University City

Hopeful signs of a greener, healthier future

On Tuesday, new farmers at the Elma C. Lomax Farm Incubator in Concord - on the far eastern edge of University City - were out early in the day.

They filled their harvest baskets with red and green heirloom lettuce, varieties with names such as Frizzy Head/Drunken Woman, Tintin and Waldman.

The leaves sparkled in the morning sun like jeweled tiaras.

Joe Rowland, a young farmer with a second life as a rock musician, was excited about that sparkle. It might have been dew, but he was sure it was guttation, a process some plants use to move water and salts out onto leaf margins.

He took a picture to show his horticulture professor, Frankie Fanelli at Central Piedmont Community College's Cato Campus on Grier Road. She had just introduced the concept in a class Rowland is taking.

As Rowland and his fellow farmers washed their lettuce in the packing shed, Cabarrus County Extension Agent Carl Pless showed up with big, firm heads of broccoli and a cauliflower that could win a prize at any county fair.

"I've got more of that, too," Pless said in a rich accent echoing the seven generations of his family who have lived in this area.

An instructor and mentor to the farmers at this county-sponsored project, Pless told the group how he first grew cauliflower years ago on his own farm, and he talked a bit about how he produces broccoli.

The farmers soaked up every word.

Then another farmer and Lomax graduate, Jane Henderson, drove up. She brought a cornucopia of produce from her farm next door, including some of the orangest and sweetest carrots you've ever seen.

These crops are destined for area farmers' markets and buying organizations set up to support local growers. Everything at the Lomax farm is certified organic, grown without toxic industrial chemicals or commercial salt fertilizers.

That ties in with the farm's purpose, to be a good steward of the environment while helping train a new crop of farmers to grow local food for local markets.

Classical English poet Alexander Pope famously advised us to "Consult the genius of the place in all."

On this bright November morning, one of the geniuses of University City was clear: our capability to grow healthy and delicious food right here at home.

Our grandparents knew that, and a small band of farmers and urban gardeners is refusing to allow it to be forgotten.

Besides the Lomax project, the University City area also boasts active farms within two miles of the UNC Charlotte campus, a new community garden in the planning stages for Carolinas Medical Center-University, CPCC Cato's full program of horticulture classes, Nancy Newton's Newell Farmer's Market - the list goes on.

It's a hopeful sign of a greener, healthier and more sustainable future.

Past University City land-use policies largely ignored farming and paid little more than lip service to open space. The results of this "growth uber alles" mindset is best symbolized by the lonely silo marked with a cross, still prominently visible from N.C. 49 and Interstate 485, which stands like a gravestone for local farming. It marks the former site of a dairy farm that I-485 sliced in two.

Some folks get richer as a result of this kind of sprawling growth, at least over the short term. Not just fat cats, but skinny ones, too, workers hungry for any kind of job they could find, spreading asphalt, handling wallboard, pushing Chinese knickknacks at the Target or Wal-Mart built in what was once productive farmland.

But we all end up poorer when we destroy the very things that give us a distinct sense of place and meaning. Eventually, of course, the natural balance returns. Every crack in the pavement harbors weeds and grass, and as soon as we neglect the herbicide, they relentlessly spread. Far from being evil, they are emissaries from that First Garden, renewing the process of healing the Earth.

Let's hope the new efforts to encourage local foods and agriculture have the persistence of those weeds.

Among his other roles, Aaron Newton, local food system project coordinator for Cabarrus County, serves as the Lomax Farm manager. Recently he met with Wes Jackson, the legendary environmentalist and crop geneticist.

Jackson's latest book, "Consulting the Genius of the Place," picks up on Pope's theme. In Jackson's view, the transformation to a sustainable society must begin with new agriculture: an agriculture rooted in ecology, a deep connection to the land and respect for traditional culture.

When planners, developers and policymakers see our farms and woods as nothing more than places to build more strip malls and parking lots, they advocate replacing the genius of complexity and balance with unsustainable stupidity.

The genius of a place isn't worth much if you give it a lobotomy.