By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Eating healthy in the Boro
Organic and local food advocates see increased interest
W Organic - Onion Tractor angle
U.S. Department of Agriculture technician Dan Evarts drives an unusual tractor with a tine weeder across a Vidalia Onion & Vegetable Research Center test plot during a demonstration for South Georgia Growing Local attendees. - photo by Special

    Making their own kombucha and kraut, raising worms for the soil and searching for better tomatoes, people who want their food grown organically and locally are sharing ideas across southern Georgia.
    After 120 people signed up for the South Georgia Growing Local Conference, organizers had to turn away another 25 or so who wanted to attend, said Janisse Ray. She and her husband, Raven Waters, hosted the conclusion of the conference Jan. 14 at their Red Earth Farm near Reidsville. This followed a day of workshops at the nearby Vidalia Onion & Vegetable Research Center maintained by the University of Georgia.
    Ray’s opening remarks spotlighted concerns of many in the movement about chemicals, genetically modified organisms and a perceived lack of nutrients and flavor in supermarket food.
    “Our food is carcinogenic. Our food is industrialized,” Ray said. “Our food through GMOs is hazardous to our health. Our food is being stolen from us by corporations. ... I believe that we’re in a food crisis in this country, and I think it shows in the obesity epidemic.”
    The Main Street Statesboro Farmers Market and Tifton Farmers Market teamed up with the Coastal Organic Growers, Georgia Organics and the Okravores of South Georgia to host the conference. Only 50-60 people had turned out for a similar conference held one year earlier in Tifton.
    “And equally so, we are in an incredibly hopeful stage,” Ray continued. “The number of farmers’ markets is exponentially multiplying, the number of small farmers growing, the number of organic farmers growing.”
Rising Interest
    She didn’t cite any numbers. But nonprofit Georgia Organics saw its membership, including professional farmers as well as gardeners and consumers, grow from about 500 to an estimated 1,100 people during the past five years. From 2006 through 2011, the number of member farms increased steadily from 62 to 174, according to data provided by Georgia Organics communications director Michael Wall.
    By the organization’s count, the number of “producer only” farm markets in the state soared from just nine in 2003 to 96 in 2010, with increases every year. Georgia Organics, Wall explained, excludes arts and craft markets from its numbers, but includes grower markets whether or not they join.
    The Georgia Department of Agriculture, which also operates nine farmers markets around the state, has not made a count of local markets but hopes to compile a database through its new Georgia Grown Initiative, said Jessica Hothaus in the agency’s public affairs office.
    During a series of short sessions Saturday morning, the Growing Local Conference gave participants their choice of two different presentations at a time. Programs in the kitchen focused on preparing food, while most of those in the conference room were about growing it.
    To start things off in the kitchen, Ray and Waters gave a demo of “Fermentation Basics.” They explained how to make the fermented tea beverage called kombucha, as well as yogurt and kefir, both from fermented milk. Finally, Waters showed participants how to make sauerkraut and jokingly swore them to secrecy about how easy it is. Red Earth Farm, he noted, sells its kraut at Statesboro’s Main Street Farm Market.
    Connie Hayes from Bulloch County capped the fermentation lesson by expanding it to “Probiotics for the Garden.” She talked about making fermented plant juice, or “FPJ,” and oriental herbal nutrient, or “OHN,” for use as fertilizers.
    As owners of Healthy Hollow Farms near Stilson, she and husband Jimmy Hayes have been growing organic crops for more than a decade and have been certified organic growers for four years. With 177 certified acres, they grow peanuts, soybeans, field corn and wheat, as well as some produce, all with organic methods.
    The Hayeses also raise goats, chickens and hogs, and they previously kept cattle. Their pastures, but not the animals themselves, are certified organic at this point, she said. While the set of people interested in organic agriculture intersects the set of vegetarians and vegans, the overlap is not total. Ray and Waters sell eggs and beef.
    Connie Hayes went organic after becoming bedridden for a time with health problems, which she said were once diagnosed as fibromyalgia and attributed by a physician to pesticide exposure. Now she sees a growing interest from consumers in local and organic produce.
    “More and more people are coming out to the Main Street Farmers Market and getting to know us and some of the other certified organic farmers,” Hayes said. “They’re getting to know the difference between the certified organic and others who are not certified and learning to ask questions.”
    Other Statesboro area growers presenting at the conference included Cindy Dill and Larry Kopczak, of Snug Hill Farm in Emanuel County, and Relinda Walker, from Walker Farms in Screven County.
    As a preliminary to the conference, Dill and Kopczak had hosted a potluck dinner and given a tour of fruit and nut tree orchards on their farm in the Garfield area. On Saturday, Kopczak gave a presentation about the “Economics of Transition,” including the idea of a local currency. Dill spoke on the use of “Perennial Crops for Food Security.”
    Other presenters came from as far as Tallahassee, Fla., and Lakeland, Ga. Brothers Sam and Kevin Shaw showed slides of the olive tree farming they are helping to establish near Lakeland. Other workshops gave pointers for making the most of marginal land, growing wilt-free tomatoes, and keeping earthworms.
    Carroll Johnson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher, led one group on a tour of the Vidalia Onion Research Center’s study plots. Although the facility is not exclusively organic, researchers are now testing organic herbicides and other methods that allow onions to be grown without synthetic chemicals.
Locavores and Okravores
    Back in the kitchen, Leeann Culbreath, the self-described “backyard homesteader” and University of Georgia Extension-certified master gardener who manages the Tifton Farmers Market, gave a talk called “Meal Planning for the Modern Locavore.”
    Locavores are people who eat food from local sources.
    “It’s to try to source as much of your food from local farms, local producers, local artisans, and to enjoy that food that is as close to you as possible,” Culbreath said. “For me that means as close to my home in my area around Tifton, but also within Georgia, and sometimes it means regionally, within the Deep South.”
    This helps ensure freshness and also makes it easier for consumers to learn more about how their food is grown, she said. Her presentation focused on questions from her audience about freezing and other preservation methods.
    It was Culbreath who launched the Facebook page and Google group called Ocravores of South Georgia. Unlike “locavore,” the coined word “ocravore,” meaning someone who eats okra, isn’t intended to be taken literally, she noted. The Ocravores remain an informal network for the southern part of the state, and many of them are also active in Georgia Organics.
    In Ray’s view, the movement toward local consumption is helping people prepare for a future in which the world runs out of petroleum.
    “We’re just trying to prepare our region for what’s coming in the future, which is more localized everything,” she said.

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter