Monday, October 07, 2013

Rural Character & Destination Farmland Heritage

Fall in Durham is heavenly on a Harley.  Much of this single-city county (fourth largest) is still rural and being re-populated now with small “farm-to-table” farms that Durham’s marketing organization leverages to fuel its nationally-renowned foodie reputation.

This scenic farmland was recently used as a “hook” for a publication that recently capitulated Durham to one of the five great US destinations to visit.

One of my all-time favorite routes is southeast along South Lowell Road, which I played a role working in partnership with the legendary Bill Johnson to qualify as one of North Carolina’s Scenic By-ways, one of the few located in an otherwise urban county.

From there, I jog down past Green Button Farm, then east again across Lake Michie and up past Bull City Farm and Elodie Farms.  The roads are winding and forested recalling a time when engineers really knew how to make a road contour to its surrounding landscape.

Bull City Farm would be called a ranch in my native Idaho, as they are livestock growers including lamb and “grass-fed Jersey beef cattle.  Where I was born and spent my early years on an ancestral ranch, we didn’t know any other means to raise cattle than “grass fed.”

Where I turn south again toward the part of Durham where I live is a stone’s throw from North Carolina State University’s “Beef Cattle Field Laboratory.”

Many folks over in Raleigh where NCSU is located have always seemed a bit geographically challenged.  Even though many at that noted university have Phd.’s they misidentified the facility’s location as “Butner,” a town in the next county over, although it is in Durham.

When the mistake was brought to their attention, they changed the description as being on the Durham line but not the name.  Lost on whoever made the mistake was the very cool “alignment” of having the “bull testing” facility in the same county with the “Bull City.”

Mislabeling like this has consequences.  Raleigh was recently named the third best city in which to start a business, an accolade I think well deserved.  But all the announcement in Forbes could find noteworthy is what Raleigh is near:

“This North Carolina city is close to Durham and Chapel Hill, which are both home to major research universities… (and) Research Triangle Park” [which by the way is also in Durham.]

Truth in labeling then would be that greatness is nearby but thanks to the diligence over the years of Durham’s marketing agency, at least Forbes and the researchers conducting the analysis mention the locations as non-Raleigh assets rather than just attributing Durham features to Raleigh as they once did.

In far too many communities this problem can usually be traced back to a self-centeredness that can contaminate news articles and confuse researchers as well as undermine the ROI from “buy local.” 

Bull City Farms is one of 700,000 family-owned cattle-growing operations in the United States representing 35% of all farms.  But this operation is part of only a third that raise their calves after weaning and continue to graze them such as we did in the 1950s along the Henry’s Fork in the Idaho shadow of the Tetons.

By 2008 as the great recession reached crisis level, cattle production accounted for only 40% of average farm product value on best cow-calf farms in the U.S., much of which is in the Southeast.  By then more than a third of the people operating these operations worked off-farm.

About 6 million head of America’s beef cattle are raised in the Southeast but the operations are much smaller in size.  Here they average 453 acres including 200 acres of pasture and about 59 head.  Nationwide, ninety percent of cattle growers use private pasture for grazing.

As an article reported recently on Mother Jones, the perception of corporate farming fueled by the news media is a bit more complicated.  It exists, but “barely.”

According to a new report entitled Apples to Twinkies, authored by healthcare policy analysts, 75% of those farm subsidies the House of Representatives left in place when it moved instead to deprive millions of working families from food stamps, goes to just 3.8% of farms nationwide.

The tiny minority who finagled the House into this move to ostensibly cut government spending is the same group that a few weeks later shut government down entirely, costing taxpayers $300 million per day.  But I digress.

Between 1995 and 2011, this included $18.2 billion in tax subsidy for junk food additives while very little went to healthier agricultural products.  In other words, about $7.58 per tax payer was spent to subsidize junk food vs. 27 cents on apples.  North Carolinians alone subsidizes 89.8 million Twinkies but only 2.4 million apples.

Rates of obesity are an outcome.

Federal policy to guide food production is hijacked by huge special interests rather than incentivizing healthy eating and small slow-food operations such as Bull City Farms.

The good news, according to Nielsen, is that we are going about shopping differently than we did before the recession.  Globally, the average shopping trips per person was 158 back then and it has fallen to 144 today, although we spend much more per trip.

Underlying this trend is that while 80% of global consumers cite spending more time with friends and family as a priority, 49% of online consumers make purchases online.

Even though Durham is now the fourth largest city in North Carolina and shoehorned into the 17th smallest county by land area, setting aside so much of its land in watershed is also paying other dividends.

Not only does it safeguard the rural part of Durham’s personality, but coupled with Durham’s dramatic emergence as a visitor destination since 1989, its foodie reputation is fueling a resurgence of small, sustainable farms.

The number of farms in Durham fell from 1,600 in 1910 to fewer than 200 two years after I was born in 1948, where it hovered for many decades.  Today, the number has rapidly increasing, probably past the 300 mark.

In no small part this resurgence is due to Durham’s farmland preservation program established in 1996.  But it can also be traced to Durham’s launch of community marketing a few years earlier.

Farmland is not only about scenic preservation, it is about preserving sense-of-place and heritage which is so central to visitor-centric cultural and economic development. 

But the nature of farms in Durham has changed.  According to a Durham friend of mine who blogs at Science Time, all but gone are those that raised tobacco, which thanks to the 1998 tobacco settlement has fallen to half of what it was in 1910 and a fraction of what it was in 1992.

Today, 50% is devoted to raising hay or forage which is better for the soil and the environment as well, as public health.

Growing is the percentage devoted to food crops and livestock and most of this resurgent farming is supported by Durham’s foodie culture which in turn has grown in tandem with its reputation with visitors.

FYI, for information on Durham farms you can visit, click here.  For farms in other nearby communities, click hereTriangle Grown, by the way, is one of many ways destination marketing organizations in this “family of communities cooperate as a means to facilitate intra regional day-trip visitors.

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