Connecting to Southern Agriculture in Charleston
[Previously printed in Acres USA]
By Julie Ann Fineman
Co-authored by  J. Lee Glenn
Photography courtesy of Julie Ann Fineman

Around the world people are waking up to the negative impacts of our industrialized food system as alarming stories continue to flood the news:  a loss of biodiversity, degraded soil quality, overreliance on fossil fuel-derived inputs, harsh chemicals. These practices are cumulatively eroding the health of our food supply and everyone that eats from it.

chefscollaborativelogoMore than ever before in industrialized society, people are concerned about where their food comes from. With this concern, a real quest has developed seeking out the farmers* who practice eco-friendly methods. This is exemplified by the increase of local farmers markets, an explosion of CSAs and a surge in restaurants featuring sustainable sources on their menus. Transparency is now in demand, connecting us to our food sources for a more educated public.

At the forefront of this movement is the Chefs Collaborative. A national network of chefs committed to sustainable and local sources, the Chefs Collaborative is a professional organization and a force for social change. For the past 20 years, they have been on a mission to upgrade the quality of our food system.

In adherence to their original Charter & Statement of Principles, the first Board laid the foundation for this movement in 1993:

“We, the undersigned, acknowledging our leadership in the celebration of the pleasures of food, and recognizing the impact of food choices on our collective personal health, on the vitality of cultures and on the integrity of the global environment, affirm the following principles:

  • Food is fundamental to life. It nourishes us in body and soul, and the sharing of food immeasurably enriches our sense of community
  • Good, safe, wholesome food is a basic human right
  • Society has the obligation to make good, pure food affordable and accessible to all
  • Good food begins with unpolluted air, land and water, environmentally sustainable farming and fishing, and humane animal husbandry
  • Sound food choices emphasis locally grown, seasonally fresh and whole or minimally processed ingredients
  • The healthy, traditional diets of many cultures offer abundant evidence that fruits, vegetables, beans, breads and grains are the foundation of good diets
  • As part of their education, our children deserve to be taught basic cooking skills and to learn the impact of their food choices on themselves, on their culture, and on their environment.”

The original visionaries are today’s who’s who in the chef/sustainable food movement. The authors include Jimmy Schmidt, Larry Forgione, John Ash, Rick Bayless, Mary Sue Miliken, Susan Feninger, Nobu Natsuhisa, Mark Miller, Wolfgang Puck, Allen Susser, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, Stephen Pyles, Tom Douglas….and more.

I learned of the Chefs Collaborative during my interview with Chef Jimmy Schmidt for the Huffington Post series, Farm To Fork Across America. Since then, we have had ongoing conversations on the antiquated communication system between farmers and chefs, on the difficulty finding local sustainable sources, on the clumsy invoice/payment systems and on expensive delivery logistics.

To respond to these issues, we recently formed the FoodShed Exchange as a marketplace to facilitate chefs purchasing from great food producers. An online framework, it also tells the story of farmers, ranchers, foragers, fishermen, specialty food purveyors and the chefs who use their products. By increasing connectivity the FoodShed Exchange system will ensure that favored food suppliers thrive for years to come.

In addition to supporting great food sources, education is a key component of the Chefs Collaborative. Their program includes hands-on skill-building, chef community-awareness, sustainable practices, educational events and of course…eating. Dear to every chef’s heart, cooking and eating define regional celebrations of culinary skills and local cuisine.

In November of 2013, The Chefs Collaborative Annual Summit was held in historic Charleston, SC with the backdrop of the rich agricultural heritage of the south. I joined 300 of America’s best chefs, food producers and food activists for three days of discussions, workshops, taste-testing microbes, hogonomics, the science of fermentation, lamb hamming, all oriented towards bettering our food system.

For two days prior to the actual summit, the Collaborative organized field trips rich in southern food culture to properly set the stage. The breadth and depth of this experience was inspiring in an American culture steeped in mass production.

Our first visit was with Burden Creek Goat Dairy Farm on Johns Island. Owner Kip Valentine starts his day by ringing the “morning” bell to round up his herd of milking goats. Once out of the field gate, they follow him down an unfenced path to the milking parlor, as willing as trained dogs.

Having been an intern on a goat farm in Bedford Hills, NY, I appreciated the effort it takes to herd goats to the milking parlor. Just keeping track of them is no small feat, let alone having to chase those too stubborn to line up at the milking door.

Kip however, has trained his goats using goat psychology. There is no chasing of strays at Burden Creek.

“They are naturally curious…to breakup the boredom of their day they look for something to do, ” Kip explained

Six at a time, they willingly jump onto a platform, no headlocks or buckets of sweetened rolled oats to keep them in place. Patiently, they stand until he is done milking. Kip notes the milking room floors:  clean, no spilt grain, no poop to clean up.

“Why bother to feed them grain…it just excites them and I’ve trained them to be patient without it.”

Next on the agenda was Dirt Works Incubator Farm, five produce farms rolled into one, the first of its kind in the state. Surrounded by giant living oak trees laced with Spanish moss, this cooperative is a setting to “Grow new farmers.”

Apprentices have an opportunity to share land, a tractor, tool storage, a walk-in cooler and a packinghouse as part of a three-year mentorship program. Six dedicated interns divide ten acres of Walnut Hill Plantation into 1-2 acres per intern. In the last year of the program, the apprentice is matched with a land-owner to launch their farming career.

Apprentice farmer Jim Martin greeted us on his plot, a boutique, mini-farm known for unique produce. The produce is enhanced by custom compost created by his other business, Compost in my Shoe. Jim is committed to growing nutrient dense foods and the clean aroma of rich compost filled the air. It was as if through the act of inhaling one could absorb the soil’s nutrients perfuming the air.

Wonder Lima Bean.JulieAnnFinemanJim’s Fishing Peppers are sold as far as away as New York City for a specific chef who appreciates their character. His heirloom Wonder Lima beans are unique in color and flavor. Through the reintroduction of a unique varietal back into our foodscape, he brings back a distinctive taste, a meaty flavor more like a baked bean. The days of settling for mushy, tasteless, canned lima beans are over with Jim’s beans.

Walking these lush acres built up an appetite. At the far end of the planted rows, a wooden trellis shading picnic tables was set for our lunch. Local restaurant Crave Charleston provided lunch:  lobster rolls, eggs-prosciutto-arugula strata and other local delights. The arugula was from Sol Haven Farms located right at Dirt Works, the eggs from Rosebank Farms next door.

Once recharged, we toured the Charleston Tea Plantation on WadmalawIsland. One of only two tea plantations in America from the 1800’s, they both folded in the early 1900’s…abandoned, but the plants lived on. Active tea farming with these venerable plants was resurrected in the 1950’s. The original Chinese and Indian Camilla sinensis plants thrive in extreme heat, humidity and abundant rain of the South Carolina lowcountry.

The Plantation and its accompanying factory, produces black, oolong and green tea. All of these are made from the same plant, the distinction a factor of oxidation time:  black tea 50 minutes; oolong 15 minutes; green 0 minutes. Starting each spring, three to five inches of new growth is harvested. A “flush,” or spurt of baby leaves and leaf buds, is harvested every 14-21 days till the days get cooler and the plants go dormant. It takes five pounds of leaves to yield one pound of finished tea.

Farmer Celeste Albers.JulieAnnFinemanThe next stop was a visit to a Waldmalaw Island farmer, Celeste Albers, a legend for humanely raising Ossabaw hogs, grass-finished beef and pasture raised chickens for Green Grocers Farms. Farmer, wife, mom and gourmet, she maintains high environmental standards:  “kicking ass, using sustainable practices,” she notes proudly. Even the hogs exuded southern charm, leaving nuzzly snout prints on my jeans.

The following day, we went to the largest undeveloped estuary on the east coast, the 350,000 acre Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto (ACE) Basin in Colleton and Beaufort counties. Oysterman, Frank Roberts, proprietor of Lady’s Island Oyster Farm, took us to one of their beds, an oyster boat tour of pristine waters. The submerged farm is an architectural study in strategically placed bamboo, young oysters clinging to the bamboo in the nutrient rich, reed-free waterways.

clam bake.JulieAnnFinemanAfter the tour, Fleet Landing Restaurant of Charleston catered a lowcountry cookout in oysterman Frank’s back yard. The feast included steamed blue crabs, clams, raw and roasted oyster, all steaming in open-fire pits, the smoke and scent rising in the afternoon sun. We crowded up to tall picnic tables with oyster knives and gloved hands, we dug into the shells. Freshly harvested that morning, the oyster’s unique taste reflects their bright-brine flavor, not minerally…and has us lining up for more.

Our day ended at the Clemson Agricultural Research and Education Center where Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills spoke of the reemergence of endangered, local, heritage grains. Recipient of the Chef’s Collaborative Pathfinders Award, Glenn painted a picture of historical South Carolina, once renowned for its agricultural wealth.

This wealth is being reconstituted in new/old agricultural products, combined with a dynamic relationship between farmer and chef. For 20 years, this union has paved the way for Charleston’s current culinary status. An appreciation for heritage and preservation, paired with local pride, has made the lowcountry food scene famous.

After two days of touring, the Summit itself began in downtown Charleston. “Change Menus Change Minds,” was the internal mantra and a consistent theme. Educational programs included seasonality, preserving diversity, supporting local economies and ultimately preparing healthier, better tasting foods, one plate at a time.

During the Summit’s session breaks, I conducted video interviews with chefs and food producers discussing their interpretation of sustainability in practice. Every answer built upon the previous one, revealing many facets of a complex question.

From Seth Caswell, Executive Chef for Bon Appetit Management Group at Google:  “Shortly after I started cooking I started to ask questions about where my food was coming from and how what I’m feeding my customers is the best I can get for them.”

From Paul Willis, A founder of Niman Ranch:  “…it means the way we raise our animals, animal welfare, something that’s good for the animals, good for the land, good for customers, good for the farmer.”

From Teresa Marquez, Educator & Advocate for Organic Valley Farms, “We can’t have sustainability unless we have a triangle…when we just think health, that’s not sustainable. If we just think about the earth, that’s not sustainable. If we just think about farming, that’s not sustainable. We have to be working holistically.”

The Chefs Collaborative stresses the need for chefs to make purposeful buying choices and to educate on serving sustainable foods. At the closing luncheon, New York Times Bureau Chief Kim Severson summed up the conference’s sentiment:  “Eaters have never been more primed to listen.”

The Summits ’emcee, author Rowan Jacobsen, was equally provocative:

“Cooking has surpassed both film and literature as a springboard for serious conversation. This is the healthiest art movement in America right now.”

For a listing of 2014 Chefs Collaborative events:

To share your mission with interested chefs:

*Includes ranchers, fishermen, foragers

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