Digging into Sustainability with Chris Molander

A farm includes the passion of the farmer’s heart, the interest of the farm’s customers, the biological activity in the soil, the pleasantness of the air about the farm — it’s everything touching, emanating from, and supplying that piece of landscape. A farm is virtually a living organism.
— Joel Salatin
IMG_0355.JPG
IMG_3000.JPG
IMG_0338.JPG

Come most Saturdays, you’ll find Chris Molander, owner of Vertu Farm, at the farmers market selling naturally grown microgreens, mixed greens, and other produce. Chris is a part of the Roberd’s Dairy Farm community, a hub of small agricultural based businesses that share green space off of Pennsylvania Avenue in Savannah.

Chris may have inherited his green thumb as his family has always had an affinity toward agriculture and growing food. His great grandfather was a salesman for a seed company in California called Germaine’s and his grandparents tended a garden. One of his uncles has farmed on and off for 20 years. Chris also recalls memories of seeing fruit trees always around with his uncle as an arborist. Prior to starting Vertu Farm, Chris himself had farmed on and off for eight years in South Carolina and California. Savannah became his home when he followed his girlfriend, now wife, Mariana here after they finished college. In early 2016, Chris decided to take a stab at urban farming in the sandy soils of our coastal city.  

If you spend a day at Vertu Farm, you will quickly see for yourself the result of intensive soil management. Vertu Farm is booming with biodiversity; snakes, frogs, bees, fungi, weeds, earthworms, spiders, etc. He doesn’t use pesticides, herbicides, or inorganic fertilizers. Instead, he has focused primarily on building a strong foundation through soil health. He plants productive leguminous cover crops which allow nitrogen-fixing bacteria to live in their root nodules, replenish the soil, and help to sustain future growing. He controls weeds with suppression and prevention practices such as; ground covers, mulching, and torching. He uses compost and applies organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion to meet the nutrient needs of his plants. He is cultivating an ecosystem out there – one in which the macro and microorganisms contribute to and replenish soil health. His sustainable farm practices are similar to those values advocated in the early organic movement by Sir Albert Howard.  

IMG_1375.JPG
IMG_0352.JPG
IMG_0344.JPG

On Urban Farming

Q: Of all the things you could do, why urban farming?

A: I love being outside, and I love growing. Additionally, I love all of the little problem-solving, troubleshooting, and planning that being a farmer requires. I think it is the perfect job for me, and I find it very fulfilling. There is a reason that many people celebrate farmers in the way that they do, and a reason why the profession is kind of “glorified” as it is today: it is truly a wonderful profession, and very important one for all of society. As far as the “urban” part of farming, I didn’t exactly “choose” that, it’s just what was available to me at the time. I’m so blessed to be a part of the Roberd’s Dairy Farm community. It’s truly a beautiful and special place.

On Natural Growing

Q: You mentioned you grow naturally out of tradition -- because it’s something you did at your job in South Carolina. But is there something more that keeps you growing this way?

Chris: Yes I started growing organically because that’s how it fell out on my first farm, but it’s definitely developed for me from there. I think it’s primarily the concept of sustainability that keeps me rooted in the organic movement now. People have been worried for years about the over usage of antibiotics in hospitals and prescription applications. Pesticides and herbicides are no different, and I would venture to guess that the amount of those chemicals that are applied annually outweigh antibiotics by a vast margin. The long and short of this is: mankind is speeding up the evolution of farm pests by the use of conventional agricultural practices: e.g. monocropping, pesticide, and herbicide use. This is to say nothing of soil development and conservation practices! I have always been one to sort of go against the grain, so when I hear people touting the latest “studies” about how much more you can grow in an acre conventionally, or with GMO seed, or with whatever other methods I disagree with ideologically… I want to prove that wrong! And of course, some farmers do claim that they have. I want to be one of those someday. This movement is still very young and not a lot of people understand it well—myself most of all! I’m really just kind of winging it, doing the best I can, and seeing what happens!

 

On Organic

USDA organic certification is a tedious process that requires annual fees and inspections.  For many small farmers sometimes, the benefits of certification do not outweigh the costs. And for Chris, differentiating his product to increase demand is not necessarily a priority. He’s putting all of his energy into the farm and producing food in a sustainable manner. He says, “There is a massive amount of demand for local produce here in Savannah across the board. There aren’t many farmers around! We need more!”

There’s a question that consumers tend to habitually ask farmers. It’s “is this organic?” And while that question is understandable when we think about the overall values of the organic movement and the push toward more environmentally friendly and consumer conscious food production practices, this question is too simple of a question for some and does not give a truly accurate depiction of how our food is produced.  

Chris encourages consumers to not blindly accept labels at face value:

“People should remember that there are things that are sprayed on organic produce that would kill you or make you extremely sick if you were to, say, drink it right out of the bottle. Conversely, there are some non-approved chemicals [by USDA Organic Standards] out there that probably aren’t as immediately harmful as certain organic products. I guess what I’m saying is we shouldn’t praise or vilify any particular produce simply because it’s labeled as “certified organic” or “conventionally grown.” We need to dig deeper than that. And always remember that the main reason why supermarket produce is less nutritious than local stuff is because it is far less fresh.”

As Michael Pollan says, “The final standards do a good job of setting the bar for a more environmentally responsible kind of farming, but, as perhaps was inevitable as soon as bureaucratic and industrial thinking was brought to bear, many of the philosophical values embodied in the word organic – the sorts of values expressed by Albert Howard – did not survive the federal rule-making process.”

We must remember that there is no one right way to farm; whether it’s conventional vs organic, no-till vs till, permaculture, etc. When individual farmers invest in land rather than giant international corporate farms, they are inherently invested in creating sustainable farming systems and good practices that will keep the land viable for years and years to come. Instead of focusing adamantly on ‘organic’, we should talk more about the basics of sustainable practices and policies that keep small farming a viable economic opportunity.

Often, asking such polarizing questions prevents us from delving deeper into issues or understanding an issue from a different perspective. With this in mind, we encourage you as a conscientious consumer to ask meaningful questions, as Chris suggests, and delve deeper into the issues. We challenge you to think of an alternative question to, “is this organic.”

Onward

According to Chris, a considerable amount of his weekly revenue is accounted for in direct sales to consumers. It seems we, as a community, have done a good job in supporting local farmers. And naturally, this particular producer-consumer relationship is mutually beneficial. But, there’s always more support to be garnered and change to be had. As a community, we have a collective purchasing power to effect positive change in our food system; a food system that serves the values and needs of the community. And that begins by supporting the efforts of small and local farmers, restaurant owners, non-profit organizations, institutions, and other entities who seek to challenge what is.

Death Cafe

Next date: March 22nd, 6:30-8pm @ Coffee.Deli

Death. It’s a taboo topic that most people tend to avoid speaking of. But for as long as the sun shines and the seasons change, death will be an inescapable fate for all the living. The concept of death is hard to acknowledge, let alone grasp. And the topic of death is hard to speak about. 

But Jon Underwood and Sue Reid of Britain have started a “social franchise” in an attempt to bring death into open conversation. Jon and Sue began the international Death Café movement in September of 2011. Since then, there have been 4,790 death café events in 50 countries. Despite the complexity of the topic: the concept is simple. People, usually strangers, gather over cake and tea to talk about death.

To join in on the international movement, Mixed Greens has been hosting Death Cafes here in Savannah. The next Death Cafe will take place at Coffee Deli on Habersham. We bring no agenda – only cupcakes and cake. Join us. Because we all have sweet, finite lives. It’s time to talk about it.

Better Fresh Farms, Growth in Demand

Grant Anderson, owner and operator of Better Fresh Farms, has seen a growth in demand for his product over the past few months. It's truly no wonder why. He has been able to provide the Savannah community with a consistently unique product despite the challenges faced by the climate and weather. His method? Growing vertically & hydroponically inside of shipping containers. 

Grant began his company with a strong desire to improve the local food scene in a sustainable, environmentally conscious manner. He not only challenges perceptions surrounding fresh food by engaging in meaningful conversations with people, but he also provides us with an alternative product -- one that is truly fresh, tender, and will last an impressively long time in the fridge despite being perishable. 

IMG_1412.JPG

Grant has been incredibly thankful for the connections he has made at the Forsyth Farmers' Market. Unfortunately, he will be taking a break from the weekly farmers market until the summer. He says, "I've been blessed to have an opportunity to work with Bon Appetit (SCAD's food service coordinator) through their "Farm to Fork" initiative to encourage purchases from local farmers. They have agreed in conversation to buy all of my lettuces for the remainder of the spring semester to feature at their campus restaurant "beeFUEL" in The Hive near student housing. I am also very grateful to be selling some of our whole head lettuces & chervil to Chef Tyler Williams at Husk Savannah each week. All of my remaining kale, swiss chard, pac choi, and radishes that I typically bring to FFM are currently going to Brighter Day Natural Foods Market at the end of each week."

It's important that farmers have the opportunity to diversify their clientele to ensure sustainability. We are so excited he's been able to secure gigs that are incredibly valuable for his company going forward. The Farm to Fork initiative with the SCAD community will be a great opportunity for Grant to bring more awareness to college students the power of their purchasing power and the importance of supporting local farmers. Grant will return soon to the weekly farmers market to continue connecting with his consumers and growing his demand base.

IMG_1398.JPG
IMG_1417.JPG

Farmsgiving 2017 A Success

The Forsyth Farmers' Market annual fundraiser, Farmsgiving was held on Saturday November 11th. A special thanks to the organizers, local businesses, donors, and attendees who made the event a great success!

We invited community residents and businesses to host a dinner party event for friends and family while accepting donations on behalf of the Forsyth Farmers Market. The dinner party specifics were left up to the preference of the party host -- and they ranged from a back yard casual get-together to more formal events. Party hosts were also encouraged to support local farmers in their purchasing of ingredients! Lulu's Chocolate Bar donated beautiful cakes for the deserts of the party.   

If you'd like to be a part of next years' Farmsgiving, stay tuned. Details will come out around October 2018. 

FarmersMarket0123.JPG
FarmersMarket0126.JPG
FarmersMarket0074.JPG
FarmersMarket0094.JPG
FarmersMarket0096.JPG

Oldways in Savannah, A Taste of African Heritage

“Diabetes is not part of your heritage. Neither is heart disease. What is in your heritage is a healthy heart, strong body, extraordinary energy, vibrant and delicious foods, and a long, healthy life.”
-OldWays, African Heritage Diet.

Our nutrition educator, herbalist, and community activist, Ayo Ngozi taught the first 6-week session of nutrition education classes here in Savannah this past summer, 2017. In the coming 2018 year, this course will be taught in community centers in Savannah [dates pending]. 

The course is based on the Oldways, A Taste of African Heritage curriculum. The course is designed to teach people how to eat and cook healthfully, traditionally, and enjoyably through hands-on experience. The class covers a specific food group each week from the African Heritage Diet Pyramid.

IMG_9621.jpg
IMG_9612.jpg

The outline of the class is as follows:
Week/Lesson 1: Traditional Herbs and Spices
Week/Lesson 2: Greens
Week/Lesson 3: Whole Grains
Week/Lesson 4: Beans and Rice
Week/Lesson 5: Tubers and Stews
Week/Lesson 6: Fruits and Vegetables


From the Food Guide Pyramid (1992-2005), to MyPyramid (2005-2011), and now – to MyPlate, the USDA has gone through many graphical representations in attempt to help people better understand how to eat healthily. The opinions surrounding these graphs are certainly not few and far between, to say the least. But that’s to be expected with an attempt to standardize and simplify something so complex, variable, and culturally dependent — our diets.
A Taste of African Heritage introduces to us a food pyramid which intimately connects culture and food – in a way that can add value to our lives, deepen our connection with our food, and strengthen social connections. This diet specifically places an emphasis on eating like our ancestors – because we are evolutionarily adapted to an environment quite unlike the one we live in today.
The modern American diet has been shaped, to a great extent, by the industrial food system. At its core, the food system promotes standardization of inputs to maximize efficiency and market success. We have become highly specialized in producing commodity crops (corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, etc.) – and as a result, we have experienced a great loss in biological diversity and cultural diversity. This can be exemplified in the simple fact that there are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food.2Our industrial food system has – in a way, created its own culture around cheap, convenient, delicious food – while disregarding the cultural identity and health of its consumers. The modern American diet has contributed to one of the most serious public health concerns. More than 64 million Americans have one or more types of cardiovascular disease, which represents the leading cause of mortality (38.5% of all deaths) in the United States.3 Fifty million Americans are hypertensive; 11 million have type 2 diabetes, and 37 million adults maintain high-risk total cholesterol concentrations (>240 mg/dL)3

As a society, we have done a great deal of damage to our health. Profound changes have occurred in our diets over time; from the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry to the use of genetically modified foods. The interaction of the environment, genes, gene expression and the relation to food and disease is a whole mess of complicated. There is not easy explanation for the prevalence of chronic disease in our country. But there is an increasing awareness that a disease does not arise from one single dietary element (say for example, saturated fat). It is the interaction of nutritional factors directly linked to excessive consumption of novel Neolithic and Industrial era foods (dairy products, cereals, refined cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, fatty meats, salts, etc.) —  our environment has changed too fast on an evolutionary time scale for the human genome to adjust.3 And paradoxically, food has become a poison in our Westernized diet. Simply put, we must get back to our roots. And that is what Oldways is about, at it’s core — our cultural roots.

For more information or to express interest in being a part of the 6-week course, please e-mail Ayo at ayo.ngozi.herbalist@gmail.com