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Q and A with Sammy Koenigsberg

by Ty Shaffer

March 9,2010

In 1990 Sammy Koenigsberg started New Town Farms in Waxhaw in 1990, and today he runs it with his wife Melinda and his eight children.  Originally from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Sammy grew up in Charlotte and turned to organic farming after completing a degree in architecture.  In addition to supplying local restaurants, New Town Farms- which is certified organic- runs a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program with fifty-five members, and over two hundred on the waiting list. Sammy is a familiar face at the Matthews Farmers Market and an active participant in local discussions about organic farming and decentralized and sustainable agriculture.

Your family started New Town Farms in 1990, which puts you at the forefront of the local foods movement here in Charlotte. Are there things about Charlotte that you thought made it particularly hospitable (or inhospitable) to the local foods movement?

We were about ten years behind the West Coast, usually that is kind of how it works. We started the CSA in 1991, about a year after we started growing organic, because we realized we had to make our own market. Back then, folks didn’t understand a lot about organic farming. We had all kinds of questions, like whether it was grown in human waste. We were sometimes waiting around all day at farmers’ markets for four or five customers. The Triangle, for some reason, had more awareness of local farms, and they had thriving models going on up there while we were struggling in Charlotte. But I don’t think Charlotte was different from anywhere else.

What has surprised you most about Charlotte?

I think it was probably ten years ago, when we started working with our first chef, Tim Groody, who started Sonoma downtown. Prior to that, I had gone around to all of the nice restaurants in Charlotte and they basically told me that they could get produce cheaper from Sysco Systems, so why would they buy it from us? They didn’t get it.

We worked with Groody for ten years, until he left Sonoma last year. That was the edge of a wave, where use of local foods really became the thing to do, especially in high end restaurants, to the point where that leg of our business grew so that we were servicing ten to twenty restaurants and turning another ten or so away. We just didn’t have the supply for them. So when it changed, it changed fast.

You mentioned an older tradition on the West Coast. These ideas aren’t terribly new. For example, Wendell Berry wrote The Unsettling of America in 1977.

Right.

To what do you attribute the recent growth in popularity of the local foods movement on a national scale?

I think that it has a lot to do with people becoming more environmentally aware. Local foods are such an obvious part of the solution—to decentralize food systems again, and to build local food systems. It’s also a very joyful and delicious way to be active in helping solve those problems.  There were a couple of major works that I think made a huge difference, one being Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and maybe to a lesser extent Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. I saw a huge awakening after those books came out. Both of them were essentially repackaging Wendell Berry’s earlier books, and admitted it. I read The Unsettling of America in the 1980s, and it’s probably what got me thinking in the direction I was going.

One common criticism of the local foods movement is that it has a rather Puritanical streak, from the source of one’s food to the method by which it was grown and harvested. Do you believe this is an impediment to the continued growth of the local foods movement?

I do think that part of the movement is unfair, and I think it probably is more or less held by people that really don’t understand much about agriculture. The solution isn’t for everybody to have five-acre organic farms and run around barefoot. We’re in too deep. I don’t hold those views. I raise chickens on pasture, and I’m thankful that I can do that. But I have friends who have Tyson houses, and I don’t think they’re doing something evil. They’re trying to make a living the best they can. I think that as people get more involved in the movement they start to learn more, especially if they travel and see farms, and meet conventional farmers. They start to develop a real empathy for these farmers, they become a lot less Puritanical and judgmental.

At the same time, we’re at a time in our history where we have to look at sustainability, and sustainability will happen whether we like it or not. It’s not a choice. Do we want to transition to it gently, with foresight and wisdom, or do we want to be forced to it through crisis, and pay the price that comes with that? That’s where my heart is, to try to educate people and connect them more with the issues. The biggest thing the Green Revolution did was take people off the land and disconnect [them from] all the systems and miracles by which their life continues. [Because of] that disconnection, we’re basically a population that eats in ignorance. And because of that ignorance, we can’t make sound decisions about food– neither the voters nor the politicans– because everything is fine.

What do you hope the future holds for the local foods movement in Charlotte?

I hope that someone, or some group of people, would realize that we’re surrounded with some of the best farmland in the whole state. I hope they realize that we need to feed ourselves, and that we need to start building local food systems to be able to feed ourselves. We can’t continue to ship food from California. I hope that we work to surround the community with a green belt (or spotted green belt, whatever form it would take) of farms that would feed the communities around them. I guess that would be my hope for Charlotte, and for all cities that have been effected by the centralization of agriculture.

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