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
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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.  

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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.