Updated: Mar 14, 2019
New Hanover County is located in the heart of southeastern North Carolina. Its pristine beaches and Cape Fear River attracts tourists from all over the United States and internationally. Unfortunately, industrial and animal farm pollutants have taken their toll on its ecosystem. Recently hurricane Florence exacerbated the pollutant situation with overflow from several contaminated sites, affecting local agriculture and the security of our future food supply. This essay seeks to explain the causes, effects, and rational solutions to our contaminated agricultural food system.
Many things are happening in the agricultural world, and not all of them are bad. One might think that it would be impossible to feel optimistic about food security in counties like New Hanover, where soil, water, and air are highly contaminated. This is not a problem that would be impossible to fix with the proper support. Guidance and funding would grant many families the ability to make a living from the land resources, like in neighboring counties like Pender.
In the more rural —and economically depressed— parts of New Hanover County, there is one farm, the Castle Hayne Farms, that grows the famous Carolina flower. They are known for their premium fresh-cut Carolina grown flowers, and they are located near the Cape Fear River delta in the coastal southeastern part of North Carolina.
It is situated on 7 acres of climate controlled greenhouses and nearly 30 acres of fields producing mostly Iris, Lilies, and Peonies. In the summer time (when flower sales slow down), they produce fresh vegetables, like cucumbers, squash, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs, which are sold for local markets. The Carolina flowers are Castle Hayne Farm’s grower and shipper of butter and bread, and the real problem is that property value is very high in New Hanover, which is heavily urbanized and is growing in a fast pace.
Other forms of growing, like urban farming, should be implemented for food security because the county cannot support the economics of traditional farming. On the other hand, it is not sustainable to rely solely on grants for farming because grants will ultimately run out and are not economically sustainable profitable in the long-term. Evan Folds, who is a supervisor of New Hannover Soil and Conservation said “to incentivize farming in New Hanover county, the farmers should be able to earn a higher wage of profit that is relative to their cost of expenses, and subsidies would be necessary to achieve this”. But aren’t subsidies another form of grants?
The current platform of our food system is ineffective at incentivizing nutritious food options, through encouragement of inferior commodities that contain corn and soy ingredients. Unfortunately, New Hanover County does not have the viable local food system or the adequate amount of land for it. In America, almost 90% of subsidies go to 10% of farmers in the North where millions of acres are already subsidized. It’s a very broken system, and that is why small scale urban farming is the only option for New Hanover County. An example of this would be to increase the land value and grow more profitable and healthy food —like ginger and turmeric. My professor Cristof denBiggelaar Ph.D. at Appalachian State University said to me that those don’t feed people, and he is right. But I believe we are in a phase where barter agreements should be made among farmers, and ginger and turmeric are very costly. Selling them at the farmer’s markets, or trading them, would be very profitable as they’re costly.
There is a lack of awareness, information, and incentive from the City of Wilmington and the NC Extension. There is not a list of farmers in the City of Wilmington and they do not even know if there is one. This shows how disconnected they are with the field, and NC Extension is very misguided with a lot of untapped potential. I attended a workshop of Ginger and Turmeric in Ashe County, and I wonder why in New Hanover County there are not similar workshops adapted to our region. The Cape Fear region is even more suitable for these types of crops because we do not need a high tunnel, but rather a cheap structure and a tarp in case of inclement weather.
We have study in this class that “Human and environmental systems are not separable entities but part of an integrated whole.” Global change vulnerability is the likelihood that a specific coupled human-environment system will experience harm from exposure to stresses associated with alterations of societies and environment, accounting for the process of adaptation. In New Hanover County and surrounding areas the majority of the crops come from two plants, even though our climate is ideal for a multitude of crops. These two crops are soy and corn and the vast majority of these crops are fed to animals raised for food. This practice is harmful in many way including the hindrance of biodiversity and inefficient use of plant nutrients. When crops are limited to soy and corn it becomes susceptible to plant diseases and pests that could wipe out large portions of the plants grown. This makes it necessary to use large quantities of pesticides and herbicides that are not good for humans and the animals in the surrounding areas. Reva Kelly, the executive director of Wilmington Vegan states, “The reason these two crops are selected is because they are very good at growing animals, who are raised for food, very large and very quickly. Feeding the crops to animals is an extremely inefficient use of the land because it takes a lot more plant food to grow the animals, then if we were to just eat plants instead. The animals produce large amounts of waste and this is also a detriment to the environment. Animals raised for food contribute to climate change more than all transportation; and the pigs in North Carolina produce about as much solid waste as every person on the east coast and all the waste goes untreated. The waste is collected in lagoons to seep into the soil and is sprayed into the air into neighboring low income communities.” There is no doubt that this is harming the population. There is an urgent need to pass a legislation which eliminates the subsidies that drives factory farming and instead subsidize biodiverse farming to more efficiently use the land. Less land would be needed to produce the food we need and large amounts of land could be returned to the wild and promote biodiversity and native wildlife and plants come make a huge comeback.
It might be more realistic to look for another solution. Drastic improvements could be made through new technologies available in the United States which can reduce contamination. While poor countries are going to be affected by climate change as a result of the huge carbon footprint of the industrialized countries, the rich counties in America could avoid a big percentage of the downfalls of floods. In New Hanover County, we suffered the disaster provoked by Hurricane Florence, but the water would not be extremely polluted if it were not for coal ashes from the electrical plant, by-products like GenX that were pouring into the Cape Fear River for decades at the Chemours plant in Fayetteville, and the CAFO Pig and poultry industries.
Each hurricane that pounds the state brings downstream the waste of open pits. The farmer’s crops in neighboring counties were struggling before this hurricane season because of the losses caused by so much rain. People should think twice about buying these contaminated crops after the hurricanes, and selling crops coming from flooded land is prohibited. Hurricane Florence devastated farms and nearly $2 billion were lost in agriculture in North Carolina alone. Also, new crops like hemp were not counted in the federal farm bill, so they were ineligible for insurance.
The problem is that people don’t think about the quality of the irrigation water, and there is no way for people to raise their hand and say what they want. The battle is lost if we have to resort to educating the masses in order to convince them to stop eating meat. This is not going to happen in a state that has more pigs than inhabitants, where poultry is raising many concerns as the dry waste ends up down stream, and where the industry is in crescendo.
The only solution would be to create effective legislation, which hasn’t happened because the system is tied to lobbyists and power. The only way out of the status quo is to clean the mess as soon as it is produced. Instead of educating the public about the greenhouse gases produced by livestock, cleaning the problem at the source would be beneficial for the industry. This can be done with new technology which can sequester contaminants from animal waste when they are deposited into the open pits. The exact mechanism of how this can be done is being researched, and these new systems are already being marketed. The concept of sequestering contaminants can be interesting to the polluting industries which are losing money and being demonized. Monetary pressures and lack of prestige are the worst things that can happen to an industry, and now they have to respond —and pay—as a result of their actions.
The power that communities are gaining through social media is a fact, and the state-corporate agreements which endanger the health of communities are now more exposed. Wastelands are silent witnesses of how these state-corporate crimes have been planned and executed. The case of Chemours, a subsidiary of Dupont, marks an important landmark as the company was slapped with a $12 million penalty by the state of North Carolina a couple weeks ago. The chemical GenX was used to produce non-stick coating for pots and pans and was disposed of in the Cape Fear River for decades in Fayetteville.
This penalty represents a triumph for organizations like Cape Fear River Watch, of which I am a member. Hurricane Florence was a catastrophe and the CFRW responded with advocacy, education and action. When Florence began to batter the North Carolina Coast, Cape Fear River Watch documented and responded to several events before, during and after the storm. With GenX, they were also very reactive, and the community has been very instrumental in pressuring the state, and now State environmental officials are putting pressure on the company to provide permanent drinking water to people impacted. They are also demanding the reduction of GenX air emissions by 92 percent by the end of the year.
Wilmington is resilient and reactive. We have several non-profit organizations to lean on, but we need to put in place models that will ensure our quality of life and our food security. How climate change will determine the possibilities of agriculture in the Wilmington area is another focus area to be discussed.
“Everyone is a part of agriculture, whether we realize it or not. Not everyone can grow their own food, but as the great Wendell Berry said, "‘Eating is an agricultural act, " states Evan Folds. The new Supervisor of New Hanover Soil & Water Conservation District is interested in developing projects to enhance agriculture in the county and ensure the protection and enhancement of the soil and water supply.