Organic Gardening: Creating healthy soils, organic fertilizers, and pest management strategies

Photo by Lori L. Stalteri

Photo by Lori L. Stalteri

By Aimee Colf, Horticulture Agent, Anson Cooperative Extension

The definition of acceptable “organic” methods may vary greatly between gardeners because no standard definition exists for organic gardening at the homeowner level. Meanwhile, commercial growers must complete an organic certification process and adhere to National Organic Standards. These growers rely on the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) which determines products approved for use on certified organic operations. Compared to conventional gardening, organic options for insect pest, disease, and weed management are fewer in number.

Organic gardening involves practices aimed at building soil health and plant nutrition.

In this article we will address creating a healthy environment for soil microbes, types of organic fertilizers, and specifically, insect pest management.

Soil Microbes

Soil microbe abundance and microbial activity are, in general, proportional to the amount of organic matter in the top 12 inches of soil. Organic plant matter feeds bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, other soil microbes, and invertebrates, resulting in humus. These soil organisms convert fixed compounds into products and nutrients available for plant uptake.  This biological system creates a thriving soil community while creating good soil structure, promoting water infiltration, drainage, soil aeration, and vigorous root growth. Mucilage and gummy complex sugars, produced by soil microbes, help bind soil particles together into aggregates which build soil structure.


Research indicates that the ideal growing medium for plants is 35- 50% air space. There are many organic and inorganic materials and practices that can be used to increase pore space, or improve water holding capacity. Soils can be made looser and more friable by double digging, or creating raised beds. Double digging small gardens loosens two layers of soil, about 24 inches down, to make conditions more favorable for plant growth.

Consider incorporating 25-50% organic amendment per volume of native soil. Common organic amendments include the following composted materials: kitchen scraps, manure, sawdust, wood chips, yard waste, or vermicompost. To amend a soil to 50% organic material per volume, spread 2 inches of an organic amendment over the soil and work down 8 inches. Then, apply a second 2 inches of compost, and work that in. This is also a perfect time to incorporate lime or pre-plant fertilizers. These organic additions automatically build temporary raised beds. Shape rows with a bow rake to help shed excess precipitation. As materials break down and the soil begins to level out, add additional amendments to maintain the benefits.

Soil test results can provide baseline data on pH, nutrient needs, and percent humic matter. In mineral soils or soils that have poor tilth, the addition of organic matter will loosen soil, increase air space, and promote water infiltration. The addition of organic matter also improves soil buffering capacity, or the ability to withstand pH fluctuations. This explains why rich organic soils or clay soils require more lime in order to change the pH, compared to sandy soils.


Fertilizer recommendations are the other part of your soil test results, often recommending various amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to feed soil and plants. Since nutrient composition of animal manures and composts can vary widely, it is prudent to submit a waste sample through your local Extension office before use. Some common organic sources are listed below:

  • Nitrogen – cotton gin trash, fish powder, feather meal, fur, hair, hoof and horn meal, fish meal, dried blood meal, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, alfalfa meal
  • Phosphorus – bone meal, ash, cotton gin trash, colloidial phosphate, cotton seed meal, leaf mold, fish meal, poultry manure
  • Potassium – cotton gin trash, wood ash, plant/animal ash, langbeinite

The addition of organic material, fertility amendments, and green manures can lead to increased soil microbial activity and humic matter content compared to synthetic fertilizers. This impacts soils chemically as well. Cation exchange capacity is increased. Cations are positively charged ions such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Organic and alternative amendments increase the negative charge in soils and the capacity to attract and retain cations on soil particles. Overall these inputs can result in greater enhancement of soil biological, chemical, and physical characteristics, resulting in greater soil quality and disease suppression over time.

Pest Management 

In addition to soil health, organic amendments, and fertilizers, pest management presents another challenge to organic gardeners. While effective, organic pesticides are minimally toxic to the environment and non-target organisms. The important thing is to be able to positively identify pests versus beneficials and monitor both populations regularly so that, if needed, pest management strategies can be started before they reach devastating levels.

Sometimes the insect can be caught in the act making identification easy, other times you are left with only visual signs of damage which require more detective work. It helps to know the life cycle of insects so that various stages can be identified. Unfamiliar pest specimens can be brought to your local county extension agent for identification.

If a pest problem has reached an action threshold in the garden and landscape it may indicate sub-optimal growing conditions, or possibly an ecological imbalance. Organic pest management places an emphasis on biodiversity and optimal growing conditions to build the garden’s natural resistance to pests. Rather than directly treating a pest, a gardener’s pest management strategy may instead focus on conservation or habitat enhancement to attract more beneficials into feeding and breeding in the problem area.

Ambush bug (Phymata sp.), a beneficial insect often found on flowers. Source: David Cappaert,

Ambush bug (Phymata sp.), a beneficial insect often found on flowers. Source: David Cappaert,

One tip is to take note of the insect pests you have struggled with in the past and concentrate on strategies to manage those. But also be aware of recent climatic conditions. For example, Colorado potato beetles may be more numerous after a mild winter. Unusually wet springs favor slugs, and dry summers favor spider mites.

5 Steps to a Pest Management Program:

  1. Monitor – Scout your garden often. Examine the trunk, stem, and underside of leaves. Look for symptoms (like chewed leaves) and signs (egg masses) of both pest and beneficial insects in the garden.
  2. Identify – Correct plant identification is essential. Identify the host plant and learn what characteristics are normal throughout the season and stage of growth. Become familiar diagnosing abiotic symptoms, versus pest or disease symptoms in order to choose the proper corrective action. Similarly, learn to identify insects in their various life stages.  Recognize the signs they leave behind and the patterns of damage they cause.
  3. Evaluate – Determine if the pest has reached the action threshold. What is the level of damage? Is the insect population growing? Are insect pests spreading to neighboring plants? Have you noticed the presence of any beneficial insects (lacewing larvae or ladybird beetles)? Will the plant recover on its own? Is there a better location where the plant will not be as susceptible? Once you know the extent of the problem, make the appropriate management decision.
  4. Implement – Often multiple methods of intervention must be employed. This is called integrated pest management. It is easier to intervene while pest levels are still low. It is also easier to manage the immature stage of insects rather than larger mature ones.
  5. Evaluate – What were the results? Remember, it is not necessary to eradicate every individual insect pest. The goal should be to manage them to an acceptable level in which the plant will be able to recover or damage kept to an acceptable level.
Spotted lady beetle (Coleomegilla maculate) feeding on eggs of Colorado Potato beetle. Source:  Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Spotted lady beetle (Coleomegilla maculate) feeding on eggs of Colorado Potato beetle. Source: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

The integration of cultural, biological, physical, and/or chemical management strategies can help prevent many problems from becoming serious enough to affect plants or yields. Below is a brief description of each:

  • Cultural controls emphasize plant health and are inexpensive measures to prevent infestations. This includes choosing well-adapted cultivars with insect and disease resistance, choosing proper planting location, time plantings during the weak point of a pest’s life cycle, and practicing good garden sanitation. Others include managing soil fertility, cultivating weeds, and mulching to reduce pests.
  • Biological controls blend natural defenses into your management plan. One example is parasitic wasps seeking host insects for larval development. It is possible to enhance the habitat for beneficial insects so they do much of the pest management for you. Learn more about the beneficial insect you want to attract, the plants they prefer, and their life cycle needs as they emerge and scout for prey. Be aware that microbial sprays can also negatively affect some beneficial insects.
  • Physical barriers are available to protect plants. They start with the basic hand-picking, water sprays, floating row covers, tree bands, cut worm collars, light traps, and pheromone traps. Diatomaceous earth, copper strips, tanglefoot barriers, wrapping fruit in paper bags, and covering in kaolin clay are other types of physical barriers. Pheromone traps are not effective at significantly reducing larval populations but may be helpful in monitoring movements of adults. Be sure to place pheromone traps in locations away from areas to protect, rather than drawing pests into the garden.
  • Some organic insect controls are chemical (botanical, inorganic, microbial, and petroleum-based). Chemical controls can be integrated into a management plan if garden pests are out of balance and overwhelming other management options. There are a few synthetic pesticides, like some horticultural oils, OMRI approved for organic pest management.  However, it is important to remember that pesticides, organic or synthetic, are still toxins designed to kill pests, and should be treated as such.

No matter your level of organic adoption, or if you choose to do some combination of conventional and organic, your garden will see benefits from actions to improve soil health and tilth, attention to fertilizer requirements/amendments, and improved abilities to identify the different life stages of pests and beneficials, as well as knowing what, if any, actions to take.

Using the Whole Chicken

Chicken Butchery Basics

by Meredith Leigh, author of The Ethical Meat Handbook

Learning to use the whole chicken (or other bird) is one of the most foundational things you can do to support ethical meat. Why? It ensures that the farmer can profit from the entire animal, eliminates processing fees from the equation, and contributes to a better kitchen economy in the home. You’ll benefit from better prices per pound when you use the whole bird, and you’ll get more meals from a purchase.

Below you’ll find basic a chicken butchery technique, excerpted from The Ethical Meat Handbook: A Complete Guide to Home Butchery, Charcuterie, and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore. These simple cuts will boost your ability to work with the whole bird for any recipe – from roasting to frying, braising or smoking. For recipes, and more butchery techniques, such as de-boning, visit to purchase The Ethical Meat Handbook.


How to Butcher a Chicken

Chicken is a great place to hone your cutting skills. We’ll cover the standard, eight-piece cut, and offer a slight variation, which will come in handy when you’re frying chicken.

Begin by removing the wings. Stretch the wing as far as you can and move the joint up and down to find the socket. Using a semi-flexible boning knife, cut the wing off at the shoulder, aiming for the space between the ball in the arm bone and the socket in the shoulder.

Pull on the wing to discover the joint, and remove.

Pull on the wing to discover the joint, and remove.

Variation/Confession: I’m not big on the stand-alone chicken wing, so I like to cut the wing off with a bit of breast meat to accompany. To do this, simply angle your knife at about 45 degrees from the wishbone and cut off part of the breast as you remove the wing.

To remove some breast meat with the wing, cut at a 45-degree angle, downward from the wishbone, and then remove at the shoulder bone, as if you were removing the wing only.

To remove some breast meat with the wing, cut at a 45-degree angle, downward from the wishbone, and then remove at the shoulder bone, as if you were removing the wing only.

Next, free the oysters. This will assist you in pulling the legs off intact. The oysters are the small, round, tender pieces of dark meat located on the chicken’s back, one on either side of the spine. You’ll find them right at the spot where the legs join the body, and this is where you’ll make the first cut, across the back.

You’ll see the oysters on either side of the spine. Use your boning knife to make small cuts close to the bone, undercutting the oysters and scooping them free. Leave them attached to the skin.

Cut across the back to access the oysters.

Cut across the back to access the oysters.

Freeing the oysters.

Freeing the oysters.

Now, flip the chicken back over so it is breast up, so you can remove the legs. Stretch each leg out at the hip and cut through the skin until you see meat.

Cut through the skin between the breast muscle and the leg to access the leg joint.

Cut through the skin between the breast muscle and the leg to access the leg joint.

Find the hip joint by gently wiggling the thigh to and fro, following accordingly with your knife. Pull back on the entire leg, peeling it away from the breast. You’ll eventually pull the hip out of joint, after which you can follow through to remove the oysters along with the entire leg.

Pull back on the leg to dislocate the hip. Then, you can easily complete the cut through the skin to remove the leg with the oyster attached.

Pull back on the leg to dislocate the hip. Then, you can easily complete the cut through the skin to remove the leg with the oyster attached.

Next, divide the drumstick from the thigh. First, identify the seam of fat at the joint, and begin your cut there. Once you’ve cut into the meat, you’ll be able to see the joint clearly, and cut directly between the bones for a clean break.

Separating the thigh from the drumstick.

Separating the thigh from the drumstick.

The next step is to remove the backbone. You can use poultry shears for this if you’re nervous, but it’s not that tough to do with your boning knife. Just come at the spine at about a 45-degree angle, making close, downward cuts parallel to the spine. If your knife gets too vertical, you’ll run into resistance, so as long as you keep that nice, slight angle, you’ll be fine.

Keep your knife at an angle to remove the backbone.

Keep your knife at an angle to remove the backbone.

Finally, split the breast. In between the two breast pieces is the sternum, or breast plate. I make straight cuts down either side of the keel in the breastbone and then start pulling the breast meat off of it with my hands, running fingers under the meat and close to the bone. Once you’ve exposed enough of the bone that you feel like you can pull it out, do it.

You’ll be left with breast meat that has ribs attached. You can remove the ribs by hand if you like, or use your boning knife to separate them from the back of the breast muscles.

After making straight cuts along either side of the keel bone, begin pulling the breast muscles away from the bone, using your hands.

After making straight cuts along either side of the keel bone, begin pulling the breast muscles away from the bone, using your hands.

About the author: 

Over the past 15 years, Meredith Leigh worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, non-profit executive director, and writer,  all in pursuit of sustainable food. She has developed a farmer co-op, founded and catalyzed non-profit ventures, grown vegetables, flowers, and meats, owned and managed a retail butcher shop, and more. She’s a single mom, and,   the author of  The Ethical Meat Handbook: A Complete Guide to Home Butchery, Charcuterie, and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore.  Says Meredith, “Above all, I am committed to real, good food, as a means to connect with people, animals, and plants, learn new skills, create intentionally, stay inspired, and experience deliciousness.”


Food Labels 101: Organic, Cage-Free, Grass fed, Natural

What exactly do all these terms and claims really mean, and how do you know which ones are trustworthy?

by Callie Casteel,  Animal Welfare Approved certifies and supports independent family farmers raising their animals to the highest animal welfare standards, outdoors on pasture and range. AWA is a program of A Greener World.    


In general, unless the claim is being checked by an independent third party, the integrity of a food label is only as reliable as the individual or company making it. As a shopper, understanding what label claims mean—and don’t mean—will help ensure your expectations are met (and as a producer, that your products are appropriately valued).To help people make informed decisions about certification and food purchasing, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and our parent organization, the nonprofit certifier A Greener World (AGW), created Food Labels Exposed, a free guide to the most commonly used label claims (see below). Here are just a few examples:

ORGANIC/CERTIFIED ORGANIC is a verified claim with a legal definition. All products sold as organic must meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program standards. In general, organic production limits the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other inputs. However, it fares poorly when it comes to animal welfare, and does not strictly define production practices related to space per animal or outdoor access.

NOTE: USDA released final rules mandating stronger animal welfare standards for certified organic livestock farmers in 2016, but there are significant questions about when (or even whether) these rules will be implemented. Some of the specific provisions, include: Prohibits physical alterations that cause stress in livestock; Provides minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry; Redefines “outdoors” to exclude porches, covered areas attached to the poultry house and Offers specific standards for humane treatment during transport and slaughter. You can read the full rules here.


Photo submitted by Callie Casteel, AWA

Photo submitted by Callie Casteel, AWA

GRASS FED is legally defined by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), but actual production practices can vary greatly. Consumers should be wary of any grass fed label claim NOT verified by a trusted third-party certification. What’s more, unless it’s accompanied by an additional certification, a grass fed label refers only to the animals’ diet: It does not tell you if an animal was given routine antibiotics or hormones, or offer any other assurances about animal welfare or the environment. Although all grass fed label claims require official FSIS approval before use, a signed statement (affidavit) from the farmer is typically considered “sufficient documentation”—meaning many farms are never even audited. Certified Grassfed by AGW is the only label to guarantee animals are 100 percent grass fed for life and managed according to high welfare standards, outdoors on pasture or range, with annual farm audits.

CFSA is on a mission to bring local, organic food to your table from a farmer who shares your values. Join us!


PASTURED/PASTURE-RAISED is one of many label claims that do not have a legal or regulated definition. While it implies animals were raised outdoors on pasture, there is no way to know—unless it’s accompanied by a third-party certification that requires pasture-based management, such as Animal Welfare Approved. The perceived value of the pasture-raised claim makes it ripe for greenwashing by unscrupulous food manufacturers.

Without third-party verification to high-welfare standards or visiting the farm in person (and having the agricultural expertise to evaluate it), you’re probably still buying industrially raised products.


CAGE-FREE also has no legal or regulated definition. While it implies animals are raised outdoors on pasture, this claim is highly misleading: “Cage-free” chickens, for example, are often raised indoors in overcrowded, enclosed barns.


NATURAL/ALL NATURAL is one of the most misleading label claims. Consumer surveys show most people think it refers to how animals are raised. Yet a “natural” label has nothing to do with how animals are raised. As legally defined by the USDA, it applies only to how meat is processed after slaughter.


NO ANTIBIOTICS ADDED (for red meat and poultry) is legally defined by the USDA FSIS and used on labels for meat or poultry products on an affidavit (signed statement) basis to claim animals are raised without antibiotics. Yet there is no independent third party verification system in place to ensure it’s true.

A ban on antibiotics might seem like a good thing: The routine use of antibiotics for disease prevention in intensive food animal systems is leading to antibiotic resistance, where medically important antibiotics become ineffective in humans. However, even with the best pasture-based, high-welfare management, animals can fall ill and need treatment. Farmers selling into “premium” antibiotic-free markets face the difficult choice of withholding treatment and maintaining market premium, or treating the animal and losing money. It’s also worth noting that every farmer who uses antibiotics must observe a legal “withdrawal period” before slaughter or selling milk. So when antibiotics are used appropriately, there should never be antibiotic residue in your food. Increasing awareness of this has led to criticism that “antibiotic-free” production is more marketing gimmick than public or animal health benefit. The best way to address antibiotic resistance is to use these medicines responsibly only to treat actual sickness in high-welfare, pasture-based systems that do not depend on routine antibiotic use. Only two food labels ensure this: European Union Organic and Animal Welfare Approved.
NON-GMO/NON-GE New USDA FSIS rules mean food manufacturers can only make non-GMO claims if the product is audited by a third-party certification body with clear and transparent non-GMO standards. This is a good thing for consumers who want assurances the food they buy really is non-GMO. However, buying “Non-GMO” labeled food does not necessarily mean you’re helping the environment or improving animal welfare. The only third party label that currently offers a Non-GMO assurance and addresses these wider animal welfare and environmental concerns is Certified Non-GMO by AGW.


HUMANE claims are widely used by food manufacturers to convince consumers they are supporting higher welfare farming practices. But there is no legal definition or minimum agreed welfare standard for the term “humane,” and this claim is increasingly found on products where animals are raised on dirt feedlots or indoors in confinement systems. In a recent New York Times review of animal welfare certifications, Consumer Reports said “the only [label] we have any confidence in and think gives you value for your money is Animal Welfare Approved.” Without third-party verification to high-welfare standards or visiting the farm in person (and having the agricultural expertise to evaluate it), you’re probably still buying industrially raised products.


FLE pic Food Labels 101

Want to know more? Looking to buy food that’s good for people, animals and the planet? Check out AGW’s searchable directory to find Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Grassfed by AGW, or Certified Non-GMO by AGW products near you.

Use our free Food Labels Exposed guide to help navigate common claims and terms used for the production, marketing and labeling of meat, dairy, eggs and other farmed products—available for download and from the App Store and Google Play.

Interested in certifying your farm or products? Reach out to your Regional Farmer & Market Outreach Coordinator.


(M)eat Local

How Two Women Passionate About Feeding Their Families’ Humanely Raised Meats Are Connecting North Carolina’s Pasture-based Livestock Producers with Local Food Lovers, Restaurants, and Retailers

by Jennifer Curtis, Firsthand Foods

Jennifer Curtis and Tina Prevatte, the founders of Firsthand Foods

Jennifer Curtis (right) and Tina Prevatte (left), the founders of Firsthand Foods

Hi!  We’re the owners of Firsthand Foods, a women-owned Durham-based meat business specializing in local, pasture-raised beef, lamb and pork. 

We run a mission-driven business that was built to help North Carolina’s pasture-based livestock producers thrive. In a world where commerce is dominated by global supply chain arrangements, small-scale producers are often denied access to market opportunities. Our aim is to change that by building out a robust market for locally sourced, humanely-raised meats while keeping our core values of transparency, equity and community at the forefront.


We first connected as business owners around a shared passion for using business as a tool for generating social and environmental good. We’re also moms, whose kids love to eat meat. When we met eight years ago, we were disheartened by the lack of local, sustainably-produced proteins available where we like to eat and shop. So we rallied around that problem and today you can find our meats at numerous area restaurants and natural foods grocery stores in the Triangle and Triad, as well as being offered by multiple home delivery services.



The biggest hurdle for livestock producers who want to sell their meats locally is what we like to call the “whole animal utilization” challenge.  A good way to lose money fast in the meat business is to slaughter an entire beef animal for the ribeyes and have no market for the ground beef. So we buy whole animals from producers so they don’t have to worry about finding a home for all the parts. The 65 producers in our network get to focus on what they do best – raising animals humanely outdoors on pasture without growth-promoting antibiotics or added hormones.


While sustainable production practices are essential, meat quality and consistency are equally important.  It doesn’t do much good to raise an animal with utmost care if the end result isn’t pleasing to the customer.  Producers make decisions every day that ultimately impact meat quality – forage management, sire selection and breeding, nutrition and feeding considerations.  But in the conventional meat industry, producers rarely if ever get feedback on how their management practices influence meat quality.  Their animals are shipped off to feedlots or massive slaughter facilities and never discerned from the countless other animals moving through those systems. That’s why we work closely with our producers to provide feedback on size, marbling, color, and other qualities that result in a great eating experience. We want to build their capacity as producers while we build market opportunity for their products.


The 65 producers in our network get to focus on what they do best – raising animals humanely outdoors on pasture without growth-promoting antibiotics or added hormones.

To work with Firsthand Foods, farmers drop their animals off at one of three cooperating USDA-inspected, Animal Welfare Approved small-scale meat slaughter plants. These family-owned businesses based in rural counties are key partners for us. They do the hard, and often under-appreciated, work of slaughter and meat fabrication. They create the meat cuts and value-added products that our customers desire. We currently purchase 8 beef, 18 hogs and 4 lamb per week and sell most of our meats fresh to restaurants, retailers and food service accounts. It takes about 80 different wholesale customers on a weekly basis to utilize all the parts of these animals.


Geoff and Jane Glendhill of Cedar Grove Windy Hill Farm raise beef for Firsthand Foods. Photo from Firsthand Foods' Facebook page.

Geoff and Jane Glendhill of Cedar Grove Windy Hill Farm raise beef for Firsthand Foods. Photo from Firsthand Foods’ Facebook page.


CFSA is on a mission to bring local, organic food to your table from a farmer who shares your values. Join us!


A few highlights from the Triangle:

From Firsthand Food's Facebook page

Steak from Firsthand Food Farmers at Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill. From Firsthand Food’s Facebook page

  • Pork neck bones and feet are the basis for ramen broth at Dashi,
  • Beef shoulder goes into burgers at Bull City Burger and Brewery,
  • Top round becomes roast beef at Lucky’s Deli,
  • Lamb necks become a braised dish at Garland Restaurant,
  • Pig ears are featured at Pizzeria Toro,
  • Ribeyes are dry-aged at The Durham Hotel, and
  • Beef cheeks find a home at The Eddy.

And of course, without our retail partners, we’d be hard pressed to sell all of our sausages, ground beef and ground lamb.  Indeed, on the average, about 60 percent of an animal ends up as a ground product!


Our Evolving Ethic – Eat Less, Pay More

Our goal as business owners is to help build a supply chain for local meat that creates healthy delicious products, compensates everyone fairly, takes care of the planet, and reinvests in our community.


Gerald Miller from H&H Farm Photo from Firsthand Food's website.

Gerald Miller from H&H Farm, one of Firsthand Food’s farmers.
Photo from Firsthand Food’s website.

One of the challenges to growing the market for local, pasture-raised meats is that the cost to the consumer is often twice that of confinement-raised meat products. Compared to indoor houses and crowded feedlots, local pasture-raised production is less efficient, takes more time and is best managed on a smaller scale. But its these more responsible production systems that a growing number of consumers are demanding – humane conditions for animals, a fair price to the farmer, eliminating routine use of antibiotics and added hormones, building soil quality and protecting natural resources.


In the past six years, Firsthand Foods has directed over $5.2 million in to our local food system.

In our journey into the local meat industry, we’ve gravitated toward an “Eat Less, Pay More” ethic.  It’s a cultural shift toward eating less meat overall so that we can afford “the good stuff.”  If we all eat less meat, we reduce the demand for mass-production.  And if we accept a higher per pound price for what we do purchase, we can pay farmers fairly for the work involved in raising animals humanely.  We’re proud to report that a full 75 percent of the revenues we generate every year go back to the farmers and family-run meat processors in our supply chain.  In the past six years, Firsthand Foods has directed over $5.2 million in to our local food system.


One way to make the “eat less, pay more” philosophy a practical reality is to consider using pasture-raised meats as flavor-enhancing ingredients rather than center-of-the-plate features. We’re in the process of developing recipe cards (see two below; also available in cooperating retailers and on our website) that feature our products as accompaniments, alongside hearty portions of beans and vegetables. A favorite is Lentejas, a Spanish lentil soup that features our chorizo sausage. And a recent addition to our collection is an Indian chili that features garbanzo beans and ground lamb. Of course there will always be special occasions worthy of splurging on your favorite steak or roast but week-to-week, it makes sense for meat to play a smaller role.


We invite you to try our pasture-raised meats and “eat less, pay more” philosophy. We’ve noticed that it has moved us in alignment with our core values. Eating less and paying more makes it easier for us to honor the hard-work and sacrifice involved all along the supply chain – the land, the animal, the farmer, the processor, the distributor, the restaurant, and the grocery store all make it possible for us to enjoy good local meats.


Less is More Recipes

FHF recipecard 5x3 indianlambchili FHF recipecard 5x3 indianlambchili FHF recipecard 5x3 lentejas FHF recipecard 5x3 lentejas



Home on the Range

Four Davidson County Ranchers Ruminate on Grass-fed vs. Grain-finished beef

by Ryan Jones   |   Photography by Grace and Cary Kanoy
Originally published in Davidson County Magazine

The Charolais cattle at Jeff Boyst’s BN Acres.

The Charolais cattle at Jeff Boyst’s BN Acres.
Photo by Grace and Cary Kanoy.


From the time they’re born until they reach full maturity, the cows on Jeff Boyst’s 100-year-old farm, BN Acres, graze on nothing but grass. Depending on the season, the herd of about fifty Charolais cattle enjoy a rotating crop of rye, millet, fescue, orchard grass, and sorghum-sudan grass.


“If you take care of the pasture you’re going to have good animals,” says Boyst, who took charge, after his grandfather’s passing in 2007, of the farmland at BN Acres. “It’s a delicate process to make sure we’re giving them the right grass for the right end product.”


CFSA is on a mission to bring local, organic food to your table from a farmer who shares your values. Join us!


Despite the careful attention given to his fields, Boyst said the meat his cows produce will still vary in taste based on several factors. “It depends on how sensitive your palate is. Grass-fed beef might be called gamey or wild, depending on what the animal has been eating and what foods they’re eating at different times of year. In the fall they may eat more leaves and in the springtime they might get into wild onions or garlic and you might taste that in the beef.”


The cattle at BN Acres are exclusively grass-fed.

The cattle at BN Acres are exclusively grass-fed. Photo by Grace and Cary Kanoy.


Beyond the subtle flavor differences caused by a wild diet, the most notable distinction between grass- and grain-fed meats has to do with fat content and composition.


Marbling refers to the amount of fat appearing in a cut of meat and is the basis for the United States Department of Agriculture’s grading system. Prime meat has the highest marbling content while Choice and Select meats have decreasing amounts of marbling, respectively. “A grain-fed product will have very white marbling. [Grass-fed cows] are naturally a leaner animal with a different type of fat deposit that tends to be more yellow due to the chlorophyll in plants,” said Boyst.


Proponents of grass-feeding tend to place less emphasis on this traditional system for measuring quality, preferring instead to focus on the perceived health benefits of a leaner product with increased Omega-3 fatty acids, lower levels of HDL (bad cholesterol), and higher levels of LDL (good cholesterol).


Cedar Creek Ranch

One of Cedar Creek Ranch’s Holsteins.
Photo by Grace and Cary Kanoy.

“We have a niche market, but it’s a good market,” explained Beth Phelps—she and her brother, Jeff Perryman, co-own Buck Creek Farm in Midway, N.C. “A lot of people don’t raise all grass-fed beef because it takes longer for the cows to mature (two years versus sixteen months for a grain-fed cow) and raising them is more labor intensive.”


“The extra time and effort is worth it,” Phelps said, “because there are always going to be people looking for a healthier option. We started this farm just for our family, not intending to sell products to other people.” She hopes to increase processing from around five Angus and Belted Galloway cattle a year to processing twenty cattle a year.


“Grass-fed beef may only be about fifteen percent of the meat market, but it will always be there because people will always choose it,” said Boyst, acknowledging that grass-fed will likely never overtake the grain-fed beef market due to profit margins. “[But] people who are health conscious will find us and seek us out. We continue to choose grass-fed products because we want to offer something the market doesn’t typically offer.”


The jury’s out on whether or not grass-fed totally trumps grain-fed finished beef. Most knowledgeable farmers and consumers are more interested in leaving it to personal preference than preaching about a superior product. “I’m a true believer that all beef is good,” said Chris Yokeley of Yokeley Farms in Wallburg, N.C. “My goal is to give people the best eating experience they can have.”


Yokeley Farms' Chris Yokeley Photo by Grace and Cary Kanoy

Yokeley Farms’ Chris Yokeley. 
Photo by Grace and Cary Kanoy


Yokeley started raising cattle when he inherited his father’s herd of Red Angus. His father ran Yokeley Seeding Company. Yokeley’s herd currently consists of about thirty Red Angus, Shorthorn, and Durham Red cattle (a cross between Red Angus and Shorthorn). They spend their entire lives in an open pasture eating grass, only receiving supplemental hay and corn for the last few months before they’re harvested. “We make all the hay we feed them; we raise all the corn and grind it ourselves,” said Yokeley.


“We wanted to expand to something a little different than just Red Angus, so we started researching by taste. I tried some Shorthorn filets on the grill with just salt and pepper. When I bit into the Shorthorn filet it just melted in my mouth. I knew from that moment, that was where we were going,” said Yokeley. He began crossing breeds for the Durham Red—“I truly think that breed is the best of both worlds.”


Dan Kurtz of Cedar Creek Ranch raises Holstein cattle, which are typically used in dairy production. Like Yokeley, he does not strictly grass-feed his cattle, but he does emphasize the humane treatment of his animals. His calves are bottle-fed and then given free reign of a pasture for the duration of their lives.


Dan Kurz of Cedar Creek Ranch.

Dan Kurtz of Cedar Creek Ranch.


Kurtz believes that knowing where your food comes from is more important than a grass-fed label. “One-hundred-twenty years ago everyone knew what agriculture was. They understood where things came from. Now we’ve got four to six generations removed from agriculture. If people read on a label that the product came from some place close to them, it makes them feel better.” Yokeley agreed, “You ought to know your farmer … visit farms and ask questions.”


“I don’t see competitors,” said Boyst. “When we run into each other at the store, we trade information. We network and work together. Our desire is to provide a good product to our community.”


As Yokeley says, “I don’t see the local food movement as a fad. It’s not going away. I think people are tired of preservatives and chemicals. People want to eat clean and feel good about what they’re eating, whether it’s produce, poultry, or beef. It’s just a great feeling knowing that when I sit down with a plate of food, everything on it came from a farm!”

A Call to Action: Supporting Farmers and Protecting Farmland in the Triangle


By Edgar Miller, Government Relations Director for the Conservation Trust for North Carolina

Across the Triangle, farmers face a range of complex forces putting farmland and their livelihoods at risk. In the more rapidly developing counties in the region (Durham, Orange, Wake), on average one of every five acres of farmland has been lost to development over the past 20 years. The Conservation Trust for North Carolina, alongside community partners, met with more than 100 agricultural resource professionals, farmers, community leaders, and other stakeholders to address this concern and develop a comprehensive strategy for protecting farmland and enhancing the local food economy.

The resulting, “Triangle Farms for Food: Strategy + Action Plan,” offers six regional strategies encompassing more than 70 action items to protect farms and assist farmers in Chatham, Durham, Johnston, Orange, and Wake Counties. The report also recommends six place-based strategies that focus on local assets and opportunities to address the multiple causes of farmland loss and build a stronger local food system throughout the region.

Nearly one-quarter of the Triangle’s almost two million acres is farmland.

According to the USDA Agricultural Census:

  • In 1997, the five-county Triangle region had nearly 550,000 acres of active farmland.
  • Over the past 20 years, more than 80,000 acres (15 percent) of farmland were lost to development.
  • The region’s population grew by almost 30 percent from 2000-2010, putting even more pressure on farmland targeted for expanding infrastructure needs.

While this pressure did result in the loss of farmland, the growing population in the region has fueled the demand for locally-produced food. Direct market sales from farmers to consumers increased by more than 80 percent between 1997-2012, with direct sales to consumers totaling $3.65 million per year. Yet this is just a drop in the bucket of total food sales in the region approaching $4 billion.

If the region achieved the Center for Environmental Farming System’s 10 percent local food consumption goal, an additional $400 million in direct economic impact would be generated for the area’s economy. How can we make this happen?

Regional strategies

Implementing Regional Strategies

First and foremost, we need a coordinated approach by local and regional government agencies to protect farmland and agricultural communities. Much progress has been made in the region to integrate farmland preservation in local planning and land-use efforts, but more needs to be done.

The report uses a comprehensive Geographic Information System (GIS) methodology to prioritize the best farmland in the region. Farms for Food identifies nearly 800 parcels comprising more than 50,000 acres in rural areas of the region and 65 parcels totaling 850 acres in urban areas.

Key action items include designating agricultural priority areas and enterprise zones at the county level and expanding incentives for farmers to join Voluntary Agricultural Districts (VADs), while developing strategies to connect urban growers with vacant or underutilized publicly-owned lands.

In addition, we must value farmers and farmland and continue to support programs that assist and educate new farmers. The average age of farmers in the state is approaching 60 years old. We must develop new strategies such as incubator farms, expanded community college curriculums, regional farm schools, and other cost-effective methods to educate new farmers.

Other action items include building partnerships with agriculture development organizations to implement branding and marketing strategies that link local food production and farmland preservation, and providing new farmers with access to affordable, productive farmland through land link programs, conservation easements, and long-term leasing agreements.

Furthermore, from a market perspective, we must create a comprehensive local food infrastructure that supports economically-viable local farm operations through more extensive food and farmer business networks and business incubator programs. To increase the demand for local food products we need to promote employer-sponsored Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, institutional procurement of local foods, and expanded nutritional assistance program benefits for fresh and locally produced food.

Finally, we need a significant increase in state and local funding for farmland preservation and agricultural development.

Assuming an average value of $7,500 per acre for farmland in the region, to permanently protect just 40 percent of the 50,000 acres of high-priority farmland identified in the report, it would take $75 million dollars to acquire easements on the land.

Blue – Top scoring rural farm parcels. Red – Top scoring urban farm parcels.

Blue – Top scoring rural farm parcels. Red – Top scoring urban farm parcels.

The Role of Land Trusts

Easements typically reduce land value by approximately 50 percent. Land trusts are working to pass these savings along to new farmers by selling the conserved land to them at agricultural land values through “option to purchase at agricultural values” or “OPAV” language in easements. These acquire-protect-sell programs have been very successful in protecting tens of thousands of acres of farmland nationally and making the farmland available to new farmers at reasonable prices.

To incentivize these efforts, the state should consider reinstating the conservation tax credit for donated agricultural easements and provide additional tax incentives for landowners that lease or sell farmland to new farmers. Programs to enhance farm and food businesses’ access to capital and low interest loans for land and equipment are needed to enhance farm profitability and address food insecurity issues and improve local food access.

Promoting Place-Based Strategies

In addition to the regional strategies, the report recommends six place-based strategies developed from input received from stakeholders throughout the region, GIS results, and recommendations in county-approved farmland protection plans.

These strategies focus on supporting larger farming operations in southeastern Johnston County and western Chatham County; expanding new farming operations and transitioning existing farmland in northern Orange and Durham counties, including agritourism opportunities; developing urban agriculture in Durham and Wake counties and small farm networks along the Wake and Johnston county line; and maintaining and protecting a “farm ring” around Siler City in western Chatham County.

The place-based strategies provide an excellent starting point for local food councils and local and regional government entities to secure the long-term future of agriculture in the region and secure the region’s ability to meet a portion of its food needs.

The report estimates that 225,000 acres of farmland will be needed in the future in the Triangle just to meet 10 percent of the region’s food needs from local sources. This is more than half of the remaining farmland in the region.

The multi-faceted approach laid out in the report will be the most effective way to keep farmland in farming, support current and new farmers, advance agricultural awareness and build a strong local food economy.

F4F Cover

Farms for Food was made possible with grant support from the Triangle Community Foundation and Sustainable Foods NC, with special thanks to project partners including Community Food Lab, Triangle Land Conservancy, Eno River Association, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.

If you are interested in efforts to implement the action items in the report, please contact Edgar Miller, Conservation Trust for NC director of government relations and farmland protection, at


Edgar represents North Carolina’s 23 land trusts before the North Carolina General Assembly and other state and federal agencies. He led the successful effort to establish a Voluntary Agricultural District in Davidson County, where he lives and has a small hop farm, and is a member of the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund Advisory Committee.


For 25 years Conservation Trust for NC has saved the places you love – streams, farms, parks, forests, trails, and vistas. We work with local land trusts, landowners, communities, and government agencies to protect North Carolina’s natural treasures for all people – forever. We protect land along the Blue Ridge Parkway, assist 23 local land trusts, and connect people from all walks of life to the outdoors. More information can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

CFSA Is Expanding Our Local Produce Safety Initiative in SC


We’re excited to welcome Patricia Tripp back to a staff position at CFSA as the Local Produce Safety Manager. She will provide more SC growers with resources to meet industry-driven food safety standards. Patricia is an advocate for safe, healthy and sustainable agricultural practices with extensive expertise in food safety. She recently relocated to South Carolina to assist us with the expansion of this project.

“I was part of the expansion of LPSI in North Carolina and am very excited that the program’s success has provided CFSA with the opportunity to expand,” states Patricia.

Patricia holds her Masters Degree in Agricultural and Life Sciences from Virginia Tech, and serves on the NC Fresh Produce Task Force, The NC Governors Produce Safety and Defense Task Force, and the Calibration Committee for the Harmonized GAP Standard. Before joining the staff full-time, Patricia worked with CFSA and other groups across the country through her own consulting firm, Artisan Food Solutions.

The Local Produce Safety Initiative provides growers with one-on-one assistance in implementing an on-farm food safety program. Each farm is unique, so the consultation services are customized to meet the needs of the grower. Services may include conducting a risk assessment, reviewing a food safety plan, conducting a mock audit or providing GAP audit support.

For more information on these services, visit

Carolina Organic Project

Bringing Organic Closer to Home

At CFSA, we’re on a mission to put local, organic food on your table from a farmer who shares your values. We think that food you can trust starts at the source – with the farmer. Organic family farmers in the Carolinas stand behind the food they produce. They are proud of their stewardship of the land and the humane and ethical way in which they raise their animals.

When you buy from a certified organic family farmer, you can be confident that you’re feeding your family food that is grown with respect for the environment – without harmful pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, without GMOs, and without artificial growth hormones.

The Carolina Organic Project video series throws open the barn doors and farm gates and invites you to see for yourself how CFSA helps Carolina farmers grow the healthy, sustainably, and ethically produced food that everyone deserves.


Each Dish Tells a Story

Click on the beef, bread, greens and carrots on this plate of delicious, organic food below to watch videos to see how CFSA is helping our amazing farmer and food business members bring organic closer to home.  


Want to see more innovation projects like this in the Carolinas?

Join the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Today!

Work Horses Aren’t Old Fashioned Anymore


By CFSA Members Nancy and Ron Bryant of 3 Eagles Sanctuary and Holt Akers-Campbell of Lazy Heron Farm

As communities continue to yearn for fresh, local produce and farmers search for methods that are kind to the land and our environment, a revival in draft animal power is taking hold among some small-scale farmers.

IMG_6507Lazy Heron Farm, a CFSA member and new vegetable farm in Norwood, NC, has joined this group of producers who prefer the gentle rhythms of horses’ hooves to the exhaust of tractors. Sunny and Kate, the farm’s two Suffolk Punch drafts, have begun working up soil which will yield a wide variety of vegetables come spring for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, farmers markets, and local stores and restaurants.

Farmer Holt Akers-Campbell arrived at 3 Eagles Sanctuary, south of Norwood, this fall, although the project has deeper roots. About six years ago, landowners Ron and Nancy Bryant began to think about creative ways to use part of their agricultural land at 3 Eagles Sanctuary to produce food for local markets.

“At first we considered an incubator farm for the tri-county region, much like Lomax Farm [CFSA’s incubator farm in Concord where aspiring farmers learn how to grow food sustainably as a small business],” said Nancy. “But the project evolved into the Upper Pee Dee Farm and Food Council with a mission to educate the public about local, sustainable food.”

Still left with the question of how to manage their field, the Bryants seeded the land annually with a variety of cover crops to nourish and enrich the soil in preparation for a young farmer to establish a small, sustainable farm.

Last spring, The LandTrust for Central North Carolina contacted the Bryants with an inquiry from Holt about his desire to establish his farm in North Carolina. After a series of conversations and a weekend meeting, the connection was made.

Like many young people choosing to farm as a career today, Holt did not grow up on a farm. Raised in Tennessee, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he worked on the student-run market garden and completed his degree with a 200-page thesis on livestock raising during Roman times. After finding a passion in growing food as a teen, Holt began years of apprenticeship on farms in Tennessee, Vermont, and Maine, where he worked under experienced vegetable growers.

IMG_6505Wanting to come to North Carolina to farm near relatives, his dream of his own farm is unfolding in Stanly County.

IMG_3312“My use of draft horses is an intentional, humbling choice which forces me to recognize nature’s rhythms,” said Holt. “Horses are light on the soil, fueled by grass, and what comes out the back end turns into compost that enriches the soil. It’s also just fun. I get enough time around machines. Tractors are easier in some ways, but it’s nice to have to pay attention to a living being.”

The choice to use grass-fueled horses is coupled with a strict avoidance of agrochemicals. The farm strives to keep pests and disease in balance by maintaining a healthy plant environment through good soil structure, high organic matter content, and specified insect habitat around the fields. No synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are ever used.


The farm also embraces the relatively new and growing phenomenon of Community Supported Agriculture, a way for communities to feed themselves by connecting farmers directly with consumers. Sales will begin this spring through the CSA, as folks sign up to receive a weekly allotment of fresh vegetables, with the option to pick up at the farm in Norwood or in Albemarle.  The Lazy Heron CSA differs from some others in that there are no requirements of what to take: with three shares sizes available, members fill a bag each with a number of vegetable items of their choosing from a wide selection. The 26-week long program begins in May and ends in November.

More information can be found at


Good for the Consumer

by Stephanie Campbell, CFSA’s Outreach Coordinatorgive-swamp-rabbit-eoy-2016

Consumers (a.k.a. “eaters”) often share that they are confused by labels and terms like natural, cage-free, or grass-fed. They ask how their produce, dairy and meat was grown or raised.  And they want their food dollars to support local farmers and producers and their local community.

Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery, in Greenville, SC, is filling the gap in the food chain between eaters and farmers who share common values: local, sustainable, organic, healthy, humane, and community.

Imagine a community gathering place where virtually all of the products are grown or produced within 150 miles. A place where the owners know by name and face the over 200 farmers and vendors. A place where farmers and producers and eaters are neighbors and friends. A place that in five short years is transforming the community and sparking a food revolution.

Mary Walsh and Jacqueline Oliver, co-founders and owners of Swamp Rabbit, imagined such a place and had the grit to make it a reality. It’s not easy to manage up to twenty different deliveries each day, and the individualized billing that goes along with these, instead of one big general food truck. It’s not easy managing several thousand unique products and providing signage so that customers can know which farmer or artisan grew or produced it. It’s not easy competing with the convenience, discount prices, and always-available products of the big box stores.

Mary and Jacqueline have often worked eighty-hour weeks with their children in tow because they believe in their mission and in the intangible benefits of bringing a community together around food. “We have been delightfully surprised,” says Mary, “at the scale of which the community has supported us and how loyal our customers are.”

Mary shares stories of customers volunteering to help during their events and expansion, customers donating furniture and bike racks and other items, customers who stick with them through the growing pains of a small, local business.


Swamp Rabbit is more than just a store; it is a force for building relationships and educating people about food. Customers have learned what seasonal eating really means when there are no local eggs available because the chickens are molting. Customers experience along with their farmer the heartache when a predator ate a whole flock of Thanksgiving turkeys. Customers learn what it really costs a farmer to produce a product using the organic and sustainable practices they value.

“CFSA has built a network of resources and people in the Carolinas committed to a shared vision which has been invaluable to us,” Mary shares.

Stephen Nix, CFSA South Carolina Food Systems Coordinator, has been one of those customers and friends since the very beginning of the store. His roles as friend (building and stocking shelves when the store opened) and as CFSA staff (researching Point of Sale (POS) systems and providing marketing connections) have overlapped, like that of so many others in the Swamp Rabbit community. “CFSA has built a network of resources and people in the Carolinas committed to a shared vision which has been invaluable to us,” Mary shares.

Now beginning its sixth year, the store employs thirty-one people in the bakery, café, and grocery and serves more than 20,000 customers. Swamp Rabbit has helped revitalize the immediate area along the Swamp Rabbit Trail and the store is inspiring other businesses to adopt a local food mindset. The Greenville Small Business Development Center awarded Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery their Small Business of the Year Award in 2016. EBT/SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) sales are increasing as they intentionally reach out to make healthy food available to the low income neighborhood around them.

The store has expanded twice already, once to add a refrigerated produce room and then to add overflow seating and a bakery kitchen. A big expansion planned for 2017, partially funded by a $100,000 grant from the USDA, will double the store in size and increase the capacity to buy, store, process, promote and sell foods in the Upstate.

Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery is a model of the kind of links in the food system we need more of in the Carolinas.

Visionaries like Mary Walsh and Jacqueline Oliver can’t do it without you.
Your gift today help CFSA continue to build the network necessary to create the vibrant, sustainable, regional food system we need in the Carolinas.


Please give generously.