Green Acres

BY Marimar McNaughton

Long before the sun chases the night away Stefan Hartmann and Margaret Shelton are waking. These two organic farmers are college educated leaders in their fields. On family farmsteads west of the Cape Fear River Hartmann and Shelton value time-honored farming and gardening traditions passed down from their ancestors. Each produces wholesome homegrown vegetables edible herbs and flowers for a growing market of locavores who prefer to dine on locally cultivated crops found within a 100-mile radius of their home.

In Ivanhoe Hartmann’s Black River Organic Farm yields fresh produce handpicked and trucked to a farmers’ co-op in Pittsboro and two organic food co-ops in Wilmington. On Saturday mornings two hired hands drive his bumper crop to the Riverfront Farmers’ Market on Water Street.

Hartmann a city boy by birthright started farming 30 years ago after agriculture studies at Georg-August University in Goettingen Germany where he was born. When he graduated he came to America retracing his mother’s roots to her girlhood home in Ivanhoe.

“I obviously had a lot of connections to this place ” Hartmann says. “I am on the old home place farming one of the fields my grandfather actually farmed.” He cleared 16 acres of pine trees that his grandfather planted putting the land back into farming.

“There were not a lot of organic farms here. Nowadays it’s different. I’ve seen the whole industry grow and blossom ” Hartmann says.

“He was for a long while the only organic grower in the east but that is changing. He paved the way ” says Debbie Roos the North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent for Organic and Sustainable Agriculture in Chatham County. “Stefan has been one of our farmer leaders and a founding member of the Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) co-op based here in Pittsboro ” Roos says. The farmer-owned marketing and distribution service helps rural organic farmers like Stefan Hartmann gain access to urban markets.

“I really can’t produce enough for this market now ” Hartmann says. “That’s a good dilemma.”

As the crow flies 40 miles southwest of Hartmann’s Black River farm Margaret Shelton’s herb farm is eight miles west of the Cape Fear River out back of Leland. She is one of the co-founders of the Riverfront Farmers’ Market.

“We grow everything we sell ” Shelton says. “This is a different kind of farming and a different kind of sale but I think for me having a market to go to is a nice way to save energy ” Shelton says.

On two acres near the headwaters of Town Creek on the Morgan Branch of the Cape Fear River on her family’s 200-year-old home place Shelton’s farm is a stone’s throw off the beaten path a right turn off of Highway 17 South onto Goodman Road.

Surrounded by a pristine natural woodland forest of loblolly and longleaf pine her farmland is nourished by untouched Carolina bays.

“It’s a gorgeous natural area ” Shelton says. Wild Pinkster azaleas blackberries cockleberries wild ginger tiny two-flower and native carnivorous plants like Venus flytraps pitcher plants sun views butterwort and bladderwort grow among the bracken fern and wiregrass. In one pond behind the herb farm where the dam washed out some local beavers built a lodge.

It is into this paradise that Shelton and her husband retreated following college and graduate school. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology she moved back to her girlhood home when their oldest son was 4. That was 25 years ago. Since then she has been gardening and cultivating herbs organically.

“I grew up on this farm ” Shelton says. “We always gardened. That’s part of what you do when you’re out in the country. My mother gardened and my grandmother. I grew up doing that ” she says.

Her soil is nurtured with organic matter like horse manure from her neighbors’ farms and organic mulches from roadside cuttings. She also propagates a cover crop of Austrian winter peas and red clover.

“Her working girls — three wild boar Scarlet Ginger and Nutmeg — were imported from Indigo Run Plantation. She moves their fence around the herb garden where she needs them to work plant roots and foliage into the soil. The yard birds sometimes contribute more than they take away like the female turkey that scurried out of the yarrow after laying an egg.

Deer also wander freely into her garden and forage. “Edible flowers pansies they love them. They tear them out of the ground ” Shelton says. Natural predators and cold weather in winter force her to protect her plants with a low cover like a white sheet. In her greenhouses she cultivates herbs from seeds and cuttings.

“Seeds are a mixture of genetics. Things I do from seed because they’re so easy to do are things like basil dill parsley and chive. The cuttings are plants that I’ve collected over the years like lavender garden sage and rosemary. I do propagation so that I get the same plant as the parent plant ” she says.

In addition to the farmers’ markets in Wilmington and at Poplar Grove Plantation Shelton services local restaurants and caterers.

“We’ve got some very good chefs in the Wilmington Southport Figure Eight Island and Wrightsville Beach area ” Shelton says. “When you have good chefs running the kitchen making decisions they are buying fresh herbs.”

Hartmann chews a ham sandwich garnished with arugula dill and lettuce picked fresh from his fields with a spread of soy mayonnaise between two slices of organic bread. In between bites he explains how he prepared his soil.

“We added tons and tons of compost — poultry litter. My program now is cover crops ” Hartmann says. “Any time there’s a little bare soil you need to cover it.”

Most of his plants start in the greenhouse from 60 percent organic seeds and 40 percent untreated seeds.

“We start anything we can from seed and do a transplant ” Hartmann says.

“It was so hard to find untreated seed and tell them ‘Please leave that fungicide off.’ Then you have to order so much and they charge you extra for leaving off the poison. I don’t gripe about it ” Hartmann says. “We just do what we gotta do.”

He controls insect pests with natural remedies.

“The weakest plants usually attract the most insects. It’s very simple. I just try to prevent the problem ” he says. “Very seldom do I actually have to do something beyond providing a good environment ” he says.

“I’ve never sprayed. I rely on bacterial solutions against the worms. I have some hormonal treatments against the potato beetle. Against the aphids I order lady beetle from California and I release little parasitic wasps. I’m not the expert on pesticides ” Hartmann says. Deer feed on his sweet potatoes snap peas and strawberries. He controls them through fencing.

“After 30 years you’d think I’d know it all. In farming you never know it all. If you think you do you’re not a good farmer. It’s like real life you never stop learning.”


A wise person once said “You can take any corner to get to the center ” and so it is that most composting starts in an unused corner of the back yard. To deter varmints a wooden frame with wire fence can be hand-built with supplies from the hardware store. An under-the-sink kitchen composter runs $25 to $40. Outdoor stacking and rolling garden composters range from $75 to $150. After the initial investment composting reduces household garbage by 50 percent.

Two primary ingredients:

1. Organic waste — anything that was once alive that has never been processed or cooked.

2. Organisms and biology — microbacteria fungi nematodes protozoa — devour leaf litter grass clippings food scraps — earthworms and arthropods in turn feed on the microbes. The microorganisms known as compost starter can be purchased in kit form.

Three variables contribute to how quickly the compost decomposes:

1. Oxygen — turning the compost stimulates the decomposition process.

2. Particle size — instead of tossing the whole banana peel cut it into small pieces.

3. Carbon-to-nitrogen variable — the ratio by weight is two parts carbon to one part nitrogen. Microorganisms utilize carbon (shredded newspaper) to eat and nitrogen (vegetable scraps coffee grounds eggshells and manure) to produce the enzymes to break everything down.

When the compost is completely cured reserve a gallon of the mother batch and mix it into the new batch. The compost can spread on lawns or gardens as topdressing or fertilizer. After watering it down into the soil the organic matter holds moisture holds nutrients and allows drainage.

The Urban Gardener

What if an indoor urban garden grew in a vacant multistory building downtown?

Such a vision for the future belongs to Evan Folds president of Progressive Gardens. With a silo to generate wind energy and cisterns to collect rainwater this sustainable inner-city garden could support a different crop on every floor with an open-air market on the ground level.

“Even if you didn’t grow 100 percent of the lettuce that people eat if it was 10 percent you could measure the offset — how much energy it took to bring in the lettuce — the fossil fuels the packaging the labor not to mention the shelf life and the nutritional density ” Folds says.

Nutritional density which measures the mineral content of produce has been all but dismissed by large agricultural operations that cut nutritional corners to lower the costs of food production and shipping produce to market.

Consider the ubiquitous “vine ripened” tomato found in supermarkets.

“You cannot vine ripen a tomato in Canada ship it to Wrightsville Beach and sell it reliably ” Folds says. “It takes three days to get here a day to package it; it’s going to last a week after it’s been picked. They pick it green let it mature over time all of the beneficial aspects of the produce come from the ripening process. When you pull it green you’re not letting the simple sugars and the acids mature ” he says.

As soon as an orange leaves the tree the nutritional density can be measured in a downward spiral because the inherent compounds denature. Denatured food lowers nutritional values.

“The larger the agricultural operation the more cost-effective it becomes to handle it wastefully ” Folds says.

“I know specifically a glass of orange juice denatures 50 percent of the beta carotenes 13 percent of the vitamin C 8 percent of the vitamin D. What you’re eating it for is not there. That disconnect is degenerative disease. Historically we eat food we’ve been evolved to expect but the food we eat now is empty ” Folds says.

Enter vitamin and mineral supplements. “A lot of supplements are synthetic and if it’s not foodborne it doesn’t act in the body the same way ” he explains.

“Irradiation or pasteurization is necessary to large scale agriculture. For example the vitamin C in orange juice that ‘100 percent of your daily diet ’ when you denature it when you irradiate it because it’s been pasteurized even if it’s flash pasteurized when you do that you break down the vitamin C. In order to get that 100 percent back they add ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid looks chemically the same as vitamin C but it’s made in the lab it’s not fixed by a plant. Your body determines the ability to synthesize the vitamin C on other compounds it comes with. Your body’s evolved to expect it from an orange not a lab. You can see on paper that the FDA would allow vitamin C to be claimed on the label by the producer yet the consumer is not actually getting the same amount of nutrition that’s being claimed ” Folds says.

Not only are large-scale agriculture practices denaturing the food supply by pre-maturely harvesting produce Folds believes that large-scale growers are degrading the soil with poorly conceived cost-effective fertilizers that strip the soil of vital nutrients and minerals adding yet another layer of disenfranchisement to the food chain.

Folds’ philosophy is to give the plant the ability to take what it desires instead of what we think it has to have.

“If we just give the lowest common denominator for all plants just so they grow and the tomato is produced you get 20-some minerals in the tomato. If you give it everything that it could possibly want it ends up with over 60 minerals. That’s 40 minerals that you’re not getting from a tomato ” he says.

For his visionary hydroponic urban garden Folds hopes to bridge degenerative disease. With colleagues in Wilmington and elsewhere he is experimenting with a mineral brew blended from open ocean seawater super-saturated with Himalayan land salt from Pakistan and biodynamic preparations from eight different plant materials that have been potentized through composting colloidal clay and met als tea.

When complete the mixture yields almost 100 minerals for the plant to pull from.

The product is currently being tested in side-by-side comparisons. “We’re going to get a tissue analysis of the nutrient density and we’re going to market that nutrient density ” Folds says.

“Unless the person can know that context they’re not going to have a justification to pay more for it ” he says. “It’s not people’s conscience or morality that’s going to change things; it’s the person saying ‘I’m going to pay a dollar more for that tomato.’ Paying a dollar more is not really paying a dollar more because you’ve got to eat four of the three-dollar ones to get the same minerals out of a four-dollar one.”

Folds says “There comes a point when the stress of what we have to deal with makes us deal in different ways.”