Greening of Chatham

Chatham County is going “green.”

“Golf green,” that is.

The “greening” of our community follows a fairly typical pattern. One of our local families parts with its ancestral land, which ends up in the hands of an out-of-town developer and, voila, in comes the golf course surrounded by McMansions all in a row.

Pittsboro has a population of 2,500 souls, on top of which we have issued 10,000 new building permits. Neighborhoods with golf courses are under way that are larger than our town.

I’ve always felt only time and money stood between me and a great golf game. But for some reason I’ve never gotten around to really taking up the game. When I am on the fairway, I always wonder whether the architects who came up with cathedral views of my tee properly accounted for my slice.

As our farmlands and woods are moved out of the way in the greening process, I like to reflect on the forces behind our current transformation. My thinking is accompanied by the constant high-pitched beep of earth-moving equipment, a sort-of metronome that helps keep me focused.

At its heart is a structural problem with agriculture in America today. I’m not an expert in agriculture, but I have accidentally become a voice in biofuels, by way of Piedmont Biofuels, and since biofuels can come from the farm, I brush up against the agricultural community with increasing regularity.

My simplistic view sees farming in North Carolina stratified into three distinct layers.

The first is the small, sustainable farm that is doing very well. At Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, there is a thriving program in sustainable agriculture, complete with a “Land Lab,” which provides tons of organic food to handfuls of enthusiastic eaters.

In Chatham County we are seeing a growth in “on farm” population. Small, sustainable farms are popping up and producing specialty products for a growing number of farmers markets, or for the white-linen dining establishments of the Triangle, or for places like Chatham Marketplace, our new coop grocery store.

And while “small” is doing very well in our agricultural sector, “big” is also doing a roaring trade. We just saw a 3 million chicken operation announced for Rose Hill, which strikes me as a lot of birds. Big corn and big pork and big chicken are turning in handsome profits, and as long as we are able to check our ethical, nutritional, environmental and public health concerns, we have to acknowledge that “big” is doing just fine.

The problem lies in the middle. The 600- to 800-acre family farm is dead on the vine. It tends to be too large to convert to the small-scale sustainable model, and too small to play in global commodity markets.

Good thing it can become a golf course community.

That’s lucky for Chatham County, a place that is transitioning from “the epicenter of groovy” into “developer’s paradise.” But it is unfortunate for counties farther from population centers. While Chatham has the luxury of “greening” up with an extra 180 golf holes, more distant counties find their agricultural economies dead in the water.

For many, biofuels hold the promise of renewal for our farm economies. The idea of growing feed stocks — whether they be corn or switch grass or canola or algae — and spinning them into clean-burning renewable fuels has a lot of traction.

It seems everyone is working on it. N.C. State leads the charge with the work being done at the N.C. Solar Center. Triangle Clean Cities and the Triangle J Council of Government are fully engaged. The Golden Leaf Foundation is diverting its tobacco settlement money into biofuels. Our State Energy Office is a tireless champion of the cause. In Orange County, OWASA is interested in distributing Chapel Hill’s biosolids to farmland to grow “energy crops” which could be consumed as fuel.

The project I work for, Piedmont Biofuels, is sort of the Rumpelstiltskin of the equation.

We are a little company that can spin fat into fuel at a time when fuel is becoming like gold. We watch the agricultural piece with interest, since we can make fuel out of chicken fat, or used vegetable oil, or canola oil — most fats suit us just fine.

I’m not sure why we don’t golf. We tend to be horrified by the consumption and destruction and wastefulness associated with the current “greening” of our community.

It could be we are simply too busy. Everyone I know on the Piedmont Biofuels project is so slammed by working on “a different way of being” that we have no time to learn how to use a sand wedge to get out of the trap.

Lyle Estill is the vice president of stuff for Piedmont Biofuels and the author of “Biodiesel Power: The Passion, People and Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel.” Contact him at lyle@blast.com

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"Industrial Evolution is a report from the front lines of the sustainability movement, conveying both its promise and its frustrations. Estill is a reliable guide, and anyone interested in the future should find his story riveting."
Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow, Post Carbon Institute, author of Peak Everything