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Greener Pastures – Growing Ideas at Raft Swamp Farms | By Nomee Landis

ANTIOCH – Jackie and Louie Hough could tell you about the organic farm they run, but they’d rather you taste it.

Louie, with a wink and a grin, offers up an herb he saves for female visitors: a sprig of chocolate mint. Then there is asparagus, snapped off and eaten raw. The limbs of an old mulberry tree hang heavy with fruit ready for the picking. Late winter field peas planted as a cover crop are plucked and enjoyed right there in the field.

At Raft Swamp Farms, delights sprout everywhere. Showy blossoms seem to preen on persimmon trees. There is the aroma of lavender and the green of a swamp-side forest. But the real feast at the farm is the one that can be tasted. Louie snips a piece of purple lavender and gives a snippet of advice: skip the potpourri, he says, and toss it in your salad.

The Houghs are full of such surprises. Louie is a full-time farmer and retired soldier. Jackie, a veteran of the U.S. Army herself, balances farm work and a job as a neonatal intensive care nurse at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center. And that’s not all. The two of them helped revive the Fayetteville Farmers Market last year. This year, they helped launch the Growers Guild Market at Cape Fear Valley. The Houghs are also rallying support to build a community-owned cooperative grocery store downtown.

Project by project, taste by taste, this couple is influencing the way Fayetteville thinks about food.

Home base is the farm off N.C. 211 in Hoke County, an oasis on 150 acres of country land about 30 minutes from town. The Houghs bought it three years ago and operate a nonprofit organic farm incubator program on a portion of the land. They rent plots to those who want to farm but don’t have space of their own and give room to people who want to learn more about organic gardening.

When the Houghs bought their farm, they joined the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, an organization that promotes sustainable agriculture in North Carolina and South Carolina. Jackie says the heart of North Carolina’s sustainable food movement lies just up the road, in and around Chapel Hill. She wants to bring that moveable feast – where farmers markets thrive and organic farmers are plentiful – to Fayetteville and surrounding towns.

You might say that Jackie and Louie are farmers on a mission. They want to share not only their harvest but the message that locally-produced foods are the healthiest, tastiest and friendliest to the environment. Sustainable agriculture, they say, is farming that works in harmony with nature.

And they’re eager to show it off.

On a recent afternoon at the farm, it’s Jackie giving the edible tour. As she steers a golf cart down sandy roads, Jackie tosses out the scientific names for many of the plants. She makes sudden stops to examine this plant or that and to offer information about its leaves, flowers or benefit to the bees on the farm.

Some of the delicacies that grow at Raft Swamp Farms are cultivated by farmers, and others are tended only by Mother Nature.

But most people have a grocery store mentality these days, Jackie says. A global market means shoppers can find nearly anything they want at any time of year. Asparagus in August? It’s probably foreign. The same holds true for grapes, cantaloupes or sweet corn that appear at the supermarket out of season. That lettuce in your salad? It probably traveled 3,000 miles from California to get here. Our food is transported farther than ever before to reach our dinner plate, an average of at least 1,500 miles, according to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. As fuel costs continue to rise, so too will food prices. Jackie and Louie Hough and other farmers like them are trying to tell us there’s a better, fresher way.

The two of them can be found, most Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, at Fayetteville’s two farmers markets. The Houghs chat as they sell their produce at the downtown market on Wednesdays or the Cape Fear Growers Guild near Cape Fear Valley Medical Center on Thursdays. The public may shop at the guild, which is held in an employee parking lot off Melrose Road, but only those who are connected to the hospital in some way may sell there. Jackie brought the idea to her employers, who ran with it and now see the market as an integral part of a program to encourage and keep hospital staff and the community fit and healthy. The guild will be open Thursday afternoons through Oct. 16.

At the same time, the Houghs are working to open a community-owned cooperative grocery store downtown. Lafayette Market, which will be fashioned in the style of co-ops in Carrboro, Pittsboro and other communities, will be a full-service grocery staffed by paid employees, but the emphasis will be placed on selling locally-produced goods, sustainably-grown and organic produce, meats and dairy, and healthier, fresher products in general. Jackie says the store will offer baked goods, beer and wine, health and body care items, hot gourmet and artisan foods and fresh coffee.

The movement to get the market started began last fall with a few meetings in a small room at the Headquarters Library. So far, the market has been incorporated, a governing board has been chosen, an informational Web site has been created and ownership shares are being sold. Organizers are searching for a suitable building downtown and additional sources of funding. Shares in the market cost a one-time fee of $100 for an individual or $150 for a family. Owners will not only have a personal stake in the market, they will be entitled to discounts and other benefits.

The Houghs believe Lafayette Market will be a significant step toward raising awareness of locally-grown and organic products. In the meantime, there is always more work to be done at the farm. In late spring, Sweet Charlie strawberries still grew in the hoop house, waiting to be picked. In the woods near the swamp, stacks of sweet gum logs, newly inoculated with shiitake mushroom spores, lay in the cool shade, ready for the harvest.

There are always crops to tend on the farm – and fresh food ready to eat.

To learn more about Raft Swamp Farms, the Lafayette Market or the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, visit these Web sites: www.raftswampfarms.org, www.lafayettemarket.coop or www.carolinafarmstewards.org for details.