I admit it; I buy produce at Trader Joe’s. Lots of it! I know it comes from Mexico and California and anywhere but here and the blueberries don’t even taste like blueberries, but I buy it because it’s there and it’s familiar and it’s cheap. And that’s precisely the consumer habit Zack Wyatt hopes to disrupt with Carolina Farm Trust, an early-stage organization aimed at protecting the farmland that feeds us here at home.

Every year North Carolina loses 100,000 acres of land to urban and suburban development making it harder and harder for existing farmers to expand their operations or for new entrepreneurial farmers to enter the business. Zack’s plan is for Carolina Farm Trust to buy up available land before developers do and then lease it back to farmers at reasonable rates.

Land is a limiting factor for a lot of family farmers, who live on a nationwide average income of $16,000. (Farmers on the East Coast earn about 35% less than the national average.) Take, for example, Mike Smith, a cattle farmer in Kannapolis. He needs 3 acres of land for every 1 cow he raises at Big Oak Farm, which has been in his family for over 100 years.

Or there’s Elizabeth Anne Dover whose family’s vineyard and farm seem out of place at a busy intersection with a gas station and a large grocery store, a result of encroaching suburban development in Concord.

It’s not an easy task, but it’s a necessary one. “What I’m talking about here is really hard work,” Zack says on our drive through countryside I didn’t even realize was just 30 minutes north of Charlotte. “It’s going to be really hard, but I think we’re the generation to do it.”

To be clear, what he’s talking about is something of a revolution: a plan to prevent urban sprawl into our rural farmlands, empower farmers to expand existing operations or embark on new ones, and create a united front that ensures we can feed ourselves on farmland here in the Carolinas and not across the country for generations to come.

The vision is big but it starts with the fairly straightforward task of buying up land, and Zack’s already got his eye on a 40-acre farm in Lincolnton at risk of development. To purchase it and prove out the Carolina Farm Trust model, he has to raise funds and awareness so he’s doing what anyone would do: throwing a huge party.

Carolina Jubilee, a food and music festival at Vanhoy Farms, will give farms, microbreweries and wineries a chance to showcase their products to the community this fall and rally stakeholders behind the Carolina Farm Trust cause.

It’s a big, messy, complicated problem he’s trying to solve and Zack says plenty of people have their doubts but that’s true of any early-stage project. So what can you do to get involved? Everyone I met on my farm tour said the same thing: Ask where you food comes from. If the answer is Trader Joe’s, well… we’ve got some work to do, don’t we?

By Katie Levans Loveluck
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