More than a mouthful: Organic and local food in Alamance County

“It takes 1,500 miles for a piece of food to travel to our mouths,” Charles Sydnor said. “It’s just plain stupid to eat raspberries in January that have been Fed-Exed from Chile.”

Sydnor is a beef cattle farmer who lives in Snow Camp, N.C. He drives his four-wheeler over the rolling green hills that compromise Braeburn and Cane Creek Farms, talking

Sydnor believes many of the environmental and economic problems in America stem from unsustainable and what he calls “faulty” agriculture.

passionately about local economies, food and the natural process of agriculture and raising animals.

“The whole idea that drives this farm is to let Mother Nature take its course, rather than trying to bend it to our will and make it do what we want,” he said.

Sydnor raises grass-fed beef, chickens and pigs on hundreds of acres of land he bought in Snow Camp in 1974. He first became interested in beef cattle when he moved as child from Richmond, Virginia to Montana and helped his uncle on his farm.

“I didn’t want anything to do with Richmond. There it’s all about who your grandfather was. In Montana its all about what you can do,” he said.

Raising grass-fed beef is a natural alternative to pumping cows with grain, antibiotics and hormones to make them grow faster and therefore slaughtered more quickly.

Sydnor brought over 12 Red Devon cows from New Zealand in 2004 to breed them as beef cows on his farm.

Sydnor pointed to the fact that grass-fed cows make for healthier beef. Grass-fed beef has a high content of omega-three fatty acids, a naturally healthier fat, than mass-marketed beef cows.

The cows graze on a small piece of land and are rotated every day so that they do not overgraze an area. The cow manure naturally fertilizes the grass so that it replenishes itself by the time the cows are rotated to graze in that particular area again.

The chickens on the farm are released into the cow pasture after the cows have grazed to eat the insects that are attracted to the cow manure. This controls for disease-breeding insects and parasites and gives the chickens something they naturally like to eat.

Sydnor raises his cows for about two years until they are ready to be slaughtered. Commercial beef cows are slaughtered just a few months after their birth.

On the farm nothing is wasted and Sydnor does his very best to let nature take its course by not using artificial fertilizers or feeding animals things they are not meant to eat.

Sustainability and keeping revenue in the local economy are ideas that Sydnor and other people who live in Alamance County are passionate about. He and his long-time friend and now neighbor, Eric Henry, dreamed of a grocery store in Burlington that would feature local agriculture and natural and organic products.

But more than a grocery store, they wanted a social gathering place in the community that would keep revenue in Alamance County. In 2006 they launched the idea of a co-operative grocery store in downtown Burlington.

After researching if there was a market for such a grocery store in their community, Sydnor said the results were astonishing.

The Company Shops Market opened on Front Street in downtown Burlington in what used to be an A & P grocery store.

“We found that $24 million was going out of Alamance County to other cities with gourmet grocery stores, such as Chapel Hill and Durham,” he said. “We thought if we could tap into even a little bit of that we would be successful.”

After several years of dreaming, planning, and garnering community support, Company Shops Market opened its doors in May 2011. The grocery store operates as a co-operative, meaning it abides by certain principles and ethics that are meant to benefit everyone involved in the business.

There is no single owner of the Company Shops Market; instead there is a Board of Directors who votes on decisions about the business and the store.  The co-op is a

About 60 percent of the co-op’s produce in the summer months comes from a 15 to 20 mile radius from the store.

friendly, communal gathering place that hosts events such as wine-tastings and educational seminars about health supplements and vitamins.

“The types of products that we offer speak more than anything,” said Stephen Walter, the Company Shops Market’s marketing manager.

The products offered at the co-op are held to high standards. The store tries to offer food that is as close to its natural state as possible, as local as possible, and does not sell products with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), artificial flavors, or high fructose corn syrup.

Customers can buy certain products such as grains and spices in bulk at the co-op.

“We have gotten out of balance, and organic food is the sanest thing going,” said Leila Wolfrum, the Company Shops Market’s operations manager.

Wolfrum said she started learning about sustainable agriculture in graduate school and that it just made sense to her to grow food through natural processes.

During the summer 60 percent of the co-op’s fresh produce comes from a 15 to 20 mile radius from the store. The co-op buys directly from about 40 different farmers who supply the needs the co-op has that week, such as tomatoes or strawberries.

Wolfrum said this gets rid of the overhead that farmers would have to pay if they went through a middleman.

“That way the farmer keeps as much of the profit as possible,” she said.

Smith grows fifteen different varieties of tomatoes. The seedlings start out in the greenhouse before they are planted.

One of the suppliers of the co-op’s produce is Redbud Organic Farm in Burlington. Clay Smith grows USDA-certified organic produce with his wife, Nancy Joyner, on the farm. They went through the certification process about three years ago.

“I have always farmed in an organic style, so it just made sense to take the next step and get certified,” Smith said.

You could say farming is in Smith’s blood. His father was a farmer and Smith and his brother grew up helping him on the same land they live on today.

Smith and his wife grow about forty different varieties of produce, including lettuces,

Smith uses cover crops on his fields during the winter. Planting cover crops helps decrease soil erosion and gives the soil nutrients.

asparagus, tomatoes, garlic, blueberries and figs.

Smith and Joyner only cultivate about three acres of the land they own because they want to keep the farm small enough to manage without much outside help.

Smith uses drip irrigation to water his crops. This method uses less water than large sprinkler systems and helps control for weeds.

“We don’t want to lose touch with our customers or the community, so that’s why we keep it small,” Smith said.

Only about 5 percent of Redbud’s revenue comes from selling produce to the co-op, but Smith said the company pays a very fair price for produce and he believes in supporting them.

“The co-op is a wonderful asset to our community. My wife and I almost exclusively shop there for all our groceries,” he said.

With the support of the local community Company Shops Market has been able to sustain itself in downtown Burlington.  Sydnor and Walter both said the cost of eating locally and organically is not much higher, if at all, than shopping at a regular grocery store.

“We want to reconnect this community to its agricultural roots. Revenue from the co-op will circulate in the local economy and create wealth,” Sydnor said.

The co-op is a local gathering place to eat, socialize and take classes for Burlington and the surrounding area.

But more than creating wealth or sustaining a business, the co-op and its shoppers and suppliers believe in a holistic approach to food and eating. Rather than just feeding someone’s body, the co-op strives to create a healthy and educated community.

“The main thing to remember is that organic is more than just a way to farm or grow things. It is a holistic approach to life that builds trust between the grower and the consumer,” Smith said.


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