Organic farming is not for the faint of heart. Waking up before the sun rises, working arduous hours in the heat of the day, hand weeding the same row until your eyes go bleary and knowing that the day does not end when the clock strikes five takes grit. Organic farmers are highly attuned to the rhythms of the natural world and have formed a connection to the earth that so many of us crave in our fast-paced society. Gaia Herbs is grateful to call home an area where a flourishing organic farming culture has taken place: Western North Carolina. The support here is immeasurable, from agricultural business services to certified community kitchens for value-added business ventures.
Farmers and farmer advocates helped galvanize the organic growing movement in Western North Carolina, and in more recent years, the boom of farm-to-table restaurants in the region has further established this as a prominent area for the organic, sustainable movement. Here, even if you are not a farmer, it is easy to be entrenched in the organic farming lifestyle: living simply, enjoying nature, cooking fresh and seasonal produce, participating in seed and food swaps, learning how to preserve food and even eating at your favorite restaurants... the opportunities to interact with the farming community are endless.
The Lure of Western North Carolina
Gaia Herbs chose to move its farming operations and headquarters to WNC because 80% of crops that can grow in the U.S. can grow here. There's a clear ecological reason for the deep history of farming in this region, and that bounty has seeped into the culture, too. North Carolina has always been dominated by agriculture, but the rise of organic farming is relatively recent, in part due to a volunteer group of farmers and extension specialists who needed more regionally specific organic farming training opportunities. Thus, in 1993, the Organic Growers School was born. Since then, it has been an integral part of educating and training farmers in our region, establishing numerous educational programs for farming, homesteading, earth based living skills, and cultivating a life that is rooted in sustainability.
One of the OGS flagship programs is the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training. CRAFT is a farmer-led coalition for affordable, practical training. According to Cameron Farlow, the Farmer Programs Director at OGS, the goal is to have more farmers on the land using organic practices and a system that lets family farms flourish.
"As farmers thrive, they care for the land, strengthen their communities, generate income for themselves and others, and produce food for their region," Farlow says. "Our role is to facilitate the training, networks and mentoring systems throughout the start-up years and beyond."
Gaia Herbs and OGS are working together to educate farmers on the art and science of growing medicinal herbs in our mountains, reaping the benefit of farm income diversification and encouraging biodiversity.
"Growing and working with medicinal herbs has a long, rich history in Appalachian culture," Farlow said. "Farming in the mountains is characterized by diversity of terrain, crops, production methods, weather and personalities for that matter! In order for farmers to be successful and meet their income goals, it's important that they find farm enterprises or crops that not only suit their land, but their income and and quality of life goals. So, by including medicinal herbs in the toolbox of potential crops they can grow it can help them make better use of their land's assets, reduce risk with diversification and access new markets in the region."
Forging Strong Local Partnerships
Gaia and OGS acknowledge that in order for changes to be made, we can't operate in silos. The passion for organics at Gaia extends beyond the products we produce; we both envision a world where organic is the norm.
"Within the context of the local food movement we need allies against the industrialization paradigm we are in," says Farlow. "As we work to relocalize food production and access partnerships between businesses and nonprofits, partnerships are great morale builders, help keep money flowing within the community, help prove that companies really do care about outreach and support educating the community."
The CRAFT crew joined us on the Gaia Farm one rainy day in July. Our team taught the group about growing and preparing everything from Ashwagandha to Echinacea. (Read about all the herbs we visited.)
Supporting organic growers and the next generation is a priority at Gaia, especially when we see the average age of farmers across the nation is 58 and rising. Together we can support the future of organic farming by investing in education and training so that organic farmers can continue to cultivate a beautiful, healthier world for us to thrive in.
Here are a few of the many reasons why we will always support organic farming efforts.
They Start With the Soil
Talk to any organic farmer and you will learn just how essential soil health is. Studies confirm that soil containing a high diversity of bacteria, fungi and nematodes produces more nutrient-rich food by allowing a plant's roots to take up these beneficial substances and transfer them into the herb, fruit or vegetable that we will eventually consume. With the recent launch of the National Microbiome Initiative, the link between our soil health and our personal health will continue to grow stronger. Ecological farming methods - such as organic, biodynamic and permaculture based approaches - all share core practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, minimizing chemical use and limiting plowing all help to build and restore our soil's diversity.
They Preserve the Beauty That Nature Gifts to Us
America is home to some of the most productive farmland in the world, yet sadly, we lose over 40 acres of farm land every hour to commercial and residential development. Once that cement is put down, that farmland, and the generational knowledge of that land and farming techniques, is lost forever. Farmers are the most active participants in not only preserving but in regenerating the land that sustains us. With 37% of America's development having taken place in just the past 30 years, the need to give homage and to support those who are making our beautiful lands part of their economic welfare is greater than ever.
"For generations, children of farm families have been moving away and traditional methods of farm training and transfer have been lost," Farlow says. "Yet despite the many obstacles toward farming, thousands are pursuing careers in agriculture. We know that the training and support needs of new organic farmers include production training, whole-farm business planning, mentoring, and sustained support through the startup years. We are excited to be a part of helping rebuild a path towards organic agriculture in our region."
The benefits of biodiversity in our lives extend from the soil to our gut. Ecological biodiversity is encouraged by the nature of organic farming: the philosophies of regenerative agriculture systems - be it organic, permaculture or biodynamic - all share the basic tenet that biodiversity is essential for the Earth's future. In practice, this computes to organic farming producing an overall 12% increase in biodiversity: more plant and floral diversity, more earthworms, more beneficial insects and more butterflies and birds. With more of the latter, crops are pollinated to reproduce and give us more bounty. With more biodiversity of livings organisms in our soil, the better our overall ecosystems function; soil diversity drives essential functions important in plant production, such as nutrient cycling, as well as other amazing feats like soil carbon sequestration. That's right: We can combat global warming by growing more organic food and herbs.
Farmers markets are a place for communities to interact and neighborhood bonds to form. There, children learn where their food comes from and that they, too, could grow purple green beans, white carrots and striped tomatoes. It's where recipes and tips are shared with strangers who soon become friends. This sense of community is one of the healthiest things that neighborhoods can do. We are witnessing far too many food deserts in a country that is so land rich, and access to farmers markets are playing an active role in attempting to reverse that trend. Here, we can go to farmers markets year-round, and we are seeing more encouraging stories of how organic farming is transforming communities across the U.S. Ron Finley's TED talk on urban farmers using gardening to address community concerns such as poor health and gang violence beautifully illustrates the potential of organic farming for social change. And farmers helping farmers are leading that change.
"We are proud to be allies of our local farmers," says Farlow. "We are big believers in the idea that farmers learn best from other farmers. That idea guides all aspects of our work, and is especially evident in how CRAFT creates a support network for beginning and experienced farmers building community in the region. There are several farmers on the scene now that started out as apprentices on CRAFT farms years ago. Now they are CRAFT members, are training apprentices and teaching Farm Beginnings classes themselves right alongside their farm mentors. ... We love to be able to highlight the great work they are doing feeding the community and growing the next generation of organic farmers and farm advocates. It's been amazing to watch the community grow over the years and to be able to provide a space for that to happen."
You can you help support the organic food movement by shopping at your local farmer's market, attending conferences, participating in local movements, and continuing to share this knowledge with your friends and family.