Did you know one out of every five bites Americans eat comes from another country? Currently, 53 percent of our fruits and 32 percent of our vegetables come from other nations, and those numbers are increasing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. In his new book, Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees, local author and farmer Robert Turner explores what Michael Pollan first described as the “industrial food complex.”
“Most people don’t know how food comes to them; it just shows up at their grocery store,” says Turner. “I’ve learned things in the last few years that have surprised me and thought it was important to let people know what was going on, especially over the last 10 years.”
Turner will discuss the book, his work at Creekside Farm Education Center in Arden and the potential of “agrihoods” — communities that are built around working farms — at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe on Thursday, Feb. 7. Representatives of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Organic Growers School and MANNA FoodBank will also be on hand to contribute to the conversation.
Turner’s book talks about how most of the food we eat travels around the world on airplanes, container ships and trucks. The USDA data suggests that in the next decade, America’s food outsourcing will grow to over 75 percent of our fruits and 50 percent of our vegetables.
“If a multinational food corporation can produce a product cheaper in a foreign nation, like a pepper or tomato, they’re going to do it,” Turner explains. “The industrial food complex is chasing cheap labor around the world just like other industries, like T-shirts and other merchandise. This is what corporations do. They’re responsible only to their stockholders.”
Before Turner got into farming, he owned and sold several companies, including MCM Group, Carolina Sewn Products and Chelsea Teddy Bear Co. He’s well-versed in the ways of corporations and has firsthand experience outsourcing merchandise from other countries. When he traded in his businesses and bought Creekside Farm, the first thing he did was research to figure out who is the customer and who is the competition.
“I quickly found that the world is our competition,” says Turner. “Apples from New Zealand and chicken from China — I thought, ‘Whoa, it’s one thing to import tote bags, but our food?’ It was a wake-up call.”
The book explores these issues on the national and local levels. “Our area faces more challenges,” Turner says. “Not only foreign competition but also that we’re losing farmland at a significant rate. People are coming in from outside the region, and land prices are going up. Farmers can’t afford land and make a profit — only real estate developers can afford that.” A section of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees called “Say Good-bye to Iowa” discusses the roughly Iowa-sized amount of land lost in the U.S. to real estate development over the last 20 years.
As executive director of Creekside Farm and Creekside Farm Education Center, which is located at a planned neighborhood, The Cliffs at Walnut Cove, Turner is actively spreading the message and offering solutions. His mission is to help retain our capacity to grow our own food and build sustainable and resilient communities.
Creekside Farm, the newest addition to The Cliffs community, is four-fifths agricultural land and one-fifth housing: Eighteen home sites are planned around 45 acres of working farmland with vegetable plots, chickens and a grass-fed beef operation. The agrihood community is a model Turner believes will simultaneously help preserve farmland in our region and appeal to real estate developers.
“Eat your view” is a saying Turner came across several times while traveling in Europe. He’s taken it as the main focus and slogan of his campaign to promote the agrihood concept. “There are approximately 200 agrihoods around the country right now,” says Turner. “Awareness is growing, and the lifestyle is appealing. People want to come home to the farm, and now they can and be more connected to beauty, nature, the weather and in tune with the cycles of the seasons.”
Creekside Farm has a community-supported agriculture program with about 60 member households, as well as an education center with a commercial kitchen, offering classes on herbs, bees, cooking and canning. During the summer, themed dinners are offered monthly to members.
Turner believes a critical part of the infrastructure for an agrihood is having a central, community-focused facility like the Creekside Farm Education Center. “We’re trying to build community around food. Have people come together to share and celebrate the harvest,” he explains.
The title of the book was inspired by a field trip a group of local fourth-graders took to Creekside Farm. Before they arrived, Turner says he picked a few carrots and tied them to a maple tree. On their tour, Turner showed them “the carrot tree.” No kids reacted. Later in the day, Turner pulled a carrot out of the dirt. Some of the kids wrinkled up their noses and were confused. “Kids don’t know common foods,” Turner says. “Especially in lower-income homes where canned food and processed food is common.”
Turner has a background in writing for food and lifestyle magazines. This is his first book. He has two more books in development: Eat Your View, slated for publication in late 2019, and Founding Farmers, which should debut in 2020.
WHAT: Robert Turner launches Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 7, 6 p.m., Free