Connecting with Agriculture
07 Jul 2021
Evan Folds is building bridges that are making an impact on our local community and beyond
By TERESA McLAMB
Growing up in Greensboro, Evan Folds had a tight network of friends who played soccer and basketball together. “I played sports from the age of five. All though high school, these were very formative experiences; the teams were important,” Folds says. He still counts his former teammates among his close friends, and he stays involved with soccer by coaching his son’s team.
Aside from sports, growing up in a household with multiple belief systems had a profound effect on the paths Folds would take later. “My parents divorced when I was four, and I was given a wide range of things to figure out. I’m blessed by it and cursed in other ways,” says Folds. Later, his mother married a Jewish man, which brought both Christmas and Hannukah to the home. He learned from this to take in the myriad of cultures and choices that surround us. “A lot of what I value so much now in my freedom of thought came from living in an environment where I wasn’t conditioned to think in certain ways. I was allowed to come to grips with the world the way it is, rather than the way we are told it is. That has given me insight so I’m able to invest in the world in the way it should be,” Folds says.
Among the ways it should be, Folds believes a return to human connection to the earth, actual dirt, and understanding of our food system is paramount.
As a consultant of all things agriculture, and as an elected supervisor for the local Soil and Water Conservation District, connecting people to healthy food is foremost in his profession and in his non-paid state level position.
The path to this place in his life really started after college graduation when a cousin offered to sublet an apartment on St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. Certain that he didn’t want to continue to graduate school, Folds jumped at the chance. “It was an open door,” Folds says. He worked in a deli – “best job I ever had” – where he got to know many of the islanders. He also read the book Secrets of the Soil by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. “That was a big delineator for me. The book lit me up in a way nothing else had done,” Folds says. Delving into science and spirituality, the book opened a new universe for Folds.
That’s what inspired Folds to start Progressive Gardens, the store he ran for fourteen years in Wilmington with an emphasis on organics, hydroponics and old-fashioned farming without synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. The first three years or so, he kept a second job. “I went three years without a point-of-sale system, managing the business off of gut,” says Folds.
When he opened the store, Folds had never grown a hydroponic plant, but had seen and read about the technology of “more food in less space with less water.” His store was the third in the state to sell hydroponic systems. Over the years, he branched into Internet sales, started an organic lawn care company, maintained an organic farm in River Bluff, ran a commercial wheat grass and microgreen business out of the Seagate store location, and started a wholesale manufacturing company that built compost tea brewers, which he set up in other retail outlets all over the country. “It was way too much. It was boot camp, and I was trying to get it over with,” Folds recalls.
There was also the impact of Amazon. People would discuss gardening for hours, thank him for the advice, and then tell him they planned to order the supplies from Amazon. There was the looming issue that hydroponics, while it brought better food closer to people, created a controlled environment that was conducive to growing cannabis, which was not legal in North Carolina. “There were times when I knew DEA was in the building,” says Folds.
He shut down the operation in June 2018 after realizing he was spending much of his time being a salesman rather than contributing to the world in the way he wanted. “I think in the spirit of really trying to find myself, it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I had done product sales, but I had always been a teacher and coach, and that’s what lit me up. I would sit there for an hour with the lady growing tomatoes in her back yard. I was engaged. I didn’t start the business to be a businessman, but to connect with people,” Folds says.
“Eating is an agricultural act. It’s the abandonment of agriculture in our lives that rears the disfunction,” he says. “Secrets of the Soil gave me this nugget of wisdom called life force. There’s more to life than what is physically here. People try to define it, and it becomes religion.”
Returning to his first love of teaching, Folds operates BeAgriculture.com where he educates through a blog, connects home gardeners to resources, and provides consultation services. Clients run the gamut from a doctor in Colorado to a lawn care company in Raleigh to the Northside Food Coop project in Wilmington. “The food coop hits to the heart. We can impact the way people eat with the grocery store and the social determinants of health and create a model that other cities can replicate,” says Folds. He calls the project a huge challenge, but one that he feels strongly about. To date there are 300 owners. The team is staging events to connect with the Northside community, but facing the challenge that this conversation has gone on for 35 years. “The feedback I get from the community is that people have lost the expectation that they deserve a grocery store,” Folds says.
Through his Soil & Water Conservation hat, Folds says he’s “beating the drum that we need farming in New Hanover County.” Policy director for a project slated through a grant to Feast Down East, he is tasked to determine whether a farm can be built in the city limits. “The code wasn’t written to discourage a farm, but nobody had ever had the conversation,” says Folds. He noted there’s only one agriculture teacher in New Hanover County and that is in a middle school. “I go in to the board of education [meetings] and talk with them about it. It bleeds in to everything,” says Folds.
That role, which he earned in a quick write-in campaign, is state level with local contracts and apolitical. It allows him “to say the same things in new rooms and in new ways. That’s rewarding. Soil and water conservation districts are present in every county in NC and are ideal for regenerating agriculture.”
“Agriculture is more than growing crops. People genuinely get frustrated that they can’t be more involved in their nourishment,” says Folds. He sees a wide disconnect between people and agriculture. “Kids don’t know french-fries and ketchup are potatoes and tomatoes. We should have personal agriculture. Everybody should grow at least one thing that they eat,” Folds says.
He’s concerned not just with growing crops, but with the way we eat them and the impact it has on health. “For me that explains every big problem from poverty to hunger to climate to health care,” says Folds. “My job, as I see it, is how to build bridges and inspire and learn within that landscape moving forward.”