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The Culture of Agriculture

Whenever agriculture is talked about, it always seems the conversation leads with statistics: the economic impact, the number of jobs, how many acres, how many farmers.

Yes, these are all important, especially in a state like mine where agriculture is the #1 industry. But those number are only a snapshot of agriculture; they aren’t the story.

What is very seldom mentioned in any conversation is the second part of the word, the “culture” of agriculture. People outside of agriculture seldom talk about the heritage of agriculture, the human element that, in many cases, is doing what their families have done for generations.  

If you want a snapshot of what the culture of agriculture looks like, visit Harkers Island, a community of commercial fishing families. 

This community, once isolated from the mainland, was built on fishing and whaling. Yes, people used to harpoon wales off the coast of North Carolina, which I still have a hard time believing. 

In fact, a recipe for whale appears in the Traditional Recipes section of Island Born and Bred, a cookbook compiled by the Harkers Island United Methodist Women. People on the island lived off what they caught and grew themselves. Before it was outlawed, which the cookbook notes, this included whaling. 

During a visit to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, which showcases the area’s heritage, the group I was with was treated to lunch prepared by a group of local ladies. Of course, the meal included their idea of good seafood, which is fresh from North Carolina waters. One lady made the comment that quality seafood shouldn’t need to be “fancied up” as many restaurants tend to do.  

The ladies shared stories of their culture built around making a living from the waters. Part of the commercial fishing story includes their struggles as a highly regulated industry. They talked of trying to connect with legislators whose only concern was economics, not other impacts the fishing industry has on their communities or the state, as a whole. Part of the battle facing the fishing industry is fighting against people who “don’t know this way of life, don’t know this culture and don’t care about it,” said one lady.   

The “culture” includes a local fish house where customers stop by anytime and leave money in the freezer with a note detailing what they took. A community where waders are common apparel and residents know what local fish are in season, unlike the tourists who expect more popular fish like flounder or tuna year-round.  

A community where the agriculture teacher works at school during the day and builds his own fishing boat at night. A culture where the natives have a distinct accent, more like an English brogue that sounds as if they just stepped off a boat from England.  

That tour really brought home to me the part of agriculture that is often missing from conversations, the “culture” that makes farming by land and by sea not just a job, but a way of life.

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