local, small-scale, limited-resource farmers, institutions and consumers. We are also deeply concerned that the local food movement is becoming a movement that is only for the affluent."
Feast Down East has developed a Food Sovereignty Program that ensures residents can access healthy, affordable foods. "We link limited-resource consumers with limited-resource farmers," she says. "Win-win!"
Molly Rousey of Pender County, N.C., operates Copper-Guinea Farm and Kitchen (www.copperguineafarm.wordpress.com) and serves as director of Feast Down East's processing and distribution center, "helping small farmers like myself get their product to market through our online farmers' market and wholesale to chefs and institutions," she says.
Rousey farms because she fondly remembers her grandparents, who lived and worked on a dairy and flower farm. Her grandfather was a Dutch immigrant who came to the U.S. in the 1900s with his family, including seven brothers and a sister.
"After being misled into thinking the area was a lush tropical paradise with year-round growing, my family pushed through trial and tribulation to create a space for themselves and a dairy farm known as Cape Fear Dairy," Rousey says. "Together with the Dutch tradition of raising bulbs like tulips, daylilies, chrysanthemums and gladiolas, they were able to make a name for themselves, with each family member having a hand and task in making the business work and thrive."
Her grandparents' dairy went out of business during the Depression, but the flower operation supplied florists until the 1970s. She says the North Carolina landscape in the counties of Pender and New Hanover was full of colorful patchwork, all due to the hard work of her grandparents.
Rousey spent her childhood visiting her grandparents and seeing their way of life on the farm. She says at that time, her aunts, uncles and cousins lived beside one another and shared their harvests.
"My grandmother always had a sprawl of home-cooked vegetables from the garden, pot roast that had been stewing all day, and cake that she had baked just because she knew we were coming," Rousey says. "This lifestyle of living on the farm, together in the community, on and from the land, planted a seed in me that formed the way I thought and shaped the way I wanted to raise my family.
"I first began farming when I was able to get a piece of land I felt was big enough to call a farm and far away enough from town that I thought was in the country," she adds. In 2006, she moved her family to Atkinson, N.C., where they occupied 9.5 acres.
"As a mother, nutrition was of the utmost importance," she says, "and my feeling was that homegrown was the healthiest - right down to eating your own cow, your own pig, your eggs, your own vegetables, and so on. I was determined to do this."
Rousey began milling her own organic grain and making fresh bread. Along with chickens, they raised cows and pigs for the meat.
Her farm also included ample space to put in a garden. "I was new at this and had no idea what I was doing, other than the trial and error of the home gardening I had done along the way. I knew that if I was going to be working all this land, I needed to have some kind of return on the investment," Rousey explains.
She had heard of community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs in the area, but more so in other parts of North Carolina. Rousey thought she would try it, believing strongly in the viability of a CSA program. While she was optimistic, experts she spoke with advised her against the concept, since she didn't have any experience.
Feast Down East operates in about 11 counties in southeastern North Carolina. Through farm assistance, the group supports the efforts of limited-resource farmers in creating produce gardens.
Not one to back away from a challenge, Rousey called a childhood friend, Neal Taylor, a landscape designer and certified permaculturalist. Taylor helped her get things in motion. Together they designed a garden, but she realized the cost involved would prohibit her from farming the garden unless she sold the produce through a CSA. In 2009, they signed up 25 families for 12 weeks.
"We didn't do it alone," Rousey says. "We knew from the beginning we shouldn't go into it blind. We needed an 'insurance policy.'"
They asked their farmer friends if they would support her, in case she didn't have enough produce to fulfill the CSA orders. Her efforts paid off, and she managed to form a cooperative with the other farmers.
Photo by Gokhan Okur/sxc.hu.
Rousey planted 65 varieties of heirloom seeds in the spring of 2009, and most of the seeds grew. The produce that grew well included lettuce, potatoes, peas, onions, pole beans, peppers, radishes, chards, cantaloupes, melons, cherry tomatoes, cabbage and herbs. Along with these, the CSA offered a dozen eggs and a loaf of fresh-baked bread each week to its members. Fresh flowers, free-range chicken and sustainably grown produce from other farmers were also available.
Rousey continued the CSA for three years, and then she received a grant for $30,000 from Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). With the funds, she purchased additional commercial kitchen equipment, allowing her to increase production of goods made from freshly milled organic grain.
Feast Down East was an invaluable asset "in helping me get off the ground and connect me with like-minded people," Rousey says. "Making my face known and helping me find grant funding was critical in both validating my efforts and putting my name in the marketplace." She adds that Feast Down East understands farmers like her who believe in healthy land and growing sustenance as wealth. The group does all it can to bring farmers together so they can support each other in moving forward with their farming operations.
Tips to farm by
In her fourth year of production, Rousey limited her marketing to sales online, farmers' markets and wholesale groceries that specialized in local food.
"Being resourceful and creative is critical to being profitable in farming," Rousey says. "Using what you already have and reinventing ways to make things useful again saves money. Saving money is as good as making money, and when sales are down, start making money the other way.
"Not being afraid of hard work and being willing to shift with the tides of the seasons is also something you have to be willing to do if you weren't born that way," she adds. "Growing produce that is new and different will also gain response, particularly with chefs and retail."
Combining her garden pickings, bakery items and egg production has served her well. "My ability to value-add has made my product unique, with a focus on whole grain and nutrition: Popeye-Brownies (made with fresh-milled whole wheat flour, free-range eggs, organic spinach and cane sugar), honey whole wheat bread (made of fresh-milled organic wheat berries, honey, canola oil and sea salt), and honey Dijon and garlic balsamic vinaigrette."
With initiative and innovation, Rousey has joined the next generation of farmers, like many whom Feast Down East hopes will pursue their dream of farming in the coming years.
Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.