Michael Twitty explores the roots of Southern food at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference

By Felicia Cenca, CFSA Intern. Come hear Michael Twitty at the Local Food Feast where he will deliver the keynote at the 30th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference. Twitty will also present a Friday Preconference and a Sunday Workshop.

Michael Twitty, photo from afroculinaria.com

Michael Twitty, photo from afroculinaria.com

The Carolinas are no exception to the slow progress we’ve seen throughout the South to strengthen the ‘socially just’ leg of the sustainability stool. Michael W. Twitty, a talented writer, activist and culinary anthropologist, has made it his mission to shine a much needed light on these issues through his inspiring blog, AfroCulinaria, and his accompanying book, The Cooking Gene.

The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association is thrilled to welcome Michael as our keynote speaker at this year’s 30th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference. Twitty will share his extensive knowledge of the connections between food and deeper sociological questions related to the historical roots of American southern cuisine, and challenge the audience to seek out ways to express your complex identity throughout our food choices. Conference attendees will have several chances to connect with Twitty’s work as he will be giving an in-depth preconference presentation, speaking during our legendary Local Food Feast, and offering a workshop open to all conference attendees on Saturday afternoon.

Michael Twitty

Photo from www.afroculinaria.com

Twitty is rapidly gaining acclaim for his work as a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian, and historical interpreter. He is motivated by a drive to prepare, preserve and promote African American foodways and its deeper historical traditions in Africa and her Diaspora through American southern food culture. Currently, Twitty is a Judaic studies teacher in the Washington D.C. area. His work includes two distinct categories: the Antebellum Chef which deals with the huge number of black chefs who have been left out of the history of American southern food despite their vital role; and Kosher/Soul which talks about “identity cooking” and how complex identities can be expressed through the way that we eat.

Twitty’s inspiration stems from his desire to trace his roots through foodways and their evolution in America. His website, Afroculinaria, is a food blog that presents his diverse interests blended into one engaging and dynamic site. Twitty’s thoughtfully crafted blog posts weigh in on a range current issues while also documenting his progress on his personal project, The Cooking Gene.

The Cooking Gene is a project that Twitty launched in 2011. According to his website the project is “the confluence of several major areas of interest that I hold dear–family history, Southern/African American food history, the cultural politics of identity, and intercultural connections and historical legacies.

We are traveling the “Old South,” in search of sites that are a part of my family history in slavery and segregation (plantations, gravesites, cotton gins, tobacco barns, churches, etc.) tracing the larger story of African American foodways through my Black, white and Native American ancestors and their personal stories.”

Afroculinaria documents Twitty’s journey through what he called the Southern Discomfort Tour, which was sparked by The Cooking Gene project. He travels to farms, zoos, places of worship, farmers’ markets, historic plantations and many more places in order to understand how history has evolved through these specific places for his ancestors while also doing presentations and conducting genetic research to discover his roots and food heritage. Due to the success in his personal mission, Michael is forming his experiences into a forthcoming book that documents the journey of The Cooking Gene which will be released in 2016.

Join Michael Twitty for his pre-conference intensive on Friday November 6th from 9 a.m. -12 p.m. to hear the full story of his journey and its implications for the destiny of the southern table. You don’t have to register for the full Sustainable Agriculture Conference to attend this exciting, personal workshop with Michael (but we hope you will!). Or, if all this talk about southern food history is making your stomach growl, join us for the Local Food Feast on Friday evening at 6:30 p.m. to hear Twitty’s keynote address. The Local Food Feast is a magical, mouthwatering meal made with only the best in-season, sustainably grown ingredients supplied by local farms. An annual highlight of the conference will be made even more memorable as Twitty talks about the role of Southern food in shaping our past, present and future.

CFSA’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference is a unique opportunity to experience Michael Twitty’s historical perspective on American southern food culture while surrounded by those who share common interests! Online registration is now closed, but you can still reserve your seat Friday morning onsite at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham, NC. Just check in at the CFSA registration desk to get signed up.

Farming To The Demeter Biodynamic® Standard

By Leah Joyner, CFSA Education Coordinator. Demeter USA is hosting a Preconference Intensive and Saturday Workshop at the 30th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference!, sponsored by Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO).


If you’ve been on one of CFSA’s farm tours, you might have visited with Rob and Cheri at Whitted Bowers Farm and enjoyed picking your own delicious strawberries. We think that part of what makes their strawberries so irresistible is the very unique way they are grown, certified organic and biodynamic. And we’re not the only ones who have caught on to the amazing quality of Rob and Cheri’s products. Whitted Bowers recently announced a partnership with  Nello’s Sauce to produce the first certified biodynamic tomato sauce grown and made in the US.

Rob Bowers on the Piedmont Farm Tour 2015

Rob Bowers on the Piedmont Farm Tour 2015 (photo by Leah Joyner)

The partnership was sponsored by Whole Foods Market, which also offers an extensive list of organic and biodynamic wines. Wine aficionados were among some of the first consumers to realize the high quality taste and purity of biodynamic products, especially after Food and Wine Magazine declared them the next big trend in 2011. The prediction has rung true, especially in European markets where biodynamic wine consumption is on the rise. Consumers are becoming conscious to the health and taste benefits of organic and biodynamic products, presenting a financial opportunity for growers to capitalize on the value in these ecologically mindful practices.

Although we have seen a recent boom in consumer demand for biodynamic products, biodynamic agriculture has a deep rooted history. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the father of biodynamics, recognized the dangers of synthetic inputs as early as they were first being introduced to the market, and was one of the first to call public attention to dangerous chemical inputs in agricultural systems. According to The Biodynamic Association, Steiner instead advocated for a holistic approach to soil, plant, animal and human health.

“Farms should be thought of as living organisms, not factories: self-contained and self-sustaining, responsible for creating and maintaining their own individual health and vitality.” Rudolf Steiner

Biodynamic farmers manage their agricultural ecosystems following the principles developed by Steiner, which make up the foundation of the US Demeter Farm Standard. These standards encourage the farmer to rely on the systems of the farm as a whole to provide inputs to nourish itself. As Jim Fullmer points out, “A critical point in the explanation of Biodynamic Agriculture is that even the tiniest aspect of an agricultural system, a seed or a bud for instance, contains the archetypal imprint of the widest celestial sphere, essentially the infinite.”

CFSA’s vision is a food system that is good for consumers, good for farmers and farmworkers, and good for the land. Biodynamic farming exemplifies this triple bottom line approach through holistic land management, prioritization of soil health and minimal outside inputs. Demeter USA, the non-profit organization that offers biodynamic Demeter-Biodynamiccertifications in the US, is joining CFSA at our 30th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham, NC November 6-8th. Demeter believes that “healthy farms mean healthy people and a healthy planet,” and CFSA couldn’t agree more. Jim Fullmer, Co-Director, and Erin Sojourner Agostinelli, Member Services Coordinator of Demeter USA, will offer a pre conference intensive from 9AM – 3PM on Friday, November 6th and will also present a workshop in our Urban Farming/Creative Solutions track on Saturday. These workshops are sponsored by Eastern Carolina Organics.  The Demeter Farm Standard utilizes the NOP requirements as a base minimum upon which the additional biodynamic requirements are built, so growers who certify biodynamic with Demeter may also qualify for organic certification through Demeter’s own Stellar logo-stellarCertification Services. Fullmer and Agostinelli will introduce participants to biodynamic practices, and detail the seven foundational principles that make up the Demeter US Farm Standard, including:

1) Biodiversity

2) Generating fertility out of the living dynamics of the farm

3) Generating pest control out of the living dynamics of the farm

4) Biodynamic preparations and wider influences

5) On-farm water and waterway conservation

6) Integration of livestock

7) Gentle post-harvest handling

The Demeter Association, Inc. is the only certifier of biodynamic farms and products in the world, made up of certification organizations in 45 countries around the globe. Demeter USA’s Preconference Intensive is a unique opportunity to connect with the experts in biodynamic agriculture, and dig into the details through a workshop specifically designed for farmers, retailers, and value-added operations interested in implementing biodynamic production on a commercial scale. See our Preconference Workshops page for more information and to register for this exciting biodynamic workshop at the 30th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference!


Organic Certification: Our Farm’s Experience

By guest blogger Jane Saiers (“Farmer J”) of RambleRill Farm. Learn more about what it takes to become Certified Organic at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference during workshop sessions and a Friday Pre-Conference Intensive. CFSA Farm Services offers consulting for farms ready to transition to organic.

RambleRill barn and sunflowers

Photo by RambleRill via Facebook

In 2010, my husband and I started RambleRill Farm, where we offer educational and wellness programs and grow and sell certified organic fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms. We are proud to grow US Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic produce. We ate certified organic foods for years before we started to grow our own food because, like many consumers, we equated “certified organic” with not using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and, therefore, with safer food for us as eaters.

Upon starting the farm in 2010, my husband and I did not intend to pursue organic certification of our produce. We followed the lead of other farmers who described themselves as “following organic practices but not certified.” The inspirational spark that led our farm to change course and pursue organic certification was a guest lecture by Earthwise Company’s Tony Kleese in a class in the Sustainable Agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College. Having heard Tony speak about the history, purpose, and practices of certified organic growing, I read the National Organic Program standards for certified organic production for the first time. I learned that, yes, being certified organic entails not using synthetic insecticides, herbicides, or fertilizers—but it is much more than that. 

RambleRill radishes

Photo by RambleRill via Facebook

The National Organic Program sets forth standards that operationalize a systems approach to farming that supports the health of people and the environment. The standards are documented, accessible to eaters and growers alike, and enforceable. The USDA defines organic agriculture as “a production system that is managed to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Organic agriculture is a whole-farm approach that entails striving to work in harmony with natural processes and employing practices healthy for humans, animals, and the environment.

When confronted with a challenge on the farm, the organic grower asks, “What would nature do to solve this problem? How can I work with, rather than against, nature?”

Organic agriculture involves continuously learning how better to attune farming practices to the natural world.

 The Process

To become certified, farms prepare an application that includes:

  • A 1-year prospective Organic System Plan describing practices to be employed and substances to be used to foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity
  • A detailed farm description including field maps
  • Detailed records including soil and water test results, pest and disease monitoring logs,  tillage and cultivation logs, planting and harvest records, post-harvest handling and storage reports, field activity records, and product sales records
  • A history of substances applied to the land during the past three years
  • Lists of products grown and processed and of all inputs to be applied to or near growing spaces with associated sales receipts and labels.

Organic System Plans are updated and farm inspections are conducted annually by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. If the farmer determines that deviations from the Organic System Plan are necessary, the farmer consults with the certifying agent to ensure continued compliance with National Organic Standards.

As we prepared our application to become certified, our farm benefited greatly from farm services programs offered by Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. CFSA Organic Transition Coordinator Eric Soderholm helped us by organizing a transitioning-to-organic workshop that we attended, consulting with us on our application, visiting our farm, and compiling the comprehensive online reference Organic Transition Handbook for Produce Farmers. CFSA Farm Services Coordinator Keith Baldwin prepared for us a conservation plan that outlines farm-specific practices for addressing resource concerns and makes our farm eligible to apply for federal funding for conservation practices.


Photo by RambleRill via Facebook

Organic System Plan

The farm-specific Organic System Plan outlines practices for working in harmony with natural processes in a manner healthy for humans, animals, and the environment. Practices that are described in the Organic System Plan and that are required to be implemented on the farm include:

  • Measures to Maintain and Improve Soil Fertility. National Organic Program standards require that farmers maintain and improve soil without using synthetic fertilizers, which can compromise animal and environmental health. On RambleRill Farm, we strive to maintain and improve soil health through practices such as use of cover crops, addition of organic matter with leaf mulch and vegetable-based compost, and erosion-control measures such as contour farming.
  • Conservation Measures. National Organic Program standards require that farmers take measures to conserve resources on the farm. On RambleRill Farm, we strive to conserve resources through practices such as drip irrigation for water conservation and contour farming for soil conservation.
  • Environmentally Sound Pest-Management Practices. National Organic Program standards require that farmers manage pests––including weeds, insects, and plant diseases––with measures that are safe for the environment. Use of synthetic pesticides is not permitted. On RambleRill Farm, we do not use ANY insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides––either synthetic or organic. We do not use synthetic fertilizers. We manage weeds, insects, and diseases with measures such as hand weeding, creating beneficial insect habitats, rotating crops, applying leaf mulch, and cultural practices such as planting disease-resistant varieties.
  • Measures to Preserve and Enhance Biodiversity. National Organic Program standards require that farmers take measures to preserve and enhance biodiversity—that is, the abundance of plant, animal, and fungal species in an ecosystem. On RambleRill Farm, we encourage biodiversity through practices such as planting a wide variety of crops as opposed to monoculture plantings; creating diverse habitats supporting diverse species; and maintaining and creating edges (i.e., interfaces between biological communities such as woodland/grassland, land/water) that support diverse species.

The author and farmer Wendell Berry wrote that “To husband is to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve… Husbandry is the name of all practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world.” At RambleRill Farm, we have striven to be good husbands to our farm since the beginning—even before we became certified organic. Largely because of the detailed recordkeeping and careful planning entailed in developing the implementing the Organic System Plan, becoming certified organic has helped us to practice better husbandry.


Photo by RambleRill Farm via Facebook

Certified Organic as a Baseline

While organic principles are integral to our farming approach, they are not the only ones that guide our work. Organic principles and practices serve as a baseline that we continually seek to exceed in our efforts to become better farmers and people. For example, being certified organic does not necessarily entail supporting local community and local economy. We buy locally and sell locally in an effort to help our community and home place thrive. Further, while many practices involved in being certified organic enhance sustainability, certified organic is not synonymous with sustainable. Economic, social, and environmental sustainability are primary goals for our farm. 

Implications for Our Customers

Being certified organic means that we adhere to specific National Organic Standards practices that are documented, accessible, and enforceable.

As a certified organic farm, we have detailed knowledge and documentation of the history, from seed to sale, of each and every fruit, vegetable, and mushroom that we grow.

We have often heard farmers who are not certified organic say that they follow organic practices. Problematically for the customer, definitions of “organic” in this context can vary from farm to farm. We know that the food we grow is produced using practices intended to preserve and improve human, animal, and environmental health. We view it as our responsibility to share information about our growing practices with our customers who want to eat food that is safe and healthy. We view our certified organic status as one means of making our practices transparent to customers and as an invitation to conversation!

Jane and Darin of RambleRill Farm via Facebook

Jane and Darin of RambleRill Farm via Facebook


Producing Vermicompost to Increase Yields (or Farm Income!)

By guest blogger, Rhonda Sherman, who will be speaking at the Sustainable Ag Conference during Saturday’s Soil and Seeds Track.

Looking to diversify your farm income? Interested in converting manures and crop residues into value-added products? Vermicomposting may be an option for you. It is a process that relies on earthworms and microorganisms to convert organic materials to a valuable soil amendment and source of plant nutrients. Vermicompost can improve soil quality, increase plant yields, and suppress diseases and pests. You can produce vermicompost for use on your farm or gardens, or you can sell it for $400 to $1,300 per cubic yard. Markets include greenhouses, vineyards, farms, nurseries, golf courses, turf fields, landscapers, and homeowners.


Numerous published scientific studies have demonstrated positive effects of vermicompost on plants. As little as 2 percent (by volume) vermicompost can significantly accelerate seed germination and increase plant growth, flowering and yields. These increases are usually independent of nutrient availability. There are also documented decreases in attacks by plant pathogens, parasitic nematodes, and insects.

Feedstocks for vermicomposting include animal manures, food preparation residuals and leftovers, scrap paper, agricultural crop residues, organic byproducts from industries, and yard trimmings. During the Sustainable Ag Conference workshop, we’ll discuss feedstock choices, preparation, loading rates, consumption, and output rates.

NCSU Compost Demo

Farmers are choosing to vermicompost manure and crop residuals for several reasons: some need an environmentally-beneficial alternative for manure management; others want to produce vermicompost to increase their crop yields and reduce their use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. And some farmers choose vermicomposting to increase their income from the sales of earthworms or vermicompost.

At the Sustainable Ag Conference workshop, we will also discuss the following topics:

  • Differences between vermicomposting and composting
  • Benefits of vermicompost and its liquid extract
  • Using the correct species of earthworms
  • Earthworm husbandry
  • Equipment options and site requirements
  • Management issues
  • Storing vermicompost
  • Difference between castings and vermicompost
  • Tricks to watering the worm bin

A lot of misinformation about vermicomposting is being passed around, so I will also be discussing the myths and realities of vermicompost production.

I will have lots of photos of vermicomposting facilities so you can see options that vary from low-cost to high-tech. Here is a photo of a vermicompost operation that used to be at a hog farm in North Carolina:

Vermicompost operation

Rhonda Sherman has been contacted by people in 105 countries seeking her expertise in vermicomposting. For 16 years, she has organized the world’s only annual conference on large-scale vermicomposting (the latest had attendees from 6 countries and 25 US states). Rhonda is co-editor of the only scientific book on vermicomposting: Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, & Environmental Management. She’s been an extension specialist at NC State University in the Department of Biological & Agricultural Engineering for 22 years, and is Director of the university’s Compost Training Facility. Rhonda regularly teaches and writes about small-to-large scale vermicomposting and composting, and serves as president of the NC Composting Council. To learn more about vermicomposting and composting, follow the links at http://www.bae.ncsu.edu/people/professionals/sherman.

Funding Your Food and Ag Business

By guest blogger, Margaret Gifford, who is speaking at the Sustainable Ag Conference during Saturday’s Farm Business track

Northeast Farm Access Agricultural Center

Northeast Farm Access Agricultural Center. Photo by Margaret Gifford

Accessing capital can be a challenge for a food and agriculture business. The gap between investors and entrepreneurs is sometimes hard to bridge. Investors may lack understanding of farm and food business growth stages and try to apply financial models from other industries. On the other side of the equation, farmers and food entrepreneurs sometimes become “accidental entrepreneurs,” inheriting the family farm or following a passion for cheese making until one day a passion has grown into a business and it is time for expansion. Sometimes a catastrophe happens and a business needs cash fast in order to rebuild a flock, repair a barn or create infrastructure to handle recurring droughts or floods.

At the Sustainable Agriculture Conference in November, I will host a workshop on how to find the right new funding option for your food or farm business. Traditional sources of agriculture funding include farm credit, farm dinners or even your credit cards, all of which can be expensive and inflexible. Many of the new tools were developed in response to the need for better and more diversified sources of funding for local food enterprises.

Annual Fundraising Dinner at Hawthorne Valley Farm

Annual Fundraising Dinner at Hawthorne Valley Farm. Photo by Margaret Gifford

The range of non-traditional possibilities can be overwhelming – from donation-based crowd funding to crowd-sourced loans like Kiva, low interest loans from Slow Money, program related investment from a foundation or even selling equity in your business to raise capital.

Our conversation will help you understand the different options and begin to assess what is right for your needs. I hope you will come prepared to share your stories and knowledge. There are many ways to finance a food or farm enterprise and we can learn from our varied experiences. We will use a simple framework tool that maps your business need to the capital raise. As an added bonus, we’ll provide marketing and communications tips for you to take home on how to prepare for your capital raise.

To get started, you should think about the basics – your enterprise budget. (Yes, I know, technical assistance providers are constantly going on about those pesky enterprise budgets!) But no joke, they help. You can’t get to your destination if you don’t know where you are going and how much fuel you need to get there.

Investors will require you to demonstrate a clear understanding of your business goals, your cash flow to date and your projections for how you will use the capital and repay the loan or investment. Even if you are eligible for a grant, you will increase your likelihood of getting funded if you can demonstrate that you understand your business and have a plan for financial sustainability.

Northeast Farm Access Founder, Bob Bernstein, preparing to present to investors

Northeast Farm Access Founder, Bob Bernstein, preparing to present to investors. Photo by Margaret Gifford

Once those basics are done, you are ready to begin to think about the specific options for raising capital, such as these outlined on Watervine Impact’s website. If you have ideas, questions or stories for me, please feel free to reach out at margaret@watervineimpact.com.  It’s going to be another great Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference and I look forward to meeting you in November.

Barnraiser Campaign Photo.

Barnraiser Campaign Photo. Photo by Chicken Bridge Bakery

Margaret Gifford leads the NY-based consulting firm Watervine Impact. She is a member of the Community Food Funders of New York City and currently serves as an advisor to RAFI. Margaret is the founder of NC-based Farmer Foodshare, a member of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), Farm Hack and Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Watervine Impact provides business services to help food and agriculture clients enter new markets or access funds for growth. Watervine clients include Element Capital Advisors, GrowNYC, Northeast Farm Access, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


High-Dollar Crops that Grow Themselves (But You Don’t Know They’re There)

By guest blogger, Frank Hyman, who will be speaking on Foraged Foods at the Sustainable Ag Conference during Sunday’s Foodie Track 

Frank Hyman

I never thought I’d make a dime from foraging when I first started. It just seemed like one more way to spend time outdoors (I gotta be outdoors), maybe scare up some good food and be with the best kind of people. I mean, the people who care about food and want to be outdoors are just the best kind of people, right? But here’s the funny thing. If you graphed a line of the quickly increasing number of people who want to buy foraged mushrooms and plants—like chanterelles and nettles–it would be skyrocketing up from left to right toward the upper corner of the graph. Put another line showing the slowly increasing number of people who can find and identify wild mushrooms and plants and watch it bounce along near the bottom of the graph. Translation? The distance between those two graph lines explain the high prices one can get from feral foods right now. Some examples: dense chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, which unlike money, do grow on trees, sells for $16 a pound. And it does have the taste and texture of white meat chicken. No joke.

Common chickweed picked at its height of flavor goes for $12 a pound. How’s that compared to cultivated greens?

So, as one who never thought to make a dime from foraging, I was pleasantly surprised to make more than $1100 from ten hours spent foraging and selling wild maitake mushrooms to chefs last October. You do the math on my hourly wage. And even when I don’t find enough mushrooms or plants to sell, I often bring home plenty of high-dollar edibles for our family table. I found three pounds of chanterelles on one foray. Half a pound went into dinner, a pound was shared with friends and the rest was lightly sautéed and frozen for the future. And one more mushroom hot-spot was added to my growing list of foraging sites.Morel

For most of us, we have to drive to public or private land in order to forage. That travel time cuts into our hourly wage. But what if you have access to between 10 and 100 acres out your back door? And what if that acreage is growing thousands of dollars of high-dollar crops that you don’t have to seed, feed, weed, water, mulch, trellis or lose sleep over?

The only tools you need for these feral crops you probably already have: pocket knife, brush and basket. So the only thing standing between you and becoming the local feral food finder is a bit of know-how. That means picking up a few used copies of regional field guides and most importantly, spending the time learning directly from experienced foragers. How terrible would that be?

One last thing. Even if I never made a dime from foraging, I would still do it for its own sake. I don’t just get the pleasure of being outside and bringing home delicious food. When I put that succulent greenbrier tip or thin slice of beefsteak mushroom in my mouth, I feel like I’m a part of nature rather than a spectator. And there’s no way you can buy that.

Frank Hyman will be sharing a year’s worth of mushrooms and wild plants in one slideshow session at SAC. He teaches foraging to chefs and others in Durham, NC. Frank used to write the Feral Food column for Urban Farm magazine (RIP) and he’s learned from foragers in the US, Canada, France and Italy. He was trained by Clemson to be an IPM scout and served as an elected board member of the Durham Soil & Water Conservation District. He was an organic farmer and CFSA member in the mid-1980’s and has a BS in horticulture from NCSU where he studied under JC Raulston and Will Hooker. Learn more about Frank and his classes on super rain barrels, deer-proof gardens, Hentopia chicken coops and more at www.frankhyman.com.