The Happy Berry
Edible Upcountry recently visited Walker Miller and his daughter Zoe at The Happy Berry in Six Mile, a pick-your-own and direct marketing farm, to get their take on the future of farming in the Upstate. Walker has a Ph.D. in plant pathology and physiology and is a retired extension specialist from Clemson University. He’s passionate about his predictions. The Happy Berry is a 22-acre family enterprise started by Walker and wife Ann in 1979. The family produces a large variety of blueberries, blackberries, seedless table grapes, figs, muscadines and free-range eggs.
What is your vision for the future of farming in the Upstate?
Walker: To answer that question, first I must address worldwide farming, and the vision, unfortunately, is quite dire. What we see happening all around the world is mass consumerism, corporate control over what and how things are being produced. Socially, we see identity being taken away. There’s a lack of community and social interaction. The digital world has driven a lot of this. Global warming, driven by the use of fossil fuels, consumerism and agriculture (30+% of our global warming gases), is the threat to our future.
54% of all land area is being used in some way for agriculture. 30% is non-agricultural land (mountains, deserts, etc.), and this leaves only 10-15% for expansion, and it is second-class land. In other words, there is a finite amount of land. We also see the world running out of water. Look at places like China, the Southwest US, and California. We are about to hit some significant walls.
There will be a collapse. Countries will begin to fight (or continue to fight) over natural resources.
EU: That does sound awfully dire. Is there any hope?
Walker: Absolutely. We believe there is a better way to farm! The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, is developing perennial crops, and perennial crops are key. Traditional farming involves plowing the land, planting and harvesting annual crops. This disrupts the natural carbon cycle. Many would have you believe that mulch returns nutrients to the soil. The correct way of thinking is that the plant itself provides carbon to the soil and forms of organo-mineral complexes called humus. So, when you have annual crops, you destroy and recreate the carbon cycle over and over again with virtually no carbon increase. When you plant perennials, the plants themselves build their own carbon networks and consistently build humus in the soil that has a half-life of 1000s of years augmenting a healthier, for earth, carbon cycle.
Another positive aspect of our vision is that we can affect change at the local or regional level (read Molly Scott Cato’s book, The Bioregional Economy). Eventually, we want to be a community source of carbohydrates, fruits and oils so that no matter what happens with the rest of the world, our community has what it needs.
EU: What about diversification of crops? I know many smaller farms are going in that direction.
Walker: In recent years, we’ve grown several varieties of grapes with the help of Dr. Don Hopkins at the University of Florida. Folks at the Saturday Market can’t get enough of these grapes! We’ve recently started two seedless muscadines. We’ve planted goji berries, persimmons, over 80 more fig trees, black dwarf mulberries…and we have nine varieties of pussy willows in riparian areas, which helps with water management on the farm. Long-term, we are considering growing chestnut and hazelnut trees, as these provide a carbohydrate and oil source for our community while also increasing the depth of our carbon sequestration both above and below ground.
And you see all over the farm, we have flowers planted to attract native bees.
EU: What role does modern technology play in this vision?
Zoe: I’ve been learning more about biodiesel production. I believe if we focused on some of the resources already here — the acorns from the oak trees, for example — we could create enough biodiesel to fuel the farm.
Walker: We are considering plans to incorporate solar shading for our parking lot, which will provide shading for cars while generating energy for the farm.
Zoe: And I’m really excited about the idea of drones.
Zoe: Small drones that could help us manage birds. It would be great if a drone could automatically react via motion sensor to simulate a large bird, scaring the smaller birds from the bushes.
Walker: We currently use a variety of methods for birds, including screech owl boxes, reflective devices, grape extract, distress calls… You know, we could even build a solar panel to charge the drone.
Zoe: That’s a great idea!
Walker: At the end of the day, some still have that way of thinking that the world is a gift from God to exploit. We maintain that the world is a gift from God to steward. There’s a drastic difference between the two ways of thinking. I believe if we could all adopt the latter view, the health of our environment, the health of our consumption, our community as a whole, would change for the better.