Commentary: Helping farmers helps us all

Dining on shrimp and grits with friends the other night, we all talked about the dismal economy. And while we discussed the excellent meal, other than noting the shrimp was from South Carolina we didn't talk much about where our food came from.

As we head into Thanksgiving week – when many of us focus on Thursday's big meal – it's appropriate to talk about food. As metaphor, it represents hospitality, nurture, tradition, community and communion.

But in an era of economic worries, we should remember food is part of our economy, as well.

In lean times, people turn to small-scale food production, mostly gardens, to save money. Over dinner we talked about whether our sinking savings should spur us to install a few hens in the back yard. (A recent article in the Winston-Salem Journal said many N.C. cities, including Greensboro and Winston-Salem, are changing ordinances to allow "urban chickens.")

That urban chicken boomlet is one small piece of a mosaic of food-related trends converging to possibly reshape U.S. food production – and urban and suburban growth as well.

What's happening in Cabarrus County, a booming suburban area northeast of Charlotte, may be a harbinger. Cabarrus County Manager John Day sees economic development potential, not to mention smart environmental strategy, in helping boost his county's agriculture. He, too, sees things converging: climate change, a plummeting economy, the specter of declining oil supplies.

"If the way we live is going to change – as I think it will need to – at the heart of it is the soil and the water and how we eat," he said Friday.

Cabarrus County and its municipalities, in a far-sighted step, a few years ago adopted a land plan that creates a growth boundary in order to preserve the rural and agricultural flavor of eastern Cabarrus. In general, utility lines won't be extended beyond the boundary.

But if the county aims to preserve farmland by restricting development, he said, it has an obligation to help farmers make a living.

After all, he said, "It's really not about preserving farmland, it's about preserving farmers."

That means treating agriculture as both a valued way of life and as a potential economic engine.

Day thinks – as do others – that it makes good environmental and economic sense to help farmers market their food locally. The county is:

* Using a $675,000 state grant to build a slaughtering facility in the Rimer community in eastern Cabarrus. It goal is to help cattle ranchers and meat-producers in the region.

* Turning a 35-acre farm bequeathed to the county by Elma Lomax into an incubator to help educate, mentor and launch new farmers.

* Starting a Food Policy Council.

"You talk about green-collar jobs of the future," Day said. "Farming ought to be one of them."

It's a big jump from eastern Cabarrus cattle farmers to an urbane Miami architect. But New Urbanism guru Andres Duany, in Charlotte this month for a conference, gave a lecture that convinced me the "local food" movement is big and getting bigger. His topic: "agricultural urbanism."

Duany is an astute, tart-tongued trend-watcher and he sees a market for neighborhoods designed around agriculture. "Agriculture is the new golf," he said. Instead of overlooking the links, houses overlook crops.

To justify large-lot suburbia and its environmental harm, he said, make it food-producing, with front- and back-yard gardens and less lawn. Even urban chickens can have a role, he said.

On Thursday think about your food, who grew it and where. While I don't foresee Cabarrus County cranberries any time soon, it's clear that local food and local farms can play a bigger role, not just in our meals and our communities, but in our economy.

About the Writer Mary Newsom is an Observer associate editor, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28030-0308, or mnewsom@charlotteobserver.com.