Tar Heel of the Week

She cultivates organic farming and healthy eating

Staff WriterMay 23, 2010 

  • Born July 26, 1957, in Los Angeles

    Children: Vaughn, 20, and Maggie, 15

    Education: Bachelor's in psychology, University of California Santa Barbara; master's in international agriculture development, California Polytechnic State University; doctorate, Ohio State University in 1994

    Favorite restaurant: Creamer says she doesn't get out much, but she likes Lantern in Chapel Hill.

    Home: She lives on 8 acres in Apex with a garden and a few chickens.

For years, the state has watched textile mills close and tobacco farms turn to seed. More recently, technology jobs have been lost, and the state has 10 percent unemployment.

But at N.C. State University, there's a woman quietly bringing together farmers, businesses, politicians and individuals to nurture a new economic sector in North Carolina: locally grown organic food.

Nancy Creamer, director of N.C. State University's Center for Environmental Farming Systems, is cultivating sustainable, organic farms and the infrastructure they need to get their food to market across the state. It's a plan that she hopes will create small businesses and jobs, as well as boost local economies that have lost jobs to overseas competitors.

And she's not just lofty talk. After her center hosted a series of meetings across the state in 2008 to hear from people interested in organic farming, Creamer brought together a broad-based group to take those ideas and write "From Farm to Fork: A Guide to Building North Carolina's Sustainable Local Food Economy."

The 97-page, bound document consists of nine recommendations - "game changers," Creamer calls them - including recruiting young farmers, expanding local market opportunities and getting the locally grown food into schools.

Now, Creamer is working to not only change the state's economic conditions, but also how people eat.

Next month, Creamer's center will launch a campaign to encourage all businesses, industries and individuals in this state to commit to spending 10 percent of their food money on locally grown products.

A successful campaign could create a $3.5 billion industry in this state.

Those already in the organic farming scene say if anyone can do this, it's Creamer.

"She's one of the most important champions on local, organic food and farms in the Southeast," said RolandMcReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, which promotes local and organic agriculture. "It's amazing to have someone with her knowledge and skill leading universities to make the progress they have."

The path to agriculture

Creamer, 52, grew up in Southern California on a poultry farm with 80,000 chickens. Her family sold the eggs. As a teenager, Creamer was determined not go to into agriculture, so she headed to the coast to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she majored in psychology. After graduation in 1979, Creamer lived for nine months in India, where she saw people starving. It got her thinking about food and how to grow more of it for the hungry.

"I thought the answer was more food production," Creamer said.

She was inspired to study international agriculture development. In 1995, she came to N.C. State as a horticulture professor and worked in an outpost in Plymouth studying potatoes. By 2000, she was named director of the newly created environmental farming center.

For the last decade, she's procured grants from the likes of the Z. Smith Reynolds and Golden Leaf foundations.

Now, she's focused on carrying out the farm-to-fork initiative.

The problem, Creamer says, is "we've lost a lot of infrastructure."

For example, she said, a small-scale organic pig farmer can raise the pigs, but there are not small-scale slaughter facilities nearby. Often these farmers have to travel out of state to other facilities. In addition, these farmers need a way to package their produce. Creating this type of "infrastructure" in this state, she said, would create jobs and keep money here.

"People want to grow, and people want to buy," she said.

Organic food sales up

As proof, the Farm to Fork guide says national sales of organic foods are about $25 billion and continue to increase, despite the economic downturn. And local food sales are expected to reach $7 billion by 2011.

In 2009, North Carolinians spent roughly $35 billion on food.

If all the state's residents spent 10 percent of food dollars on local foods, the report says, about $3.5 billion would be available in the local economy every year, and part of that would flow back to farmers and food businesses.

People who work with Creamer say she has the gift of bringing different parties to the table to get this done. "She is so passionate and fearless," said Debbie Roos, Chatham County's extension agent, who focuses on organic farming and is an ex-officio member of the center's board.

Roos, who says Creamer helped her find her job in Chatham, says Creamer is humble, too, which enables her to work well with everyone. Roos laughed as she spoke about Creamer recently sending e-mail to the center's board, and at the end Creamer essentially wrote "oh by the way," NCSU named her a distinguished professor of sustainable and community-based food systems, Roos said. So Roos sent the announcement to her e-mail list of 2,000 because Creamer never would, Roos said. But that's Creamer, Roos said, never taking the spotlight.

The Farm to Fork initiative touches not only those growing and buying the food, but also so many others, including health officials.

After all, 64 percent of North Carolinians are considered overweight or obese. One reason, Creamer said, is people don't eat as many vegetables as they should. That could be because vegetables are manufactured not for taste, but for surviving cross-country trips in trucks. ,

"We say kids won't eat vegetables, but if we remember what a good peach tastes like, we will gobble it up," she said. "People will eat vegetables if the taste explodes in their mouths."

As part of the initiative, Creamer hopes to get all schools in the state serving locally grown organic food.

She's 'a visionary'

In addition to the Farm to Fork initiative, the center runs myriad programs, including an annual lecture from prominent sustainable agriculture experts.

This year, Creamer is working along the same lines as first lady Michelle Obama, who had an organic garden planted at the White House and is working to stamp out childhood obesity.

And today, you'll find Creamer at the Farm to Fork picnic, which pairs local farmers with local chefs, who create spectacular dishes from the farmers' food. Bon Appétit magazine calls it the best "All you can eat buffet" in the country, and the 500 tickets are sold out.

The event raises money for farmer apprentice programs, one of which the center runs at its 2,000-acre farm in Goldsboro.

Among the participating chefs is Andrea Reusing, chef and owner of Lantern, a restaurant in Chapel Hill. She also serves on the center's board.

"Nancy is a visionary," Reusing said. "She is totally a force of nature and had the vision that lots of people with many differences can be brought together around issues of access to local food."

The value of Creamer's work, Reusing said, will be felt by North Carolinians for "100 years into the future."

Leah.friedman@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4546

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