By Robert Turner
The myths and stories passed down through human history all have a lesson to teach. These stories guide us and hint at the purpose and meaning of life. They teach human values like perseverance, wisdom, temperance, courage and justice.
Recently, as I walked the campus of Mars Hill University during the annual Spring Conference held by Organic Growers School (OGS), I couldn’t help but feel that all of the storytellers and pilgrims were on the same journey. They came from different and diverse backgrounds, from all walks of life, young and old. Some were there to teach, some to learn, but all had a tale to tell. I realized that it was all about the stories; the whole purpose of this conference was to share the stories we tell and the lessons we’ve learned.
The teachers and instructors at the conference had started on this long journey years before, and they wanted to tell others how to prepare and make their way. They told stories about bees, permaculture, tea tonics, agroforestry, medicinal herbs and biochar. They told tales of land design, backyard poultry, fermentation and magical mead making.
The farmers, who are known for storytelling, sometimes struggled to tell their own stories.
“How do I compete with large corporations that put misleading labels on their products that say things like ‘100% All-Natural,’ and what does that even mean?” said one young farmer at a session moderated by pathfinder Meredith Leigh. “Big Ag is trying to capitalize on this movement, and I don’t know how to differentiate my product and get the word out about how I’m different, and even why I exist. Corporate America has seen the trend, and now they’re trying to hijack the movement.” This is the struggle of the small, organic farmer.
I met the territory sales rep for Johnny’s Seeds, Wes Palmer, who had a booth at the conference and was trying to make connections with local growers and farmers. He was thinking about getting an RV, he said, so that he could bring his young family on the road with him as he made his way to farms and fields throughout the Southeast. He said that he and his wife always made a point to stop at farmers markets wherever they traveled. He took pictures, and the markets had become an important part of his story and his journey.
Ashton Thompson was at the conference to tell about Juneberry Ridge, a wholistic farm, event space and learning center in Norwood, NC. He said that they were trying to write their own story, creating it as they went along, trying to envision the world that they wanted and then building it. I think most small farmers do that.
Professor Moorthy Muthukrishnan, originally from India, represented the College of Engineering at NC State University, and proudly displayed a solar-powered golf cart recently refurbished by students. “It’s something that can be used to run around the farm, and this one hasn’t been plugged in for six months,” he said with a satisfied grin. And with him was a professor from Warren Wilson college, Dr. Dave Ellum, who was there to discuss a future research station at the campus farm designed around “agrivoltaics.” The new research station might show how large solar panel arrays can be incorporated into agricultural fields without the loss of farm yields.
As I wandered the conference, I purchased a baseball cap with a cool logo from a small company called Gribley Permaculture. The story that they told was about “helping friends and neighbors (and all fellow human animals interconnected in this living web) to live in right relation with the land.”
There were a thousand people in attendance over the weekend event and a thousand stories. Almost everyone, in the classrooms and in the hallways, spoke of the challenges, perils and pitfalls in their journey as a warning to others. And every story was like those ancient myths that have guided human beings for millennia: men and women on a hero’s journey who overcome great obstacles to finally learn a lesson that comes at the end, a moral to the story.
The story that the USDA tells is this. Eighty-nine percent of the two million farms in the US are small family farms with sales of less than $350,000. And they all have their own gripping tales of floods and drought, pests and pestilence, if you care to stop and listen.
Most of the US food production, says the USDA, now comes from the largest farms and farm corporations (the top 6 percent of farms). How do they all fit? How do the small farmers and producers that make up our regional food system fit in a world where the big keep getting bigger? And what is the message, the story, that these small growers must tell their customers and the larger community?
The answer came from a humble man that I met outside a classroom. His story was so short and quick as he made his way to another class that I didn’t have time to catch his name, but I know that he was a small farmer from Madison County. I wondered how he goes to market, and what his unique selling proposition is. “Why should people buy from you?” I asked.
“I think my customers are buying into my values system, which I express as often as I can,” he said. “They value the same things: clean water, an unpolluted earth, biodiversity and a living planet. Mother Earth is talking to us if anyone wants to listen. Some people listen.”
The story that Mother Earth tells recently is full of fire and flood, rage and fury. It is a warning to us all that we must walk softly upon the earth. Our monocropping, chemically intensive, industrial agriculture system must be replaced by a regionally based, more sustainable system.
My baseball cap represents the rebel deep inside of me fighting against that system, and a deeper expression of my own values and beliefs. I believe in small business, small farms and sustainable living, and I’ll wear the hat proudly as a form of radical resistance. And I believe in OGS, bringing these pilgrims together on their walk of life to teach and to learn. Happy 30th anniversary, OGS.
All are invited to attend the Organic Growers School’s 30th anniversary celebration with live music, food and fun on June 17 at the Smoky Park Supper Club.