Best-selling author and journalist Michael Pollan is no stranger to North Carolina.
For his 2013 book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” Pollan toured the eastern part of the Tar Heel state, immersing himself in the fine art of whole-hog barbecue. His travels took him to Ayden’s Skylight Inn – which has received longstanding recognition as a capital of American barbecue – and to The Pit in Raleigh.
“I liked how elemental it is,” Pollan, who teaches journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, told The New York Times about this style of barbecuing. “It’s a whole pig, wood fire, and time – that’s the whole recipe.”
Pollan was back in North Carolina late last month for a talk on something he’s not quite as enthusiastic about: the industrialization of the American food system.
During a speech in Greensboro, Pollan painted a grim picture of the devastation wrought by our nation’s obsession with cheap, fast food. He recounted visiting an enormous potato farm in Idaho, where the pesticides used to keep the potatoes spot-free are so toxic that workers can’t even go into the fields for several days after spraying. He stopped at a feed lot in Kansas where cattle are kept alive with massive doses of antibiotics. And he explained how our country’s corn subsidies are inextricably linked with our obesity epidemic.
Students in the fields
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. Pollan also highlighted efforts across the United States to practice sustainable farming, an approach that produces quality food while also protecting the environment and public health. That work continues to gain momentum, particularly as colleges train a new generation of students in the field. North Carolina, it turns out, is helping lead the charge.
While in Greensboro, Pollan visited the farm at Guilford College, ranked last year among the nation’s top 30 sustainable college farms. The Quaker institution’s three-acre plot annually produces more than 10,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables that are used by the campus dining hall and off-campus stores. In the spring, Guilford will roll out a new major in sustainable food systems. A first-of-its-kind initiative among four-year colleges in North Carolina, the program will offer students a chance to study the linkages between food, society and nature.
It’s “a path-breaking move,” Pollan said. It’s also the latest example of higher education institutions in North Carolina at all levels, from community colleges to liberal arts schools and major research universities, making sustainable farming a priority. Warren Wilson College in Asheville, for example, also ranks among the most sustainable college farms in America. With 275 acres reserved for farming, the college raises mixed crops and livestock, with a focus on grass-fed beef and pork.
N.C. State has also made a sizable investment in the future of this field. About 10 years ago, the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences set aside six acres for the Agroecology Education Farm. For several years now, the farm has produced food for N.C. State’s dining facilities, while providing hands-on education for students on array of topics, including nutrition, crop science and entomology. The farm also reaches out to the larger community through workshops and events and has established numerous partnerships in the Triangle.
Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro got to the party even earlier, launching its sustainable agriculture program in 2002. Its two-year associate degree program covers everything from plant and animal science to pest management and greenhouse design. At the college’s five-acre farm a little south of Chapel Hill, students play a critical role, having built a barn, packing shed and other structures, while getting deeply involved in the science of farming.
The example set by these institutions is spreading to other colleges across the state. Two years ago, students at UNC-Charlotte created the university’s Community Garden to experiment with sustainable urban agriculture and start to build a larger community partnership centered on healthy food. Other community colleges, spanning the state from Goldsboro to Morganton, offer associate in applied science degrees in sustainable agriculture, similar to Central Carolina’s program.
Collectively, these initiatives might just give Pollan a new and positive reason to come back soon to North Carolina. In the meantime, they’re making it easier for all of us to eat and live better.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.