How do we change the status quo?

It feels like we are forever in the service of the industrial-food complex. There are so many factors that are completely out of our control. After three hours of discussing this, it felt a little hopeless. How do we make a difference? Nathan shared three helpful insights.


Get to know your local farmer.

Farmers markets like the one in my hometown of Greenville are everywhere now. That’s the best place to meet a genuine, dirt-under-the-fingernails farmer. When possible, buy your food there. Most of the world connects their local food with community and tradition. Knowing your farmer keeps it local. This is good for everyone, from the environment to the local economy. Knowing exactly where your food comes from empowers you, the consumer, to make choices that align with values, promote sustainability, and contribute to the well-being of
local communities.


Eat the food with the fewest frequent-flier miles.

Certainly, the availability of strawberries from Costa Rica in January is undeniable. However, there are alternative approaches, such as embracing seasonal eating, practicing food preservation, and supporting farmers who use greenhouses. Many local farmers, including Growing Greens Family Farms, offer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. Through a monthly subscription, participants receive a weekly bag of fresh, local produce straight from the farm. Occasionally, the bag includes items unfamiliar to us, like endive and sorrel, prompting us to explore creative meal planning. Nathan also advocates for individuals to experiment with growing their own produce, even if it’s just cultivating a small herb garden or a single tomato plant in a container.


If you don’t live in Panama, buy organic bananas.

I asked Nathan specifically about bananas. I eat one almost every morning. There is not a good way to grow a banana in South Carolina. In theory, this might mean I should never eat a banana. My farmer friend laughed and agreed — in theory. When opting for out-of-season or out-of-region fruits and vegetables, choosing organic is the optimal approach. The absence of herbicides and pesticides contributes to improved working conditions for industry laborers and ensures healthier food choices for our consumption.

Main Street in Greenville, South Carolina, transforms every summer Saturday into a buzz of colors and aromas. Stalls lining the streets, tables exhibiting a mosaic of offerings. At the center stands Nathan Vannette, a farmer with a penchant for sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of trade.

A few years ago, I strolled through this vibrant farmers market and was drawn to Nathan’s booth, where he proudly displayed small containers of microgreens. Intrigued and clueless, I opened with a naïve question: “So, are microgreens just like bean sprouts?”

Ignoring my ignorance, in the next five minutes, Nathan patiently unraveled the world of microgreens in simple terms. His understanding of the craft of farming is unforgettable. Nathan’s connection to his work and his living product is equally impressive. We became friends.

Nathan and I reconvene at the urban outpost of his business, Growing Greens Family Farms. It’s immediately clear this place defies the norms of conventional farming. Nestled just beyond downtown Greenville, concealed behind a specialty boutique in a gentrifying part of the city, this quarter-acre tract of land boasts three greenhouses and two expansive open-air gardens, devoid of tractors or silos. I find Nathan standing just outside a greenhouse, near a heaping pile of compost, in his dirty jeans, flannel shirt, and trademark newsboy cap. Little did I anticipate how an everyday facet of life — and even this very plot of land — would intersect with things like theology, science, and the global economy. We step into a greenhouse, and my farmer-professor friend, with dirt under his nails, launches right in.

“This time of year, we do a farming practice called Pac Man-ing.”

He sees my immediate confusion.

“Like the video game. With the walls. And the ghost eats the balls?”

“Ah, yes.”

“We have leafy greens planted in rows — they’re the walls,” he says. “Then we plant radishes and turnips between the rows, where the aisles are supposed to be. Those are the balls. We harvest the radishes and turnips first, leaving us a space to harvest the greens. This means we can use every square inch of greenhouse space.”

With mustard greens on the right and sorrel on the left, Nathan continues to talk farming methods while pulling bright red and pink radishes out of the ground. He then explains the meaning of dirt.

“These vegetables pull different kinds of nutrients out of the ground,” says Nathan. “A lot of people will tell you to just put general purpose fertilizer on the ground and be done with it. We don’t want to do that. Radishes are putting stores of nutrients into the root — which is more nitrogen. The greens are pulling phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and other micronutrients up into the leaf. These plants are together, so we know everything is being taken up at an even level.”

Photo by Bernie Anderson

His concern is the presence of too much phosphorus: “A lack of conscientiousness of fertilizer will leave too much phosphorus in the ground — and that poisons the soil over time,” he says.

Nathan’s knowledge of soil comes from planting things in the dirt from his childhood days. His mother was a big believer in Proverbs 22:6: Train children in the right way and when old, they will not stray. She took this passage to mean propensity, rather than discipline. Seeing her son’s desire to grow things, she gave him a plot of land on the family property in Michigan and told him to see what he could get to grow from there. Thus was born Growing Greens Family Farms.

Since then, Nathan grew a business, then moved it to South Carolina. He married his wife, Rebecca, and now works the southern soil in three different locations in the region — including his own homestead in western South Carolina.

Ever efficient in his work, Nathan moved from harvesting radishes to snipping lettuce greens for a restaurant order he had to deliver later in the day. He pointed out some leafy greens growing in the greenhouse’s corner.

“Those are collard greens,” he says. “When we moved down here from Michigan, we had these requests for ‘collar’ greens. Collard greens? We had no idea what those were.”

In Nathan’s farming philosophy, regional food is an important part, although he makes some exceptions. For example, he explains, even though sorrel grows well in South Carolina, most South Carolinians don’t use it. While we talk, I taste a sample of the sweet, lemon-flavored leaf. And Nathan launches into the non-soil benefits of farming.

“Learning what works in this soil and regional climate has opened doors for me to serve the immigrant community here, as well,” he says. “Sorrel is an important ingredient in a lot of Ukrainian dishes. Our church serves Ukrainian refugees, and we help provide them with locally grown ingredients. Citrus is hard to get in that part of the world and sorrel is a natural green that’s high in vitamin C that they put in soups and pies. It’s fascinating to see how the Lord works in mysterious ways to connect people to their culture of food through what we’re growing.”

A Theology and Liturgy of the Land

Nathan and Rebecca attend a local church that practices what Nathan calls a “theology of earth stewardship.”

Photo by Bernie Anderson

The church is Christ the Redeemer Anglican in Pendleton, South Carolina, which has a stated mission of “loving God and people for the renewal of all things.” Parish priest John Hall made this conviction quite clear in a recent sermon: “Nobody should care more about the environment than God’s people. The earth is not ours to exploit and destroy and do with it what we want. There is a holy dynamism to the world in which we live — and it’s because of God.” He emphasized his point with a quote from the agrarian writer Wendall Berry: “There are not sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

Their conviction doesn’t end with words. Nathan’s church collaborates with FoodShare South Carolina, a nonprofit organization that works to make fresh, local fruits and vegetables accessible and affordable to everyone in the community.

In many American cities, food deserts are a stark reality. These deserts are characterized by limited personal resources, underdeveloped local infrastructure (including walkability and public transportation), and considerable distances to grocery stores where fresh produce is available.

There have been some limited efforts to map such locations across the United States. The USDA’s most recent food-access research report (January 2017) reveals that 39.5 million people in America live in low-access areas. Within this demographic, about 19 million people face restricted access to a grocery store. Factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the worldwide surge in transportation and housing costs, have aggravated the issue. As a result, many individuals living in food deserts rely on a diet primarily comprising pre-packaged, processed foods commonly available in convenience stores.

Nathan is working with his local church to develop a community garden that will not only help feed people at risk in the community but teach people to care for the soil around their homes and to grow their own food, even on tiny plots of land.

“A plot of land can become a food oasis,” says Nathan. “We started by nourishing our own family and have grown a business. Anyone can begin nourishing their own family when you take care of even the smallest piece of land.”

Garden for the city

Nathan’s customers include more than folks wanting to get their veggies some place other than chain grocery stores. He works with many of the best chefs and restaurant owners in the city, including what is arguably the most authentic Italian restaurant in Greenville: Ristorante Bergamo. Run by Chef Gian Pietro and his wife, Kathy, Ristorante Bergamo sources all their ingredients locally or directly from Bergamo, Italy — where Gian Pietro (known affectionately as Chef J.P.) grew up and trained as a chef.

“I sit down with Chef J.P. about four times per year to talk about his next menu,” Nathan says, as he stuffs handfuls of fresh, fragrant arugula into bags for a delivery to Chef J.P. later that day.

I’m already familiar with Chef J.P. because Ristorante Bergamo is a favorite place for my wife and me. The dining there is a five-star experience — and the reasons for this have to do with fresh and locally sourced ingredients. For the restaurant, and others, Nathan grows classic Italian ingredients like radicchio and endive, dandelion and escarole.

Later, I caught up with Kathy and Chef J.P. at their downtown Greenville location one morning before opening. Chef J.P. was busy in the kitchen making the day’s tiramisu. We chatted about the importance of freshness for Italian food everywhere.

“In Italy we pretty much shop every day for what we’re going to eat,” Kathy explains. “And we don’t go to a big grocery store where we buy everything at once. There’s the vegetable guy, the fruit guy, the prosciutto guy, the butcher, and the fish market.”

Nathan is now their “vegetable guy.”

I said something to Chef J.P. about his tiramisu being the best I’ve ever put in my mouth, secretly hoping he’d scoop me a piece. He gave a wry Italian smile and said, “This is the problem, after you eat it, you are not allowed to drive,” pulling out his secret concoction of espresso and six different liquors.

After giving me a sniff, he began soaking the ladyfingers and telling me the next level of his relationship with Nathan’s farm.

“I’ve imported seeds from Bergamo, Italy, for a special tomato, radicchio, and other things to try growing here,” he says. “These fresh ingredients are most important for authentic [Italian] food.”

Authentic, indeed.

I didn’t get my fresh spot of tiramisu but will certainly order it the next time we visit Chef J.P.’s establishment, even if we must Uber home afterward.

Caring for dirt

“The biggest asset we’re developing is the soil itself.” This may have been the most telling thing Nathan said to me in our three hours together, while he harvested fragrant leaves of arugula.

Photo by Bernie Anderson

“So many studies are coming out about the long-term effects industrial farming from the 70s and 80s is having on our country.”

In 2020, the United Nations released the findings of a comprehensive global study on American-style industrial farming spanning from 1960 to 2015. The results, while not entirely surprising, paint a disturbing picture. Of course, our nation grapples with increased obesity and an overall decline in health. Instances of type 2 diabetes are at unprecedented levels, and the repercussions extend to a surge in heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and myriad other health issues, and it all traces back to our dietary choices. But it’s bigger than this.

In the relentless pursuit of heightened efficiency and larger yields, industrial farming has morphed into a globally unsustainable practice. Cheap food from big farms comes at staggering cost — jeopardizing not only our health but also of economic justice, environmental sustainability, and the very viability of our land.

The cost of usable land seems most concerning to my friend.

“The drastic decrease of the amount of arable land in the United States is one of the most devastating results of the choices we’ve made as a nation,” he says, then pauses.  He seems sad. “In some cases, I guess it’s the choices which have been made for us.”

Land in the midwestern U.S. has been the locus for farming for over 150 years, with industrial farms expanding exponentially in the 70s and 80s. And for good reason. Midwestern prairies contain centuries of carbon-rich, composted topsoil that holds moisture and nutrients, perfect for growing abundant, healthy food. Therefore, this region became America’s breadbasket.

Decades of annual plowing, chemical fertilizers, and poisonous pesticides, irrigation, and erosion have brought us to the place where at least a third of midwestern topsoil is simply gone. Many researchers believe it may even be more than that. Nathan does as well.

“We don’t realize how much topsoil is being lost in the plains, which is why now a lot of growers have their eyes on the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “There are valleys there that haven’t been farmed yet and still have lots of fertility.”

Changing farm venues without changing unsustainable farming practices perpetuates soil degradation, turning more fertile lands into barren wastelands with little chance for recovery. These changes are crucial and urgent if we are to safeguard our agricultural ecosystems. Without sustainable change in farming methods, we may soon find there’s no land left.

This clearly bothers Nathan, as he continues to speak, quite passionately, about dirt.

“Our land management practices have been devastating, especially in areas where particular pesticides or herbicides have been used. We’ve created a sterile environment in the soil ecosystem. Once that happens, it takes at least a decade for the land to recover. That’s 10 years before you can even grow anything else. It’s so short-sighted, and, unfortunately, we’re talking about millions of acres.”

A study published in the Journal of Agricultural Ethics states that as little as .01 percent of applied pesticides and herbicides actually interact with the targeted weed or pest. The rest contaminates the surrounding soil, air, and water, contributing to the wasteland Nathan is justly concerned about. It’s estimated that U.S. agriculture uses over a billion pounds of pesticides every year. Losing biodiversity is an epidemic in America.

The business of organics

The USDA does not consider Growing Greens Family Farms a certified organic farm. They may not put a “certified organic” label on any of their packaging, even though synthetic pesticides and herbicides, according to Nathan, will never touch a single leaf or seed of their product. They are completely spray-free.

Why can’t farms like Nathan’s call themselves organic? Nathan has a lot to say about this: “Any time concentration of power and politics gets involved in something, there’s a tendency to really distort the real profitability of the idea. That’s what happened with organics.”

The man considered the father of organics is Eliot Coleman. He even coined the term in his seminal book, The New Organic Grower. He defined organics as food that is grown from biologically active, nutrient rich soil. “Certified organic” is not such today.

There are multiple circumstances in which it’s possible for “certified organic” farmers to put pesticides and herbicides on their crops and keep their certification. In fact, there is a long list of FDA-approved chemicals farmers may spray on their crops while keeping their status as organic. The allowed list includes things like boric acid, copper sulfate, hydrogen peroxide, and ethanol. Thankfully strychnine is specifically forbidden for use on “certified” organics, but it makes one question what’s happening with nonorganic crops?

In a speech from the 1980s, Coleman astutely recognizes that “organic is not simply a marketing term. It defines a system of agriculture that acknowledges the pre-eminence of soil life.”

Farmer Nathan’s crops are not “certified” organic. And of course, there’s no strychnine. There also are none of the other things on the FDA allowed list. He labels every package “spray free.”

“We focus on the health of the soil,” Nathan says. “The soil as the building block. And that’s truly the basis of what organic is: The health of the plant isn’t coming from synthetic fertilizer. It’s coming from the earth.”

A place with no aphids

Nathan showed me how the physical arrangement of his greenhouse crops create a hospitable environment for ladybugs and praying mantises. These insects eat insects like aphids and grasshoppers, pests that can devastate a lettuce crop.

He explains how this biodiversity decreases pest pressure and creates various symbiotic relationships within the soil structure itself. Growing Greens annually provides its customers with 35 different crops and over 120 varieties. There are 14 varieties of lettuce alone.

Photo by Bernie Anderson

“Everything’s balanced,” he says. “That’s the amazing thing when observing and learning from creation. Biodiversity creates natural checks and balances. Nature is an equilibrium. It’s like a pendulum. Every action we take affects that pendulum, for better or worse.”

The pendulum swings hard to one side. Using pesticides, ridding the crops of all the predatory insects, may also mean getting rid of any beneficial insects. Equilibrium is hard to find at that point.

“When you don’t have that type of invasive input, then that swing is much smaller,” says Nathan. “We’re just trying to mimic nature as much as possible.”

Nathan’s penchant for spray-free farming is both ecological and personal. His grandfather was an industrial farmer in the 1970s when little was known about the long-term effects of exposure to chemical pesticides and herbicides. There were no respirators on those mid-century mega-farms. His grandfather ended up with two different cancers that ended his life early.

“At that point we started looking for organic food, which was pretty hard to find in those days,” Nathan says. “It was still early in the organic movement. When we started the business, our first mission was to nourish our family.”

Growing Greens Family Farms now nourishes much more than a single family. Nathan grows his 35 crops on less than one acre of land, and they grossed nearly $200,000 in sales last year. They continue to grow in all the right ways.

The economics of industrial farming make up one of the primary reasons many people no longer cultivate their own food. It is often more economical to purchase an imported strawberry grown on a farm in Costa Rica than to purchase a locally grown one in season. However, the true cost of a piece of fruit extends beyond the price paid by the consumer. The strawberry from Costa Rica is typically harvested before reaching full ripeness by underpaid labor, then transported via truck, boat, or plane (potentially all the above!) to a wholesaler. From there, it may go through additional layers of distribution, reaching your local grocery store with markups ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent. Even when purchased at a discount of 20 percent, the journey of that strawberry incurs hidden costs. And after all this, it stands a good chance of ending up in the dumpster behind the store.

Nathan claims that 45 percent of produce in a grocery ends up being thrown away. This seemed crazy to me until I checked the statistics for food waste in America. In 2022, grocery stores threw away approximately 44.8 billion pounds of food — and a lot of what gets thrown out is the ugly vegetables.

Nathan explains why this is so: “Because God made us visual creatures, we associate the aesthetic beauty of a vegetable or fruit with its nutritional value. And until recent history that has held true.

“But now, that’s how so much of our grocery store food is bred. Tomatoes have been bred to be shelf stable and able to handle thousands of miles of transport in a truck. In the end, they still look gorgeous. But those tomatoes can’t stand up flavor-wise to an ugly, misshapen heirloom tomato grown in the garden. Studies are coming out showing that what you’re tasting [in the heirloom tomato] is actually the nutrients,” Nathan says.

The economics of running a small, local, family farm like Growing Greens can still be tough. Nathan has been careful to never take on any debt and to work from a positive cash flow every year. His scaling has never been based on taking on extra risk. Slow and steady is winning the race for him. The farmer’s patience wins the day.

“My eyes were opened to that couple of years ago when I went to a farm bureau conference,” he says. “I was on a discussion panel, and we were talking about the economics of farming. Every other farmer there was a much larger, commercial, commodity crop farm. All my fellow panelists said the primary influencing factor for what to plant is not what’s best for the land. It’s not what’s best for the season. It’s what they get the most insurance money from.”

This felt a little shocking.

“It shows you how convoluted the system is. It’s chilling.”

National garden

Nathan is actively involved in a grassroots food revolution unfolding in America. According to the Farmers Market Coalition, the number of markets selling local farm-produced wares directly to consumers has increased from around 2,000 in 1994 to well over 8,500 today. A growing number of these markets are authorized to process SNAP/EBT — often called “food stamps” — ensuring fresh, local food for those facing food scarcity. Nathan is keen to foster momentum for this new wave of food procurement in America.

In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan envisions the emergence of “an alternative food system rising up on the margins.” Pollan draws parallels between this food revolution and the Protestant Reformation, noting the potential for a transformative shift in the public mindset about food that can change everything: “One day Frank Perdue and Don Tyson are going to wake up and find that their world has changed. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen, just as it did for those Catholic priests who came to church one Sunday morning only to find that, my goodness, there aren’t as many people in the pews today.”

Nathan is a crucial part of this revolution in my community. As he connects his values to the land, we reap the added bonus of healthy, flavorful food on our dinner tables, while preserving and caring for the earth for future generations.