(QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Have you ever really thought about how your food makes it from the farm to your table? Warmer temperatures and more extreme storms are adding to the list of challenges for our farmers.
But for one South Carolina farm, innovation is quite literally in the DNA of their vegetables.
“They are the gift that keeps giving.” Wild Hope Farm is fruitful, to say the least. Katherine Belk notices, “They produced fruit on their first year, so it has been pretty incredible.” The ready-to-eat prime-ark berries are just a drop in the bucket. “We’ve got peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, more tomatoes, and watermelon…and then our fifth block was corn and cantaloupe and more watermelon,” explains Belk.
On more than 12 acres at Wild Hope Farm, they’re growing more than 50 different types of produce—everything from squash to berries, cantaloupe, and even prickly pears. But what’s even more unique than their variety of produce, is their focus on community and climate resilience.
Katherine Belk, more appropriately nicknamed Peanut, “It’s kind of what I was called since I was really little and now that I’m farming, I don’t need a professional name,” has been the operations manager at the farm in Chester, South Carolina, since 2017.
Powered by the sun with more than 35 kilowatts of solar power, she explains her practices: “We’re growing in a way that I would kind of call beyond organic; we’re using regenerative farming practices.” Wild Hope is not only organic but also hopes to be net zero in a few years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines regenerative farming as a sustainable way to work with the land. Peanut explains, “We use a lot of compost, natural fertilizers, and mulch and things like that so that is also beneficial to the ground.” These methods promote environmental stewardship and enhance the quality of our food.,
Healthy soils, no-till practices and diverse, covered crops all keep roots protected and carbon from escaping the ground.
Peanut adds that switching out produce, “you want to make sure with all of your crops you’re rotating out of different crop families” and covering up the soil, “we have a lush cover crop of rye and clover planted” keep carbon sequestered.
The soil also stays healthy, nutrient-rich, and ready for the next round of veggies, so when it rains, or even pours, “that water is absorbed so it doesn’t just run away, so we can retain our topsoil which is the most nutrient-dense part of the land,” Peanut says the land can still be fruitful from the bottom up.
On the flip side, “This just allows us to be growing through the winter and to have higher quality products,” Peanut shows off her high tunnels, “we get around 5 degrees of protection in here.” They can protect the crops from the top down. “If we didn’t have this covered space we’d have to be growing out in the field, and it’s just more susceptible to frost, to pest disease,” she explains.
Some resistance to heat, pests, and disease can also come from inside the crop’s DNA, “it’s meant to be here, a Seminole is like a tropical pumpkin, so it has a lot of heat tolerance and can grow a lot easier here in this climate.”
Taylor Holenbeck is the Grower Services Coordinator at Happy Dirt, an organic produce distributor based in Durham, North Carolina. He explains, “We want to see as much food coming from the Southeast as possible, and then staying here, so not relying on shipping food across the country or even across the world.” Owned by 16 farmers, Happy Dirt helps growers distribute, market, and package their produce. The organization also connects farmers with innovators from across the industry.
“He crossed a Seminole pumpkin and a Waltham butternut, which is a very common butternut,” Holenbeck explains Commonwealth seed grower Edmund Frost bred this South Anna squash in Virginia in 2011. “With that, got this really cool variety with the goal of it being disease resistant, so it has a really good disease package. It has a really high brix reading, which means a lot of sugar content, and it’s very prolific, pretty high-yielding squash.” Through this open-source seed initiative, these growers vow to spread the wealth, he adds, “Since he bred it in Virginia its well-adapted to the Southeast.”
Wild Hope is part of a small trial for the new squash. “This farm has been really instrumental in sharing research and sharing different knowledge around how to do it.” Holenbeck adds the team was expecting to bring in about 3,500 pounds of South Anna squash from the South Carolina farm. With some lower yields from this round, they’re hoping to plant more next year.
This is just the first step to bringing resilience and food security onto the dinner table, Holenbeck is passionate, “breeding resistance from disease, breeding adaptability into our food system,” is key. The goal for these farmers is not just to alleviate the problems in our food system, but to be trailblazers in the solutions, “we want to keep pushing that envelope and with climate change happening, we really want to see how farms can be instrumental with helping either slow that process or just not adding to it more and more,” adds Holenbeck.
In the last year, the EPA found agriculture is responsible for 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. But, when you zero in on methane, the most potent heat-trapper, farming practices are responsible for 36% of those emissions. In North Carolina, that number jumps to nearly half!
That’s why innovation from farmers like Peanut, “it’s definitely addicting, once you start, you don’t really want to stop” is key. She says it’s not just for the reliability of our dinner plates, but also the health of our ecosystems and their stewards, “I think it just makes sense. If you invest in your soil, it’s going to be here for years to come and you’re more self-sufficient and self-reliable.”
She adds, “I’m excited to be a part of this community, even though it really is hard work, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Holenbeck agrees, “Farmers are some of the most resilient and adaptable people on the planet. They’re constantly exposed to the elements every day, they’re having to work through the rain, through the snow, and so with climate change adaptability becomes increasingly important.”
And we can do our part by learning how our produce makes it from farm to table.
“The more we can create a regional food system and support these farmers, the better off we’re all going to be. We all have a stake in this game, it’s not just the farmers at the potential of losing their livelihood or their land…it’s all of us,” reflects Holenbeck.