The 20 or so farmers and food system activists looked a bit out of place Tuesday morning, clustered around tables in an ornate room generally reserved for high-class weddings and corporate powwows at the posh Ballantyne Resort Hotel in South Charlotte.
In spite of the very un-farm-like setting, this meeting of the Mecklenburg County Friends of Agriculture explored ideas that eventually could make urban farming more viable in University City and across the region.
University City was well represented. Four farmers active with the Elma Lomax Farm Incubator program attended, along with Jane Henderson of Commonwealth Farms, a small farmer and community leader.
Also in attendance were Nancy Carter, former Charlotte City Council member and now a commissioner on Mecklenburg County's Soil and Water Board; nutritionists from Mecklenburg County's Health Department; food distributors large and small; farmers' market managers; and a representative from the county's Food Policy Council.
The meeting was organized and chaired by Kristin Davis, Cooperative Extension agent in Mecklenburg County. She was joined by Robert Grooms of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and by two representatives of the Friends of Agriculture program in Polk County.
The keynote speaker was Christy Shi, director of Charlotte's new City Market on 7th Street, in the former Reid's Market space.
Shi is highly regarded among local growers and food activists.
(David Goforth, Cooperative Extension agent in Cabarrus County, once summed up her impact by suggesting that all we'd need to do to save and support local farms would be to "clone Christy Shi.")
Shi acknowledged challenges in establishing City Market, an ambitious project designed to provide an enjoyable outing for local residents and visitors as a source of fresh local food, similar to urban markets such as Pike Place in Seattle.
Charlotte's market has opened but is still a work in progress. An opening celebration is planned for April.
Shi pointed out the enormous economic potential for locally grown food. The 14-county Charlotte region, Shi said, annually spends $521 million on fresh fruit and vegetables. Of that, only $18 million is used to buy locally grown produce.
That leaves more than $500 million of potential for local growers.
A $4.9 million regional grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced in November, will be used to analyze the local food market in greater detail, Shi said.
The challenge for local food supporters, as Shi sees it, is to build bridges to the broader community and to reach out "beyond those who agree with us." She supports the Friends of Agriculture's goal of connecting local farmers with local markets, such as chefs and food distributors.
Shi also advocates responding to consumer preferences. Pointing to carrots as a crop that grows well locally, Shi said consumers seem to prefer carrots shaved, cut into finger-sized pieces and packaged in plastic bags.
She suggested that building a processing facility to process and bag carrots and other vegetables might help local farms succeed.
That provoked a startled gasp from Henderson and others.
Many small farmers and organic growers, like Henderson, want to move in the opposite direction, away from excess processing and packaging. They take pride in growing and selling carrots that look like carrots, freshly harvested.
They don't necessarily agree that a local version of the California-style agribusiness model - the one that brought Americans the infamous square tomato (tasteless, but efficient to package) - is desirable, even if it improves local sales.
Shi - a longtime supporter of small farms and fresh, direct-marketed vegetables - seemed sympathetic. Consumer preferences in an age of instant preparation are difficult to balance with produce that may be healthy, tasty and fresh but that requires cleaning and preparation in the kitchen.
"We haven't just lost a generation of farmers, " Shi said. "We've lost a generation of cooks."
The University City area, with large areas of open space, is home to several farming operations.
Farmland in Cabarrus County qualifies for tax incentives and protected status.
A popular farm-stand-type farmers market opens in Newell on a seasonalbasis, but University City has no year-round "destination" farmers market with shelter and nearby attractions such as shops and restaurants.
Lynn Shanklin Caldwell, manager of the successful, locally oriented Atherton Market on SouthBoulevard, said the lack of a suitable location limits possibilities around UNC Charlotte.
Davis, a consumer and family science agent with the Cooperative Extension, has organized the Friends of Agriculture to help bring farmers together withpotential markets andpolicymakers.
For more information, contact her at 704-336-4006 or Kristin_Davis@ncsu.edu.