By Dr. Nancy Creamer, Founding Director, Center for Environmental Farming Systems
When the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) was founded at Cherry Research Farm in 1994, Bill Clinton was president of the United States, a stamp cost .29 cents, and The Lion King was the highest-grossing film of the year. I came to NC State University as an Assistant Professor of Horticulture and soon became engaged with other faculty who had been working hard to develop CEFS. In 1998 I became the Coordinator of CEFS’ Organic Production Systems Unit, and in 2000 I was asked to be CEFS’ Founding Director.
Stepping into CEFS’ early days, it was clear right away what made this new initiative different: it was an innovative, interdisciplinary, collaborative effort between different departments at multiple universities, and included voices from non-profit organizations, farmers, and the general public. People came from widely different perspectives, but they all had the same goal: enhancing agriculture in North Carolina. I immediately saw the potential of what CEFS could become and I wanted to be part of it.
Everything about CEFS was novel. The founding partnership of North Carolina’s two land-grant universities, along with the state Department of Agriculture, was unique in the country –and still is. From the beginning CEFS was a convener, bringing diverse stakeholders to the table, forging unlikely alliances to work through differences and find common ground. CEFS was a bridge-builder then, and we pride ourselves on being a bridge-builder now.
One of our first tasks was setting up the field research and education units, including the Farming Systems Research Unit. The unit was established with a unique purpose: a large-scale, interdisciplinary, 100+ year trial comparing different farm management systems’ effects on soil health, sustainability, and other factors that can only be evaluated over the long term.
The 200-acre experiment is now in its twentieth year. Research findings from this experiment and the other CEFS research units – Pasture-Based Dairy, Pasture-Based Beef, Alternative Swine Production, Organic Research, Agroforestry, and the Small Farm Unit – have increased our understanding of different management approaches and led to important recommendations for farmers.
CEFS has always taken a systems approach, recognizing that agricultural and food systems are complex and interconnected. We embrace that complexity and realize that only by working on the entire system can real change be achieved.
CEFS was founded as a way to address the impacts of agriculture on the environment. As the national conversation around food and agriculture has evolved, so has our perspective. We now have a broader understanding of the kinds of issues that food systems work can address: diet-related health impacts, food security, rural economic development, equity, and climate change, to name a few.
This broader understanding has fueled CEFS’ growth as CEFS has transformed from a purely field research-based program to a more comprehensive statewide program with community, non-profit, county government, state agency, and small and large business partners.
CEFS is addressing inequities in the food system; working to create a system in which fresh, healthy food is accessible to all. No one wants a food system in which only wealthy people have access to fresh, healthy food from our local farms.
Our challenge now is to have an even bigger systems approach: thinking about how to get healthy food to all people in North Carolina in a way that revitalizes our rural economy, supports our farmers, and is rooted in local communities.
I’m proud of what CEFS has accomplished in its first 25 years, and I’m excited to see what CEFS will do in its next quarter century. We hope you’ll be right there with us.