Aaron Newton is a food advocate born and raised in Concord, NC. He works as the Lomax Farm Manager for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, where he oversees new farmer training and coordinates other participants at the Elma C. Lomax Research and Education Farm. He also serves as an Ambassador for Steward, a business platform helping small-to-mid size sustainable farmers raise financing online through a crowdfunding.
Aaron is the coauthor of A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil from New Society Publishers 2009. He is a past member of the Board of Directors of the Cabarrus County Farm and Food Council and a past member of the Board of Directors of the Piedmont Farmers Market. He previously served as the Development Coordinator for the Cannon Memorial YMCA Share the Harvest Community Farm. Aaron earned a bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the College of Design at North Carolina State University. Aaron serves on the Executive Steering Committee for the Children WIN – Wellness Initiative Network for Atrium Health Care System Northeast. Aaron runs long distances, practices yoga and rides a bike.
|0:01:07||Blume Project of Harrisburg|
|0:01:33||Background information, his college education|
|0:01:58||Shift to agriculture, including overseeing Lomax Farms|
|0:02:27||2014, his part in the Carolina Far Steward Association|
|0:02:36||Leaving Lomax soon for new position at Steward, a fundraising platform|
|0:02:59||Explains what Steward is|
|0:03:43||education initiatives at Lomax, the research to be done with Steward|
|0:05:31||Charlotte area not ready for urban farming, his reflection on the village of Blume’s failure. Problem with zoning and mixed us|
|0:08:15||The demand from the real estate market|
|0:08:36||Further explaining why Charlotte is not ready yet|
|0:09:00||the expensive cost of farming in Charlotte, the need of acres to survive and high property values|
|0:10:22||advantages of the urban farms in Charlotte|
|0:11:25||Explanation of what he wanted from the Blume project|
|0:12:05||people moving to where the agriculture is|
|0:13:17||need new category of zoning to have mixed use|
|0:14:47||Detroit as example of urban farming and renewal|
|0:17:00||farm training at Lomax. Push for education of farming|
|0:18:06||Lack of understand of the general public about agriculture and healthy foods|
|0:18:53||6th grade program, bringing the local schools to see the farm|
|0:19:49||use of space as place to learn. Ben Street.|
|0:20:17||Health crisis among the young|
|0:21:11||seeing over 900 students a year|
|0:21:47||involving Davidson college for college-aged students, bring in high schools too|
|0:24:06||farming as a career|
|0:25:12||shifting away from family farms|
|0:25:43||systems of farming collaboration, farm infrastructure left behind for others|
|0:27:09||Farm as part of community, people cyclically replace|
|0:27:43||The loneliness of the job|
|0:28:09||Farming conditions do not appeal to the youth|
|0:28:49||family farms in decline, and will continue in that trend|
|0:38:14||lack of connection to farming, distracted by phone, car, social media|
|0:32:21||people running away from screens, looking for authentic experiences|
|0:33:05||people going to Lomax|
|0:33:29||gardening as a hobby has benefits too|
|0:34:10||people want authentic connection to the natural world|
|0:34:27||demographics of the people in the farm|
|0:35:24||Farming does not make a lot of money, need additional income|
|0:35:52||must be willing to work a lot for little, family must be supportive|
|0:36:23||some lose interest in farming and get out of it after a while|
|0:36:46||General population not helping farms by continuing to buy processed foods|
|0:37:48||many reasons for not supporting directly|
|0:38:04||value does not equal prince when it comes to food|
|0:38:31||cost of cheap food over time, diabetes, health concerns|
|0:39:06||true cost of processed foods stripped due to subsidizies|
|0:40:09||cost of eating poorly, true cost of it|
|0:40:44||people need more education and exposure on the foods they eat|
|0:41:14||freshness of foods in stores, bred for longevity|
|0:42:13||strawberries use to not always be in stores – seasonal|
|0:42:46||cultural shift away from knowing about seasonal foods, don’t know any better|
|0:44:10||reaching different age groups|
|0:44:29||The education of Lomax as part of state curriculum|
|0:46:33||Charlotte behind Asheville and the Triangle by means of agriculture support|
|0:47:01||Nowhere near rockbottom when it comes to obesity and land development, will get worse|
|0:47:41||not optimistic, some are trying to address it|
|0:48:25||climate change, volatile weather. Will be an issue|
|0:49:15||Future will depend on the tolerance of today’s youth and if they can influence change|
|0:49:50||explanation of Charlotte lagging behind|
|0:50:22||Charlotte has never been agriculture oriented|
|0:52:37||places like Asheville and the Triangle have more supporters of local agriculture|
|0:53:37||Supporters have been a fringe group in Charlotte, not as big|
|0:53:46||Hopes people can influence and change the future for the better|
>> Aaron: Okay.
>> Mick: Well I’m **** King with the UNCC Charlotte’s Queen City Garden Oral Histories of and I have Aaron Newton with me with Lomax Farms. And would you take a second to tell us something about yourself, how you got into this and maybe something about this organization?
>> Aaron: Sure. My name is Aaron Newton. I work for Carolina Farms Stewardship Association. We are a 40-year-old nonprofit organization based out of Pittsboro, North Carolina, that’s been doing food advocacy, food education and farm services work in the Carolinas, both North and South Carolina for 40 years. I am a native of Concord, got involved with the Elma C Lomax incubator farm in 2009 when it started up.
This is our tenth year anniversary. In 2014, the farm formerly run by county government and cooperative extension. In 2014 the farm was, operations of the farm were handed over to Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. So at the time I was working for the county and I sort of came with the farm and transferred employment to the nonprofit to help operate the farm.
My background is in landscape architecture, so I turned farm fields into subdivisions for about a decade, and then,
>> Aaron: Briefly attempted to try and design communities differently, to include agriculture, among other components, and,
>> Aaron: So this part of the world wasn’t ready for that yet, so I ended up shifting my attention entirely to agriculture.
Spent a couple of years growing vegetables commercially.
>> Aaron: Here, actually, and then transitioned into a position as the local food systems program coordinator for Carreras County, which included overseeing the operations here at Lomax Farm. And then as I mentioned, when operational management transferred to Caroline Farm Stewardship Association in 2014 I transferred as well.
And I’m actually in the process of phasing my self out, so my employment here will end in May.
>> Mick: Okay.
>> Aaron: And I will move on to other stuff.
>> Mick: Do you have an idea of what that would be?
>> Aaron: Yeah I plan to work and I have already started to work part-time for a company called Steward.
>> Mick: Okay.
>> Aaron: Which is a crowd funding platform for loaning money to farmers all across the world, that launched just a few weeks ago. And so I’ve been working a little for them since last June, and helping set up their platform which went live just a few weeks ago.
And we hope to loan $1 billion to farmers over the next ten years, and to create a network not only for connecting investors, large but also small and medium scale investors, with farmers who need access to capital. But also, there are a lot of other plans. First, the network’s develop for,
>> Aaron: How to better system, how to make more effective the farmers here in the US and abroad.
>> Mick: So more of the teaching element that I see that Lomax has been trying to do, some more education.
>> Aaron: Potentially, I’ll give you a couple of examples. When the business, when the corporation was created for Steward, the founder, Dan Miller also created a nonprofit foundation.
The Steward foundation is gonna focus initially on research, so farms within the Steward network can apply for a grant of up to $2500 to do on-farm research. And we’re not talking about academic research to be published and forgotten. We’re talking about applied research to be shared. So you have a great idea as a farmer but to actually get the numbers and get the data, there’s a cost, at least in time, which translates to money.
So being able to have that offset of cost to be able to put in the effort to record the yield, or the pest load, or the hours worked, or whatever it is, is important, so that is meaningful. So that’s an example of Steward thinking about how to use the network of farmers for a greater end.
But I think the targets’ gonna be established farmers and everyone can always learn more. But I think we’re not gonna focus on new and beginning farmers who need a good deal more education and resources. Maybe in the future, but that’s the work that I have been doing, and it’s very interesting work, and rewarding in some senses, but it also can be frustrating work.
And frankly I’d be happy to take a break, and spend a little bit more time working with more established farmers.
>> Mick: Earlier in your statement, you said that this part of the world’s not ready for, you mean intermingled urban and farming? Is that what you’re talking about earlier?
>> Aaron: Absolutely.
>> Mick: May I ask why you think that?
>> Aaron: Because I designed a project like that and it’s actually still up. It has a presence on YouTube. It was called the Village of Blume, B-L-U-M-E. And partners and I developed and designed this community for a parcel of land in Harrisburg, North Carolina, it’s between here and Charlotte.
And the city of Harrisburg didn’t know what to do with it because we said, what we’re gonna do ag and residential. We’re gonna have a school, we’re gonna mix uses even further and have a commercial retail component. We wanna do a complete street concept where you have trails and walk-ride component to the transportation.
Active solar, water capture, we’re gonna combine all these things, and their heads exploded. Single-use zoning didn’t allow for that to happen easily. So they were difficult to work with, and ultimately the project died. But also, frankly some of the neighbors just wanted this particular piece of property to just remain in pasture.
They just wanted to look at farmland, or they wanted what they thought would feel rural, which they thought would be one acre lots, which doesn’t feel rural. And so, ultimately what’s funny is the project was developed under the name Blume. But it’s just cookie cutter crab subdivision at one acre a lot.
And you could drive through there and,
>> Aaron: It’s just a future get up. But the interesting thing is for, that was probably at least 10 years ago. For the first five years I continued to get the occasional email or call from someone who had seen it or heard about it, and thought it might exist and wanted to buy it.
So I think there are some people, and we may be closer now, so there were some buyers who were interested in the concept. But if you to talk about that concept to someone in development, you get nothing. They’re not interested in trying to work outside the existing single-use zoning framework.
And frankly, you can put up,
>> Aaron: Some pretty crappy stuff. The demand is so high with people moving into the area that someone’s going to run it by us. So why go to the trouble to do anything special, has been the mentality that I’ve seen within the development community.
I am hoping to do something that does incorporate a lot more aspects of health and wellness, including food production, within community design. But I think if I do that, it’s unlikely it will be in the Charlotte area. Just cuz, again, I don’t think the development community is ready.
And I’m not sure that the general population is.
>> Mick: You’re kind of negative on the idea of maybe more urban farms growing up in Charlotte, then? Or do you mean the mixed-use as in, it’s really planned out to be that way?
>> Aaron: Yeah, so the general knock on urban farms is that the closer you get to population densities, the more expensive the real estate.
And you gotta pay for it somehow. So paying for it with something like agriculture is difficult, where you need typically larger acreages to produce enough money to pay the property taxes. And that’s true in Charlotte as it is true anywhere else. Where you see urban agriculture work well is in areas where quite frankly, the property values have dropped.
Because something has happened to the urban environment to the extent that no one or much fewer people want to live there, like the demand has dropped off. Detroit is a great example. We walk around downtown Detroit and there’s land everywhere, because everyone’s moved out of the neighborhoods. Once those neighborhoods repopulate and the demand for those properties goes up, then it’s much more lucrative to put a house on it than to put a garden farm on it.
So the flip side of that is the closer you can, people eat food so the more people you have, the closer you are to those people. The higher your concentration, your population density, the more customers you have. So being closer to food, to the end user, the end consumer, the eater is best.
So yeah, and also, people fall in love with land, so like if you can get a couple of people falling in love with this farm for sure, people would fall in love with their urban farms. And more people are maybe in closer proximity to fall in love with the urban farms, so it’s certainly doable within the Charlotte region.
But I was speaking more about that mix of use. So can we take a 500-acre farm field and continue active agriculture within that community to serve that population? Then you can start to layer on other uses like education, farmer education, general ag education for the population which desperately needs that, research and experimentation.
All of those could happen on part of that 500-acre farm, even if you developed the residential and other components within that 500-acre parcel.
>> Mick: So you’re not talking about dividing up the 500 acre, you’re talking about having a 500-acre, have different implements within it, but also a community still around it that thrives of this 500 acre?
Or are you talking about mixing the 500 acre itself?
>> Aaron: I think you would mix uses within the 500 acre.
>> Mick: Okay. You’re always gonna have people coming in from outside-
>> Aaron: Right. And people from out going from within going out. But I think that the greatest advantage to a community like that would be to amenitize the farm and the agricultural activity, right?
So imagine a golf course community but with a farm instead of a golf course. Here’s Andres Dwayne and you’ve said golf. Agriculture is the new black. And where agriculture is the new golf is what he said. Which you know, what he meant was let’s you know people move to a golf course community so they can play golf.
People would move to an agriculturally focused community because they wanted a part of that lifestyle. Whether it was farm living or access to fresh foods or access to activities for their kids on the farm so to speak, yeah. So you’d be using it as a marketing tool as well as a functioning part of the community.
>> Mick: And that would take a different community, than a, I guess you mentioned earlier, the urban, where it’s more, look at downtown Charlotte. Or uptown Charlotte really, It’s mostly for banking and everything else. I guess I could see how it’d be hard to implement a farming community within those city bounds.
Why did Harrisburg fail? I know you said it was development and single use, but if it did become a mixed use, do you see it would ever taken up there? Or is it just too far removed from the ideals around here, too?
>> Aaron: They didn’t have, it was a square peg and all they had were round holes.
>> Mick: Okay.
>> Aaron: Single use zoning didn’t let us. If it’s agriculture, then it goes in the agricultural zoning area. If it’s residential, it goes within the residential zoning area.
>> Mick: You have to get the city basically to rezone that.
>> Aaron: But not only re zone it, but create an entirely new category of zoning.
That’s one thing-
>> Mick: Category for?
>> Aaron: There’s no category for what we’re gonna do. Ag and residential and commercial retail with school. There’s no, that doesn’t exist. You can get into mixed use zoning is what they call it, but at that time, especially there wasn’t a framework for it.
So anytime you propose something that’s completely as there be dragons on the map, it’s just like there’s nothing, we don’t know what that is, that was difficult. There wasn’t even that they were adversarial to it, not to the city itself. They just didn’t have a way to fit it with in the framework of their land use development plan.
What they did have was a residential component. So we could continue ag, they were fine with that. We’ll rezone it into residential, which is I guess ultimately what happened. But this is what residential looks like, a house on acre, a house on two acres, or multi-family, multiple units on a compartment condo or stuff.
We handle all of that, but if you wanna have this right next to a 50-acre farm field, right next to a shopping center, all within the same parcel [SOUND], that just exploded their heads.
>> Mick: So how did Detroit, because I know they’re revitalizing by making more urban gardens, maybe I think communal farms, and stuff like that.
Did they create a whole new zoning, or it’s just a personal property, garden-wise?
>> Aaron: I don’t know what the zoning, planning, and the zoning structure looks like for Detroit. I’ve been there and walked around downtown I spent a day and a half there just agritourising. But some of these are commercial production scale farms.
Either way, gardening is for yourself. Farming is for others. So these are definitely farms, even if they were smaller scale. My guess is that the city tried to promote agricultural use, came in and just said, you’re allowed commercial scale production now within this area in addition to residential.
So you can build a house here or you can take lot, instead of building a house, and farm there.
>> Mick: And this may touch upon what I read from the site, when you were talking about, do you think this was also from a push towards not only self-sustaining people in these areas that are growing food themselves?
But they’re also growing healthier foods, organic and they’re improving their well being.
>> Mick: I know you guys are trying to do that as well. Can you tell me a little bit more of what Lomax, and I guess the Stewart Association is doing around here with promoting wellness?
>> Aaron: I guess you’d have to be a little more specific.
>> Mick: Yeah, sorry about that. I’m talking about educational part of I guess, besides farming that I’ve seen your farming training, I saw that you guys were doing more about,
>> Mick: Five minutes here, about the well-being of healthier foods. Do you see an improvement on that, as well?
>> Aaron: Well, what I can say is that we’ve recently changed names even.
What we’ve seen is an add in the number of people who wanna train to grow commercially. But what we’ve seen simultaneously is more people are interested in general agricultural education. So what I mean by that is, and a lot of it’s around kids, okay, in 1950 about a third of the population of the United States grew up on a farm.
So one out of three of us just got this agricultural education, just by being born, right? And in our part of our country, that percentage would have even been higher.
>> Aaron: Fast forward for several decades now, that percentage have been less that 2% of the people grow all of the food that we eat in this country.
So what we’ve done is raised a generation of people, more than one, let’s say 30 years, the last 30 years or so, the vast majority of the people, almost all Americans, less than 2%, really do not have a good, hands-on understanding about agriculture. Not even like where does the egg come from sort of thing.
And so that’s a problem, that’s coupled with other problems, that’s coupled with other unfortunate circumstances to mean a less healthy United States of America. So there’s plenty of ways that you can address that issue. But one of them is to help people understand what food looks like, where it comes from, and who does the work.
And a lot of people are interested in that for themselves and their families, but especially for their kids and the general public. And so that’s what the education part is about. We’ll have almost 1,000 six.graders visit us this spring. This is the second year of our pilot program to eventually get every sixth grader in the county out at the farm.
And that’s a comprehensive program which would include, you know what? The elementary school level, it has a focus on gardens, and high school level has a focus on differentiating interests around food science, so the culinary arts or production or environmental stewardship. So there’s many of career tracks there.
But at the middle school level, it’s about a visit to the county fair with a focus on agriculture and then [INAUDIBLE] here. So that’s an example of that student outdoor immersive learning at Lomax. The acronym is SOIL.
>> Mick: Yeah, I did see that.
>> Aaron: So that’s happening more and more.
>> Mick: Okay.
>> Aaron: And then this is our fourth year as a USDA certified organic farm doing commercial vegetable production research. So that’s been an increased focus. So we still have folks who are using this space to get a farm business started. Ben Streep came in and left while you and I were talking.
A recent graduate of ours was still using the greenhouse and the cooler. So that’s still happening in the background, but meanwhile we were trying to meet a larger demand for people who wanna come and learn more about ag, adults but especially children. So doing more of that and then also doing the research.
But the kids stuff is focused a lot on wellness, we see more than a third of the kids in Cabarrus County graduate from high school at an overweight or obese status. So,
>> Aaron: Good luck in life.
>> Mick: [LAUGH]
>> Aaron: If you’re already knocking down the door of some sort of dietary disease at 18 years old, and that’s a third of our population.
So we’re not the sole answer to that issue, but it is one of many ways to try and help people at a younger age, young people to think about what they eat. And maybe they’re more likely to think about what they eat if they have come into contact with the systems that produce their food and the people who wanna do that work.
>> Mick: So what kind of demand do you get from schools? You said 1,000 six graders?
>> Aaron: So yeah, we’re working, last year we had about 550. The first year in our pilot program we added a middle school and increased that number to around 900. And then we have been contacted by other private schools in the area.
Province A school sent me an email yesterday trying to find time to bring their kids out at some point in the year. So yeah, so there are others. Meanwhile, this will be our second year hosting interns from Davidson College, so also trying to get involved,
>> Aaron: From that elementary, middle school age on up through college age.
This year for those 1,000 or so six graders who were coming through the farm we’ve actually enlisted the help of a local high school. So those kids are designing some of the activities that the sixth graders do while they’re here. So the idea is that then as the sixth graders age up into high school they’ll be the ones coming back to further program the activities for the next generation of sixth graders.
And so you stack that with the elementary school exposure to gardens and some of the other opportunities at the high school level to differentiate into food or environmentally related fields. And you start to reinforce this theme that human life on Earth is based on natural systems. Those natural systems provide the benefits to make our lives possible, including the food that we eat.
And that food takes stewardship of the land and those natural resources, and that’s the work that farmers do and that’s how they grow the food that we all eat.
>> Mick: So you’re helping to educate them on also farm living as well, besides healthy living. Would you try and recruit some of them later on, maybe after high school to have like an intern?
>> Aaron: I can’t even say that this is our new recruitment process, starting in sixth grade. The truth is, very few of them will go on to become farmers. And that’s okay, that’s fine. But I think the thing that we need more right now than more farmers is a better appreciation for real food and good food.
So that’s really what I see as the greatest benefit is if these students in the general population at large would come to.
>> Aaron: To put a higher,
>> Aaron: Emphasis on good food, real food, vegetables and quality protein.
>> Mick: Yeah.
>> Aaron: Yeah, that’s the ideal outcome. And then if a few of them decide that they wanna do that for themselves, that’s great.
I think it’s unlikely that the model, I think it’s unlikely Why would agriculture be any different than most professions? And by that, I mean people these days take on a career path, and they do that work for a while and then they shift and do something else. And I think that’s exactly what we’re gonna see in agriculture.
>> Mick: Cuz I believe someone that wrote on the website came from banking or something like that. Was that Street or was that someone else who came from Charlotte to, said something about he was sitting in front of his computer as a day job and then moved over to farming.
So you’ll see more of that later on maybe with-
>> Aaron: It sounds like Ben but it wasn’t banking, but it was a day job in front of a computer. Yes, so doing something else and then farming. My guess is that he will do farming for awhile and then he will go do something else.
For some reason people think, well, once you’re a farmer then you’re gonna die on a tractor at 90 years old. And your kids, who are also farmers, are gonna run out and jump on the tractor, and continue plowing that road, before they then go and bury your body and finish the fieldwork.
And then their kids, your grandkids, are also gonna farm that land, that is not gonna happen. I think, largely, those days are over. So what are the new systems that are gonna take the place of the sort of land ownership for generations kind of model. And that’s the work that I think will be interesting to follow for the next few decades, is what are the systems for farming in collaboration with each other?
What are the systems that allow people to farm, quote, unquote farm for a little while and then leave that work and go and do something different. We do not have to create a brand new farm with all the infrastructure every time someone wants to farm. And then ten years later when that person moves on, all that effort is wasted and lost.
And maybe they can sell that farm, but maybe not. Right, what would a system look like where you, Nathan, could say, I want to farm, receive that training, grow food for a living for five years. Then get an offer to go and follow a journalism career or become a musician, or whatever it is, and then step away from that.
>> Aaron: But in leaving, open up a place for someone else who is ready to step into agriculture, to take your place. To use the infrastructure that was left behind. All right, so I think that collaborative farming systems like this could work well in the future as ways for people to engage without the committment of doing it for the rest of their lives.
>> Mick: So the farms become the stewards of the land so to speak?
>> Aaron: Yes, yes, and what does that third party look like? So now we go back to our conversation about the community development. So, if you’ve designed a community with a farm as a part of that community and the community takes ownership of the farm, they can steward the land and the resources, the infrastructure.
The people do the physical work, that can change without this massive overhaul and legal, all that ****. We just, as someone leaves, this community that quote, unquote, owns the farm, can replace that person or those people with new people, that can do that work of farming. And then when those people, excuse me.
And when those people are done, they also can be replaced by other people who wanna do that work. And also it can be a lonely job to do that work by yourself, where land prices are low enough so you can afford. All right, so now you’re way outside of the urban area, much lower densities of population.
You’re working very often by yourself, or nearly by yourself, all day, day in and day out. Does that sound super appealing to young people? It does not. So what are systems where you can work in coordination, collaboration with others? In close proximity to others and then again when you’re ready to step away from that work, you can do it.
Go do something else.
>> Mick: So the idea of family farms, do you think is probably gonna be disappearing? Do you think only like, I don’t mean strong, but I mean, the very, like the Hall family or the Hodges family farms, I believe Hodges and Belmont? The Hall family just sold off 4 million, I think it was.
So do you think the idea of family farms that maybe have been passed down, they’re slowly gonna go away because the kids are just interested in something else?
>> Aaron: That’s already happened.
>> Mick: Yeah.
>> Aaron: Yeah, so put that one in the books. There will always be-
>> Mick: Family farms so to speak.
>> Aaron: Yeah, there will always be exceptions but that number has been declining for decades. And that trend is not gonna turn around. What I’m suggesting is the new farmers, the people who did not grow up on farms, who then want to get into farming are not gonna start legacies of generations to come on their farms, you know?
I think Joe Rolland’s a great example. So Joe trained here, went and farmed for almost ten years, now he’s leaving farming. His daughter’s not gonna farm the land that they farmed. His daughter is gonna be able to do something else. So, the Porters, a local family here with a more conventional farm and agritourism business, their kids are staying on the farm to do the wedding stuff and then also to run the calf cow operation and the other stuff that they do.
So the Porters are an exception. Will their grandkids stay here in farm? Maybe, and I think that we’ll always have a few of those. But I think we will continue to see the trend of family farms, the number of family farms decreasing. And I think the folks who are coming into farming from outside of farming background, are unlikely to stay on land that they purchase for multiple generations.
>> Mick: Do you think it’s a lack of maybe not heritage, but connection to old, familial careers? The younger generation is just like, well my grandfather was a farmer, I don’t wanna do it, I’ll just like to be somewhere else or just sell the land? Or do you think that people that are getting into farming have some sort of connection that, this is what people did back then, maybe you wanna try this out for a little while for a career?
Or what is drawing some of these people into try farming for ten years so to speak?
>> Aaron: Well, there’s few questions there. I think that there is a lack of connection for lots of reasons, the automobile, the television, the cell phone, social media. I mean, there’s a number of reasons why most of us are less connected to the real physical world than others in past generations.
I think we’ve commodified food, for sure. We’ve commodified just about everything else, too. So we’ve definitely created sort of a throw-away society, where people do not get attached to place or even to things. So that’s true. I think what’s drawing people to farming is a desire for, well, so very often there’s a health and wellness aspect.
Whether we’re talking about people who wanna eat differently, and who show up here, so to speak, who come to this movement. Because either they’re sick or someone close to them is sick. One of our growers here started a career in farming in his late thirties with multiple sclerosis.
Dylan’s a good example of someone who started because he saw the health benefits of eating this way and wanted to be a part of it.
>> Mick: All right.
>> Aaron: I think that,
>> Aaron: I think that people are running away from the screens. I mean, some people, they sense the artificialness of the connections over social media and the lack of authentic experience online.
And that consumer culture is overwhelming, the lack of connection with the natural world and natural systems. Just being **** bored and sitting in front of a computer, and feeling sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Yeah, those people show up here. What we’ve tried to do is help them understand that they can engage in food assistance work without becoming a commercial farmer, right?
Just cuz you’re running away from something doesn’t mean you’re running to farming. To try and help them understand that, for some people, yes, that’s the right thing to do. But hey, gardening has been and continues to be a worthwhile hype. It provides food for you and your family and you get outside and fresh air and some light and learn things, and get to observe the natural world.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, so promoting gardening, or just becoming an advocate, so beginning to change your eating habits and then therefore your shopping habits. And therefore the people that you’re coming in contact with, getting to know the folks who grow your food and then potentially becoming an advocate.
For places like these replaces or other people doing these kind of work. And so yeah, so I think that’s why the people are showing up here because they want an authentic connection to the natural world, natural system. They don’t wanna [INAUDIBLE] screen anymore. So we’re trying to help them navigate what might be the best next step for them.
>> Mick: And I know Dylan and Ben were somewhat younger. What kind of demographics are we talking about with the people that are coming in or so to speak.
>> Aaron: I mean Dylan’s in his mid 40s so he’s not younger. He came here in his late 30s, maybe might have even been 40.
Ben just turned 30 so Ben’s been around the farm in some form or fashion for a while so he was mid 20s. We had a fellow here a few years ago. His name was Cody Hamill. Cody Came here at 20, turned 22 his first year here at the farm.
So left UNCC to come and start a farming career. Farmed like gangbusters for two years,
>> Aaron: Then decided he needed to shift, which worked for the sheriff’s department. Yeah, I think that was mostly about,
>> Aaron: I don’t know what that was about. But I know that a lot of growers, this is not a business where you’re gonna make a lot of money.
75% of all farmers in the US have all-farm income, right? And this is including the great big farmers. The vast majority of farmers have either other work that they do or someone else in the household that is earning money. With that which they wouldn’t be able to continue to support their farming careers, which is unfortunate but that is the system as it exists.
So I think that’s a big deal. It’s like, are you willing to work really hard to net $25 to $30 thousand a year? And if you are, is your wife willing to let you? Are you willing to spend that amount of time, engaged in work as opposed to engaged with your kids, or engaged in some other activity that that you enjoy?
And a lot of people are for a little while and then,
>> Aaron: Aren’t.
>> Aaron: So I don’t and I don’t fault them for that but yeah, I think that,
>> Aaron: It is difficult work to continue to do for relatively small amount of money. And the general public hasn’t helped in that they continue to eat pretty poorly.
And eat a lot of processed food crap, which is mostly commodity and it’s mostly corn and soy, processed and either cheap meat or cheese puffs. So as long as we’re all drinking coke, eating chicken mcnuggets from McDonald’s, eating cheese puffs, then how much support can we actually get for a local vegetable and protein growers?
And that’s just kind of the way that we are. I don’t necessarily fault those people either but,
>> Aaron: They’re not creating a market for vegetable growers.
>> Mick: Is it because of the draw to I mean the processed foods definitely are cheaper? Do you think just the pennies that some of these people are just counting to make sure that they have enough food for the week?
Or do you think there’s not a draw for let’s go to the farmer’s market on the crack of dawn on a Saturday to do their grocery shopping?
>> Aaron: Like anything else, it’s unlikely there’s a single reason.
>> Mick: Sure.
>> Aaron: Some of the reasons include,
>> Aaron: Well, [LAUGH] one of them is a misunderstanding of the difference.
Value and price are not the same and people confuse them. They think they’re getting good value from something because it is cheap. In food, it’s very often if it is cheap, it is not good for you. So let me put it this way. If you had to pay for a part of your future, diabetes control or diabetes medication every time you drink a Coca-Cola would be more expensive.
Right, the average person with diabetes, that costs $14,000 a year. So when you were developing diabetes, which is directly related to your sugar intake, if you had to pay that cost every time you bought something that was high sugar then you probably wouldn’t buy it,. If that’s your focus is on cost, but we don’t.
We strip out a lot of the true cost that would be better described as value from food. We do that by subsidizing the production of corn and soy and wheat and rice. But the vast majority of the agricultural portion of The Farm Bill goes to support corn, soy, rice, and wheat production.
So we make that production those of that really cheap. Then you have cheap feedstock for processed food. We have, and then there’s health care. Right, so there’s a reason why the cost of food is a percentage of income or a percentage of our monthly budgets has gone down from roughly 30 some odd percent in the first part of last century to less than 10% now.
And then health care has roughly mirrored that change. Where we used to spend less than 10% it’s gone up to around a third or, I don’t know the numbers these days but, yeah. So,
>> Aaron: The externalities, so the cost of eating poorly in terms of our health, the natural systems, the cost that we are conveying to future generations, none of these are being paid up front at the cash register.
We’re hiding the true cost of food, so food seems cheaper. But yeah, there’s some people who just look at the bottom line.
>> Mick: So it’s more education.
>> Aaron: It’s more education, and it’s exposure. People talk about, I have a 13 and 11 year old daughter, they love vegetables, some more than others.
But they both eat beets, and now I’ll talk about that with people, and they’re like, my kids would never eat beets. And the main reason that I can figure out from most of those conversations is, that kids have never had beets that didn’t taste like crap. If you eat canned beets, yeah, canned beets taste like ****.
You’re not gonna wanna keep eating, yeah, I don’t wanna eat canned beets. But if we go and if I pick you beets from here, that I pull them from the ground and you take them home and cook them, they’re gonna taste better. So not only is it about freshness, but it’s also about the particular beets that we’re growing.
Are we growing them to be able to last a long time and be shipped for a great distance, or are we growing them because they taste better, right? So we’ve bred for disease resistance, and we’ve bred for transportability, and for shelf life. That’s why tomatoes taste like crap, or at least the ones you’ll get in the grocery store.
Cuz they’re picked green in Florida and shipped to North Carolina. And they’re bred so that they can survive that. So yeah, so I think that’s it. I think that’s another reason is just taste and quality, which is part of education.
>> Aaron: And also, I think anything that happens for even a reasonable amount of time gets incorporated into our culture.
I am 44, I’m just old enough to remember when strawberries weren’t in the grocery store all year round, okay? Strawberries, when they came in, and you had them for, I don’t know, four to six weeks, maybe longer. And then they kind of went away, and you’d had enough by then that you’re like, I got my strawberries in, and I’m good.
And then you don’t really think about strawberries again until the next year. And food was seasonal, and that has changed, but if you talked about that with someone who is even 25 or 30 years old now, that doesn’t translate. So it didn’t take that long for that cultural shift, and there are others.
So if you grew up eating a certain way, that is now your normal. And if that does not include fresh fruits and vegetables, quality proteins, then you just don’t know any other. You don’t know what you don’t know.
>> Mick: Right.
>> Mick: So what you, I mean.
>> Mick: Are you guys teaching that here, with the kids, about eating healthier or experiencing the farm to see, this is what food actually looks like?
Would you advocate for saying that should be part of the state curriculum as well? So I don’t know about your generation, but mine had health and gym as three years of our, I think either high school or middle school. And I know they teach you basic food pyramid, but nothing about local or organically grown stuff as well.
And do you think you’d be a proponent of that as well, by putting it into state schools to teach them? Cuz obviously, that’s where most students are gonna be exposed to it.
>> Aaron: The system I described earlier would fit that.
>> Mick: Fit that.
>> Aaron: Yeah, so how do you approach different age groups?
How do you build a continuum of learning from elementary to later in life? But yeah, I think the,
>> Aaron: I think to make that work in today, you have to stack those functions. So in other words, it can’t be a standalone curriculum, it has to be embedded within the other stuff that they’re learning in school, which works perfectly.
If you wanna understand science, we’ll do it out here in the field. And you wanna understand physics, or fluid dynamics? We’ll do the liquid fertilizer injections through the drip system that we have out there. Look, I’m not just talking about chlorophyll and nutrient uptake. You want to do, man, you want to do the greenhouse and the controlled environments we use, let’s talk about air flow, let’s talk about tech.
It’s certainly math if we’re talking about production planning, it’s all about how many, how far, when, timing. And then translates into harvest, which translates into dollars, there’s a ton of math there. So math, science, and communication. If you can’t communicate well, you’re gonna have difficult time selling your product.
So the reading, writing, and arithmetic, you build that in so that you’re learning about good food while you’re learning about the other stuff. Then, yeah, I think that’s where people are successful,
>> Aaron: Quote unquote food in schools. I think they expect the schools to have some sort of other standalone.
Food systems curriculum is too much to ask.
>> Mick: Maybe, I don’t know. I won’t take up too much more of your time.
>> Mick: So in closing, what are your thoughts on the future of farming in the Charlotte Concord Piedmont area? And that’s a loaded question, but.
>> Aaron: Charlotte has remained, during the last decade, when I’ve been involved in this work, and having grown up here and lived here most of my life.
Charlotte remains a good decade behind actual the triangle area. I think a lot of that you mentioned earlier in the banking industry. A lot of has been focused on other industries including banking, instead of on a more traditional industry like agriculture, so I think that’s part of it.
For the future,
>> Aaron: I think we are nowhere near rock bottom. I think we’ll see the number of kids graduating from high school in that overweight to obese category increased, at least for the foreseeable future, the near future. I think in terms of land use, for the foreseeable future we are likely to see a continuation of the steady stream of moving here and eating up the farmland for residential and support industries.
>> Aaron: Yeah, so that part, I’m not very optimistic about. At a certain point, I think it’s entirely possible that the population will be unhealthy enough that, and you already see this in pockets. That certain people, especially influential people and influential groups are starting to take notice and say hey, we’re going in the wrong direction.
To the extent that those people and those groups can get traction And try and address the situation, I think that remains to be seen on what the time table would be around that, getting any significant traction.
>> Aaron: Climate change is the big question mark. Cuz if we continue to have the volatile weather that I’ve seen increase in just the ten years that I’ve been doing this work.
Wow, that’s gonna make things that much more difficult. It rained, we didn’t see three days without rain from September through about two weeks ago, which made things more difficult. But we could deal with the steady increase in moisture maybe, we would just change what we do or change what was possible.
But then this year, the result could be hotter and drier conditions and the next year wet again. So that volatility is a wildcard.
>> Aaron: So yes, I think it depends on the tolerance especially of younger people, when they decide that they want to try and fix their health.
To the extent to which they understand their reliance on natural systems that need protecting. I think that will be the biggest influencer on if and when we start to see a turn around in some of these indicators. So not super optimistic, but you never know.
>> Mick: One small follow up I just thought about, so you were mentioning that Charlotte’s behind Asheville.
Do you think it’s a change of identity that we used to have as a farming community all the way back towards 17, 1800s, Charlotte was just a farm town?
>> Mick: I don’t think we’ll ever get it back, do you?
>> Aaron: I don’t know if we ever had it.
I don’t know enough about the history going that far back but it seems to me when one of the two major thoroughfares through your downtown. When it’s trade and Tryon Street seems to me that maybe from the very beginning, you were trade and business-oriented, and not agricultural-oriented. And it’s not to say that there weren’t a lot of farms in the surrounding area, but I’m not sure we ever were focused on agriculture.
To your greater point, the surrounding area, I’ll just say the metro area. We’re 22 miles right now, northeast of downtown Charlotte. To the extent that we have an agricultural heritage as a region, I think that there are times in our history over the last 40 or 50 or 60 years.
And this is not unique to Charlotte where we’ve just focused on other stuff.
>> Aaron: Post World War II boom and suburbanization of the population. We moved away from agriculture and moved away from textiles.
>> Aaron: I don’t see us going back to that, I don’t even think of that is driving the difference.
I just see people in the Asheville area and in the triangle area, and not everybody, the triangle is big and there’s plenty of people who give a **** about good food. But to the extent that they have more focus on agriculture in those communities. It is this willingness of the people who are involved to make that a priority in their lives and for some that is growing.
For others, it is just eating and doing things differently. You’re supporting local farms, going to your farmer’s market on Saturday, or getting access to local food in the many other ways that are,
>> both: [CROSSTALK]
>> Mick: CSAs and stuff.
>> Aaron: You drive to Pittsboro, which is a small town in the triangle, and go to Chatham Marketplace and see the food that is available there.
And see the community of people who are engaged in making a point to spend more money on food, to support local agriculture. But then to sit and talk and engage with each other as mutual supporters of agriculture. Not even in support of the farmer who’s growing their food, but just support of each other.
>> Aaron: That sense of community around agriculture and food is what I see has developed there and I don’t even really know why. But it has developed to a greater extent in those communities and it hasn’t in Charlotte. I wish I could give you a good answer but I can’t as to why that hasn’t happened.
I’ve sat in a room multiple times with roughly the same 20 people and tried to figure out how to put together a food council, which we have now. Charlotte has one, and we have one here, and how to further the interests. And those people are doing good work but that is still very much a fringe component of our culture.
To a much greater extent here in Charlotte, than it is maybe in other areas. And I still do hope, even if I’m somewhat pessimistic, I still hold out hope that those people again will begin to build traction. Others, especially younger folks, will continue to buy in and support that kind of a revitalization of the food economy and in doing so, maybe we do catch up with.
Concord just passed Asheville as the 11th largest city in the state of North Carolina, so there’s that.
>> both: [LAUGH]
>> Mick: Great, thank you so much for taking your time and doing this. This was great.
>> Aaron: You’re welcome, I appreciate the opportunity.
>> Mick: That’s all for now.