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PODCAST

The Leading Voices in Food

E232: Carolina Farm Trust creating healthy food system disruption

Hosted by: Norbert Wilson (Duke)
March 18, 2024


Today’s podcast is a story of one man’s personal journey to making a difference by building communities. Zach Wyatt grew up caretaking an old 300-acre farm in Virginia. He went to college and ended up working in mortgage lending. And then something changed for Zack, and that’s where the story gets interesting. He now leads the Carolina Farm Trust, working to strengthen local food systems in the Carolinas. The trust cultivates urban farm networks, farm apprenticeships, supports local farmers in purchasing equipment or land, making informed-decisions, and more.

Zack Wyatt is the President/CEO of Carolina Farm Trust. Zack grew up tending to a 300-acre dairy farm in northern Virginia. After graduating from Coastal Carolina University in 2003 with a degree in Business Administration, he worked in home mortgage lending and IT. Zack’s passion for bringing the community together over food, his understanding of the importance of equitable food access, and his drive to improve local food systems led him to develop Carolina Farm Trust in 2015.

Interview Summary

I’d like to understand a little bit more, why did you want to start the Carolina Farm Trust?

Well, with a lot of things, it was just kind of by accident and circumstance. And I would say subconsciously I had agriculture in my bones, ever since I was a kid growing up in agriculture in Northern Virginia. It just kind of seeps in. We [The Family] still have that little arm reached out to being a part the DC metro area. Growing up in an urban-rural environment kind of planted, I think, a lot of the seeds in the work that was going to transpire so many decades later. But it really just kind of came down to a life event. I had a partnership that just ended in one day, which was a huge blow to us financially. We had to get on EBT and Snap and went through that process. And I was really soul searching and figuring out what were the next steps for me. Looking back on it, I think I was really grasping on to how do I do anything, to kind of just do something. I got back into reading about our food system and farms and started meeting some farmers. And once you start talking to farmers in a real way and understanding what our food system truly is, it’s horrifying. It kind of came down to seeing this visual metaphor of a meteorite heading toward us every day, and either sticking your head in the sand or doing something. Circumstance just led to this next event and next event, and the next event. And eight years later, here we are.

What I hear from you is this story of resiliency and it seems like that’s something you also see in the food system or a need for that is that a fair assessment?

Absolutely. We just take food in agriculture for granted. And over the last 80 to 90 years, we’ve really given our entire means of survival pretty much away. Most people don’t really look at food and agriculture and how it spins every major decision on Earth. Every social problem we typically have, every health issue we have, if you follow it all the way down to where that problem started, you go all the way back to the dirt. So, to kind of look at resilience and what do we mean by that and more importantly, building regional resilience in a global economy: I think getting supply chains a whole lot shorter, focusing on soil health and nutrition density and our farming community, is where we really have to start.

I’m starting to get a sense of the big picture of the farm trust. What is the driving mission of your work? I think you’re hitting on some of that, but I’d like to hear more.

I’d say the vision is very clearly about building regional resilience and then using food and agriculture as a primary driver. The four main pillars we have are health and nutrition, upward mobility and equity, sustainability, and climate change. Our four action-on-the-ground pillars are first, building an urban farm network and to get people to understand where our food comes from. Why is that important? We do really need to push urban centers to be more responsible for where our food comes from and playing a role in that. Second, our farm apprentice program, workforce development. You know, the average age of our farming community right now is a little over 60. Where is this next generation of farmers coming from? Where is the land coming from? So, it is not only kind of a labor force for us, you know, but how do we make sure every community garden, every school garden is thriving? How do we create teams that can go help our rural farming community with different projects or step in when someone gets sick or an emergency? Third, when we think of food as health, what does that really mean? If we’re talking about food as medicine, in my opinion, we’ve already missed the boat. We got to talk about food as health, we got to talk about prevention. How do community health workers get out in communities covering geographic locations, really understanding what those needs are and how do we create systems to go meet them where they are. And then our fourth pillar is our distribution platform, which is really there to give a profitable revenue stream to our farming community. How do we use economics to really push them to start their regenerative farming journey? And then how internally to create supply chains that not only can work with consumers, you know, up and down the socioeconomic ladder, but how do we make sure we can build supply chains for larger institutions to be able to participate in a local food economy because the infrastructure is just not there.

I was struck by your earlier comment of if you get down to the, if you will, root cause of any problem, and forgive the pun, it seems like it’s in the dirt. Right? And I’d like to hear you explain a little bit more about what you believe is what’s wrong with the food system as it is today. And I got a sense it’s about the lack of being local, but I want to hear it in your words and how does this guide your actions now?

Well, it’s just evolution. I mean we always try to get better. We wanted to make food cheaper, so we went from hundreds of farms and rapid consolidation over the years. We have processed and now ultra-processed food, and we have to deal with slavery and reconstruction and everything that kind of came with it with such as sharecropping from a social standpoint. We’re looking at nutrition density and in average produce and protein sources we’re almost 30 to 6% less than what it was 100 years ago. We’re looking at climate change, sustainability. Where does that come from? Look at the carbon footprint, our agriculture industry puts on the planet, look at the massive consolidation of looking at if the world gets 40% of its grain from Ukraine, and then having different political and social issues come up. I include inflation spikes. We’re looking at carbon sequestration, we’re looking at no-till, we’re looking at all these big environmental and all these sustainability and allergies and cancers. And so, where does all that come from? It comes from our environment. Looking through all of this, you can very much see parallels of how our food system started to consolidate and get more aggregated with all the other problems I just mentioned. And if you look at 1930, 1940, and then going from there, you can very much see kind of a parallel with a lot of the challenges that we face. So, I think we really spent a lot of time trying to kind of cherry pick among all these really big problems. We’re trying to cherry pick smaller problems because they seem a little bit more manageable, but we really have to go rethink the system as a whole. And that’s really, really hard to do. What we’re really trying to push forward is how do we just look at a region, because I really feel like you have to do this from a regional perspective. How do we get a regional model to work, really go rebuild all that infrastructure, get, buy-in, understanding what the data’s telling us, and then we can replicate that going forward to really other regions around the world.

This is very helpful and I appreciate the way you approach that question. Seeing that there are these large global issues and there are structural challenges when we talk about agriculture – and you’re working in the region, my understanding, you’re out of West Charlotte – and there’s a distribution center. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re doing in West Charlotte, especially through this distribution center?

It became very clear that our farming community needed a market. Farmer’s markets are tough. As consumers, some of us love them, some of us don’t pay attention to them. But for our farming community, farmer’s markets are really hard. And from a wholesale standpoint, it’s very hard for Carolina farmers to compete with Mexico, California, Florida. How do you compete regionally on a global market? So, we had a distribution model planned for a while and in my head, I wanted it to be in West Charlotte and it needed to be near I-85. We wanted it to be in a community because this kind of distribution facility would be an employment place and we would have a real retail concept. We wanted a meat processing butchery component. So, it was kind of putting a lot of pie in the sky visions into one parcel. But one of our strategic advisors in 2021 was at coffee, talking to a friend about Carolina Farm Trust and kind of what our needs were. One of them said, “Oh, my family has this warehouse,” So we took a look at it, and it met every criterion we could have dreamed of. The only thing that was different was that I was thinking in my head we would want like 100,000, 200,000 square feet and this one was 25,000 square feet. But the moment I looked at it, I realized this is the exact size or the range that we need because of the community impact. We want more of these not one or two, you know, that are gathered around. This being in the community was such a key factor to it. So, with our wholesale operation, our commercial kitchen, the retail, the event space, the meat processing butchery component of it all, we really could start to see this framework of getting kind of an independent food system together. So, we’re working on phase one, which is our wholesale operation and our 3000 square foot commercial which should come online, you know, in the next six weeks. And then we’re just waiting on permitting for phase two and fundraising on phase two to get that activated. It’s a really cool project and we’re really excited to see it to come to fruition here in the next few weeks.

This is really fascinating. You know, I haven’t asked this, but I’m intrigued. Tell me a little bit about the farmers that you work with. What kinds of produce or crops are they or animals are they producing? I mean, how are you developing those relationships?

Over the course of the years we’ve met a lot of different farmers and we grow everything that we can grow here in the Carolinas. We’re talking greens and obviously tomatoes and melons and corn. We’re working with our grain farmers who are growing wheat for us and grinding flour that we’re actually getting into a hotel right now in Uptown Charlotte, which is really exciting. Cattle, pork, lamb. And really looking to create markets for our farming community in any way that we can. So right now, Michael Bowling, our general manager of CFT Market, which is the name of our distribution facility, he and his team are going all over the state and finding arms that we’ve never heard of and getting recommendations and compiling our list. A big part of what we’re trying to put together is how we can take the burden on some things like transportation, because it’s such a margin killer, and such a challenge for our farming communities. How do we get amazing produce from the east, you know, into Charlotte and the West, into Charlotte. So, we’re working on getting a fleet of vehicles right now to do that. So, it’s really just trying to find all of the barriers that our farming community faces, and then how do we create the infrastructure systems.

I want to end by asking sort of what are your hopes? Like what is the long game? Where do you see your work and the work of those who will follow you? Where does it lead?

Well, I think you have to be very naive to think this way. And sometimes, being naive isn’t a bad thing because if you do too much research, then you think your way out of doing what you should be doing. So really, the long game is trying to change the entire industry. But it’s so much more than that because our food and Ag is health. It IS our health industry, you know, and obviously it’s our food industry. But it’s also going to play a huge role in saving not our planet for the planet’s sake but saving the planet for our sake. You know, it’s just critical. So, I mean, really we’re wanting to really follow in Netflix footsteps. Netflix came in and changed the entire entertainment industry relatively quickly. We’re looking at automotive legacy manufacturers that weren’t getting electric vehicles fast enough. So, Tesla came in and disrupted that. Now suddenly, everybody’s moving in that direction. So really at our core, we want to take market share and drive our industry partners to focus more on this work. That is really the long game. For us, it’s how do we build the foundation? I know I’m never really going to see it, but how do we build this foundation for the next generation of leadership to really get it going on what we’ve been able to build in this short time.

 

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