by Ashley See, CFSA Communications Manager | Friday, Mar. 5, 2021 – 

Marianna Spence and her family on a farm

Here at CFSA, we’ve been wanting to give readers an opportunity to get to know our staff better. Beyond job titles and duties, what interests, passions, and hobbies do the staff of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association have?

For this post in the series, we’re introducing Marianna Spence, CFSA Membership Coordinator. Her background in journalism, heart for our members, and ability to get anything done with a smile (and in half the time requested) leaves us in awe. And her banana pudding is something to write home about. We count our stars on a daily basis that we’ve managed to have this behind-the-scenes gem on staff for six years while she balances having a young family.

Now that you’re loosely acquainted, we’ll hand it over to Marianna.

Tell us your food story. What brought you to local food and farming?

: Growing up, my mom cooked family meals most nights of the week but we didn’t have a particular awareness around local or organic food. Like any good 90s kids, I happily ate my fair share of Pop-Tarts and Bagel Bites. My dad’s family farmed tobacco, plus the family garden, and owned a general store in northeastern North Carolina. That chapter closed long before I was born. Even so, my childhood experience with food led me to value home-cooking and shared meals around the table.

Moving to Pittsboro after college was probably the biggest influencing factor in my immersion into sustainable food. I didn’t know it at the time, but Pittsboro is a hub of local, organic farming and food. One of the first certified organic farms in the Carolinas was in Pittsboro, and our small town is home to three nonprofits (CFSA, RAFI-USA, and The Livestock Conservancy) that have served farms for 30+ years each. Pittsboro embraces farm-to-table, it’s just the way many food businesses operate here. As one example, my favorite restaurant nourishes the community by sourcing more than 80% for local farms and usually has a dining room full of farmers to boot (pre-COVID, of course).

Marianna's son, Luke, taking part of CFSA's Piedmont Farm Tour at First Fruits Farm
Marianna’s son taking part of CFSA’s Piedmont Farm Tour at First Fruits Farm


You’ve been at CFSA since 2015. What are some of the duties of your position that delight you the most?

: I love interacting with our members and with folks who are interested in learning more about CFSA. I’m the person behind our general email account and main phone line, so I often get to speak with people who’ve found us online and want to know more about how they can connect with the sustainable agriculture community.

People are thrilled to hear about the breadth of our services, from issue-based advocacy to on-farm consulting. This year, we added emergency food distribution to meet the needs of farmers and under-employed food service workers. Sharing the amazing stories about CFSA’s work as an overview for new folks coming into our network is definitely one of my favorite things.

“Sharing the amazing stories about CFSA’s work as an overview for new folks coming into our network is definitely one of my favorite things.”

On the geeky side, I really love event logistics. I run registration for our major event, the Sustainable Agriculture Conference. While we had an amazing 700-person virtual conference this year, I definitely missed the rush of our in-person conference. I missed packing registration desk supplies, making name tags, running final bus tour lists, and seeing hundreds of members at the welcome desk. It’s an exhilarating and exhausting weekend, in a different way than our virtual conference, and I’m hopeful we will be back together soon!


When you’re not helping members or fielding questions, what does life outside of CFSA look like?

: Life outside of CFSA has changed a lot in the last year, as it has for many. I currently work from home while parenting, teaching, cooking, playing, cleaning…and all the other things stay-home parents do. Making little people snacks, SO MANY SNACKS. It’s been a balancing act, one I’m not certain I’m pulling off, but I’m treasuring an unexpected year home with my boys, 7-years-old and 18-months-old. We spend lots of time in the yard and at our local parks. My eldest learned to swim and ride his bike this year! We planted raised beds for the first time last spring and had fun watching veggies grow and eating from the garden. Personally, my sanity-saver is a fitness group for moms that I’ve been part of for four years. Navigating this year with other moms has been key. Also, coffee.

Marianna Spence and her son posing in front of their garden beds


What would folks be surprised to know about CFSA membership?

: Not to be sappy, but I think folks who haven’t worked with us would be surprised to know just how deeply our staff care about our members. We have this menu of member benefits, but our work goes far beyond that. We’re a small nonprofit and each of us have personal relationships with our farms, business, and consumer members.

“Not to be sappy, but I think folks who haven’t worked with us would be surprised to know just how deeply our staff care about our members.”

I heard recently from a farmer member who successfully applied for and received coronavirus farm relief funds, after being told her crop wasn’t eligible several times. She reached out to us, and we contacted FSA on her behalf. They decided her crop did indeed fall into an eligible category, clearing the way for her application. She sent “the hugest thank you imaginable” and said she couldn’t believe we followed through when no other organization would help her. I’m so proud to say that I hear stories like this all the time about all our staff, one of the perks of answering the phone and general email!


We all have something we’re hyper nerdy for. A little birdy told us that you love a home renovation project. Is that true? Where does this love come from and how is it currently cropping up?

: My husband and I love building and renovating projects. He’s a builder and I love design and decorating. We built our house five years ago (ourselves on nights and weekends with blood, sweat, and tears–the whole shebang). Recently, our combined nerdiness has us renovating a 1970 Avion camper, similar to an Airstream. It was trashed when we bought it, and home to a few squirrel skeletons under the floorboards. It’s been a family project to gut, rebuild the plumbing and wiring systems, paint, sketch out our plan, and start putting it back together. Fingers crossed for an inaugural trip this spring!

Marianna's family starting to remodel a camperMarianna's remodeled camper has a new paint job


If you could have a farm anywhere and only grow and eat three crops (ignoring all practicality) where would it be and what would you grow?

: I truly love this area of North Carolina and I’m a homebody, so I think I’d stay right here. Three hours to the mountains, three hours to the beach–what’s not to love? I’d grow peaches as they’re a summer favorite for my family. We try to be thoroughly sick of them by the end of the season. My second crop would be an heirloom tomato, a German Johnson, because a tomato sandwich might just be my favorite meal. For #3, I’m going to cheat and say I’d have a cow for butter and cheese. Life without either is not a life I want to live.

Marianna's son eating peaches in front of a peach tree


What are you reading right now and what recipe are you obsessed with?

: I’m reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, which is a powerful re-examining of the U.S.’s history of racial inequity as one of the world’s three historic caste systems. I appreciate her journalistic style as a former NY Times bureau chief, and her century-spanning research. For me, this book lays a new foundation of understanding about how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go to unwind systemic oppression. I’m not going to attempt more of a book review than that, but I will say I’ve highlighted half the book.

As for recipes, I set my pandemic baking sights low and am attempting to perfect the buttermilk biscuit. No time for fancy breads. I’ve been making the Eastern North Carolina twist on a buttermilk biscuit, known as a cathead biscuit, which involves a melty, delicious center of hoop cheese. I’m a Greenville, NC, native and these take me back home.


Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?

: It would have to be my grandmother, my mom’s mom, who died when I was 10. She immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador with her husband and four little girls, all under the age of seven. She was so strong, eventually providing for her girls on her own as a seamstress. I know and remember her fierce love for her family, but there’s so much I’d like to talk to her about now as an adult. Among other important things, I’d ask how she somehow had me eating Brussels sprouts as snacks, artichokes as appetizers, and pea soup as dessert. I need that magic!

Marianna posing with her two sons in front of a window


Lastly, what do you wish folks in the food and farming community discussed more?

: A few years ago there was a lot of discussion about ‘bridging the urban-rural divide’ through agriculture. Like many, I yearn for some salve after a historically divisive time. I’d like to hear more about what organizations like ours can do to build these bridges in 2021. When we have a personal stake in each other’s lives, we start breaking down the walls. One of the final chapters of Caste is entitled “The Heart is the Last Frontier,” meaning that the simple act of getting to know someone who is different from you is a powerful force for good. One pathway forward is connecting our rural farmers and urban consumers, especially.


Whether you want to hear more about membership at CFSA, have a question, or just want to say hello, Marianna can be reached at [email protected].