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Posted: Wednesday, May 9, 2018 12:00 am

Local food is in. Across America, people are demanding fresher food grown closer to home. Walton County is no different. And with the Monroe Farmer’s Market starting this weekend, people from all over the area will be able to get the freshest food around.

Part of the appeal of local food is knowing the farmer. We usually know who fixes our car or cleans our teeth, but we don’t always know who grows our food. Farmers markets let us do that.

To give you a head start, here are a few of the people growing the food at the Monroe Farmers Market.

Musa Hasan is a self-proclaimed soil nerd. He has a microscope in his greenhouse. He brews what he calls tea, a specifically calibrated nutrient and fungal blend, for each of the plants he grows. He uses words like “mycorrhizal,” in casual conversation. 

But he’s a farmer, the energy and vision behind Bread and Butter Farm in Monroe, so knowing what’s going on in the dirt is maybe the most important part of his job.

“Soil is the soul of the plant,” Hasan says, “You get the soil right, you can grow whatever you want.”

Hasan comes by his scientific approach to farming honestly. For years, he was a medical researcher, working at places like Emory and Harvard on problems around the heart’s electronic pulses, as well work on cancer and stents.

Now he’s on Laboon Road, trying to figure out the best way to coax tomatoes out of the hard Georgia clay.

Hasan makes tea in three plastic drums. He starts by aerating water with a bubbler that looks like something you put in a fish tank. That removes the chlorine, fluoride and bromine in ordinary tap water.

Then, depending on the plant, he adds different amounts of bacteria and fungi. Tomatoes, for example, need lots of bacteria. So he pours in some blackstrap molasses. Strawberries, on the other hand, need more fungi, so he uses soil and bagged fungi spores to grow some in a jar and then pours it in. Other ingredients in the tea include fish food, baby oatmeal and seaweed.

The tea is only done when Hasan pulls out a drop or two and examines it under the microscope, looking for the right ratio of bacteria to fungi.

Only then he does he pour it over his budding plants. Hasan realizes that his grandfather, who was a farmer, would probably think his murky concoctions bubbling in the greenhouse were some sort of joke.

But the results are stunning. One of the main problems farmers have to deal with is spacing plants correctly. Put them too far apart and you don’t grow enough to support yourself. Put them too close together and the plants crowd each other out competing for light and food. Most chemical fertilizers don’t necessarily help plants grow higher, but allow farmers to plant them closer together.

Hasan’s tea does the same thing. His kale beds burst with leaves. His red lettuce looks untouched, even though he said he had harvested from it just two days prior. He planted his radishes so densely that a farmer friend said there was no way they would be healthy. But now they’re all over two feet tall and vibrantly green.

This means Hasan has no need for pesticides either. His plants are so healthy that they rely on their own natural immune systems to ward off pests, just like every other plant does in nature.

He likens pesticides to chemotherapy; they kill off bad stuff, but they also strip the soil of useful stuff too, like the bacteria and fungi he works so hard to cultivate. This is convenient if you’re a chemical company, because the easiest way to get those things back in the soil is with chemical fertilizers. It’s less convenient if you’re a small farmer on a budget or someone trying to eat food without chemicals.

He calls his farm “beyond organic,” a term that has floated around the fringes of farming for years which means absolutely no chemicals are used to produce the food.  Even things labeled organic in a grocery store are not necessarily produced without chemicals. Beyond organic isn’t an official term with certifications behind it, but beyond organic farmers can rarely scale their enterprises to reach further than farmer’s markets.

Hasan realizes that going from cancer research to farming might not seem like a logical step. But he sees what he’s doing with his farm is a continuation of his earlier work.

“Cancer is all about what you put into your body, so I still feel like I’m fighting cancer,” he said.

Anne-Marie Bilella, the owner of Bella-Vista Farm, also sees the link between food and well-being. She’s an herbalist and the owner of Bella-Vista Farm, where she grows and sells plants for natural remedies, baked goods and mushrooms.

She is part of a movement called homesteading, where people try to produce close to everything they need in their backyards. It sounds fringe, but Bilella says there are thousands just like her across the country.

“This used to be the way people lived,” Bilella said, “But then America became a land of plenty. Now people are realizing that plenty isn’t necessarily a good thing. People started looking at their kids and themselves and wondering why they got sick all the time.”

The answer, Bilella said, is that conventional food has hugely different effects on the body than local and organic. She emphasizes that this applies to medicine as well as food, though like Hasan, she doesn’t see a huge difference between the two. She grows and uses all sorts of herbs and has a certification to mix and sell them. She’s also rarely sick.

She’s not surprised to see local food grow in popularity recently. “People just want to feel good, eat well and live.”

She’s also embraced the business side of farming. She does things like post on social media what she’s bringing that day and teach classes on how to use her products. She says offering a value-add to products, like baking bread or mixing salves, helps her sell more than those who just offer fresh produce.

She says having a diversity of products and engaged presence at the market has helped her succeed. “I’m not there for a yard sale,” Bilella said, “I’m a business.”

That’s a mindset Rick Huszagh thinks more farmers and buyers of goods at the market need to adopt. He is quick to praise the market for providing a space for the community to gather and for bringing people to downtown.

But he says vendors can sometimes be disappointed, particularly those selling perishable products. If the kale a farmer picks isn’t sold at the market, it’s unlikely it will be.

“People need to treat coming to the market like going to the grocery. We need more people buying local produce and meats to keep the local food scene running.”

He should know. If Hasan is part of a new wave of farmers trying to make a living growing food, Huszagh and his wife, Crista Carrell, are the old hands. The duo has been raising animals on Mountain Creek Farm since 1995. They’ve been involved in the local food scene in the area for years and helped build the farmers market from an ad hoc affair into the bustling scene it is today.

These days they are part-time farmers; Carrell manages the Wayfarers Hotel in Monroe and Rick runs the biodiesel company Down to Earth, but they manage to raise a handful of cows and pigs as well as grow hay in between. They used to raise goats full-time, but they realized they couldn’t make it work when they had kids. Now they keep farming because they enjoy the work and care about the land, which Carrell inherited from her grandfather.

They see their role not as much as food producers, but stewards of the land. Farmland is growing more and more expensive, while fertilizer, pesticide and monocultures are degrading the land that is available. Huszagh and Carrell think they have to keep the land they are lucky enough to have in ideal condition, as a sort of small contribution to the larger good of the planet. 

“While you’re on Earth you’ve got to try to make a mark,” Huszagh said.

Besides, Carrell acknowledges, despite the growing number of people who want to farm, land is often too expensive to buy. Carrell and Hasan both inherited their land for their grandparents. Bilella doesn’t need much for her operation.

That means the odds are against anyone wanting to start their own farm. But there is hope for the new generation of farmers.

The local branch of the United States Department of Agriculture has a solution. Jose Pagan has helped farmers in Walton County through a variety of programs through USDA since 1999.

He says he’s seen a noticeable increase in people wanting to farm in recent years, but have struggled to get land. As the region grows, land gets more and more expensive, making it impossible to profit from farming.

Pagan has been part of plan in Oconee County called easements. If a developer or business wants to pay $10,000 an acre, for example, but a farmer can only afford to pay $2,000, the USDA will cover the difference as long as the land is used for agriculture.

No program like this currently exists in Walton County, but Pagan says one could happen soon. He says the county government is interested, and could institute an easements program within a year.

“It sounds like a giveaway,” Pagan said, “But we’ve got to eat.”

With that kind of help, there might be more and more farmers to get to know at the market in years to come.

The Monroe Farmers Market on Court Street opens May 12 and will run to November 17. Hours are 8:30 to 12:30. People with federal nutrition assistance benefits, or SNAP, receive double the amount of credit at the market, thanks to the non-profit Wholesome Wave Georgia.

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1 comment:

  • Barcok posted at 7:10 pm on Fri, May 11, 2018.

    Barcok Posts: 1

    Alhamdulillah May you be rewarded abundantly

     

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