Flerds -OR- How Durham, NC shaped me into the scientist I am today

A colorful display of fresh veggies at the Durham Farmers Market.

Yes, Durham.  What used to be considered the armpit of “The Triangle” (Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham) has re-gentrified and transmogrified its way into a food-centric, community-minded mecca.  I lived there for five years and fell in love with my neighbors (shout out to my Old West Durham peeps), the community (things like the Durham Literacy CenterSEEDS, and the Scrap Exchange), and the beautiful landscape.  The Durham County Library system has received attention recently for developing a seed library in addition to the stacks of those heavy, paper thingies…oh yeah, books (just kidding, I love real books).  Library patrons will be able to sign out a packet of seeds and “return” them by saving seeds from their harvest in the fall.  This epitomizes the culture of Durham that helped spark my interest in food as an ecologist and a human being.  That and I’ve been feeling a little homesick for it lately, so I decided to tell you all about why it’s so special.

When I expressed this interest in the ecology of agriculture to an ecologist at Duke University, she suggested trying out farming for real.  She suggested getting in touch with Ben Bergmann and Noah Ranells at Fickle Creek Farm.  Little did I know, Ben and Noah are founding members of the Durham Farmers Market; their eggs sell like hot-cakes every Saturday morning; and that I’d start eating meat again after working with them.  I was working full time in an ecology lab at Duke while I lived in Durham (also an invaluable experience shaping me as the scientist I am today), and I worked part time on the farm for one year.  Not only are Ben and Noah great farmers, local leaders in sustainable agriculture and mentors to young farmers getting started, but they are also scientists.  Both have a PhD from NC State University: Ben in horticulture and Noah in soil science.  Working at Fickle Creek Farm was a turning point in my development as an ecologist.  Their passion for and knowledge of sustainable farming from the microbial scale to the landscape scale, from the humane treatment of animals to food justice issues in our own backyard,  lit the way for me to find my path to graduate school.  Rather than focus my research on sustainable farming, however, I’ve decided to focus on conventional row-crop systems, since this system of food production isn’t going away anytime soon and it has the largest environmental impacts.  But the bucolic memories of “flerds” (flocks of sheep + herds of cattle), egg-mobiles (moveable chicken coops), and picking vegetables by hand are never far from mind.

Noah would often use me as a selling point to vegetarians at the farmers’ market, saying I’m a Fickle-Creek-Farm-etarian, because I felt better about eating a hamburger from Fickle Creek Farm that was grass fed and finished and humanely slaughtered, than I do about eating a tofu-burger made of soybeans from the deforested Amazon.  And with locally grass fed and finished beef, the carbon footprint of the hamburger actually comes out a little ahead of the tofu-burger.  Every Friday Ben cooks a luxurious meal for the staff made with plants and animals from the farm.  This is where I got a taste for things like spicy pickled okra, cow tongue, and rocky mountain oysters.  As a budding biogeochemist, I particularly enjoyed learning first hand about how raising animals along with vegetables is necessary for closing nutrient cycles.

Dr. Noah Ranells, co-owner of Fickle Creek Farm, and me at the Durham Farmers Market.

I also got to see how Ben and Noah engage with the public.  I learned a lot about patience and grace from Noah dealing with customers at the farmers market.  Even though it’s a crunchy, hippie farmers market vendors we sometimes get treated like we work at a department store.  I also learned a lot by joining Ben when he led groups of the public around the farm.  There are a lot of difficult and controversial issues related to how we produce food, and Ben provided a nice balance by explaining both the ugly side of modern food production with the hopeful side of sustainable practices.  And I think he did that not to be simply provocative, but to lead people to question their own choices and role in the big picture and provide them with potential solutions.  If you can only provide one half of that equation, you’re doing the public a disservice.  I think one trick to good outreach is to provide both.  I still think back on these walks with Ben when I do public outreach for my own research.

When it comes to Fickle Creek Farm and Durham, NC I could wax on all night and into the wee hours of the morning telling you about all the coincidences that happened there that got me here.  And then I could talk some more about the beautiful natural history of the area, i.e. the Eno River was my church.  But I’ll stop here because I’m hungry (I can’t imagine why).  So if you’re ever near Durham, it’s definitely worth a visit.  Bring a hungry belly, some re-usable shopping bags, and your farm boots.

Note: for more information on Fickle Creek Farm (including their Bed and Breakfast) go to http://home.mebtel.net/~ficklecreek/.

The Eno River in full bloom.
The Eno River in full bloom.
Downtown Durham 39
A “ghost sign” on the side of an old tobacco warehouse. Nobody in Durham endorses tobacco use, but the growing and selling of it is definitely a part of the heritage.


Rural NC abounds with beautiful old barns and out buildings.
Rural NC abounds with beautiful old barns and out buildings.

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