NC Sustainable Agriculture Conference Highlights Challenges as well as Opportunities
November 15, 2011 | Andrew Burger
Interest in sustainable agriculture is growing at quite a clip, at least if attendance at North Carolina Sustainable Agriculture Conference is any indication.
The number of people attending this year’s conference, which was held at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park surpassed 1,200 this year, nearly double what it was just few years ago. According to an article by Colin Campbell in the News Observer, the average age of the conference-goers has also begun to drop.
The conference proceedings highlighted the challenges that face farmers who choose to employ sustainable practices. One topic of discussion was how to promote local, sustainably grown food despite its often higher cost, according to Campbell’s article, which poses a big problem for restaurants.
National food distributors typically offer lower prices than local farmers’ markets, making it more difficult for restaurant buyers to justify purchasing local, sustainably grown food, especially in these tough economic times, one panel participant told Campbell.
That’s particularly true when it comes to local pork and beef, Amy Tornquist of Watts Grocery in Durham said, adding that she can’t afford to charge customers much more than $23 an entree.
While farmers do offer discounts to big buyers, small, independent restaurants typically don’t qualify for them, she continued. That means they pay the full retail price, which in turns squeezes their margins.
Another local, independent restaurateur said that she and Tornquist effectively wind up operating their restaurants as non-profits. “Farmers and restaurateurs are being asked to bear the costs of providing high-quality foods to humans,” Andrea Reusing, who owns the Lantern in Chapel Hill, was quoted as saying.
On a more upbeat note, the two restaurateurs noted that they’ve noticed more efforts on the part of local farmers to market and sell their products to local eateries.
Increasing awareness and the growing popularity of the local food movement is also attracting more young people to farming and agriculture, a development welcomed by veteran farmers, according to Campbell’s article.
Veteran farmer John Vollmer, who was named “Farmer of the Year” during the conference, said seeing how young the crowd was was exciting.