By Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper
The way Isaiah Allen tells the story, the man at The Eddy’s bar had a deep farmer’s tan, sweat dried around his collar, dirt deep under his nails — and something worrying him. Isaiah is the chef and a co-owner of The Eddy, a cozy pub tucked on the banks on the Haw River in Saxapahaw, N.C. The Eddy serves dishes like summer ratatouille with spicy duck merguez sausage, purchasing almost every box of produce and side of meat from local farms that share its commitment to the area’s soil and water.
As it happens, Isaiah and his wife, Whitney, run an organic farm themselves. So Isaiah looked at the man at the bar and sensed this was someone whose crop, flock, or herd was in trouble.
After Isaiah was done with his work for the night, he sat down with the man to find out what was going on. The answer: The man had a greenhouse full of tomatoes with tobacco-mosaic virus. About 800 pounds of tomatoes, big and green on the vine, wouldn’t survive to ripen. He’d begun feeding them to the hogs and mentally calculating his losses.
Isaiah sees the importance of each piece in a sustainable system and prioritizes no-waste principles. Isaiah is a man who saw a bucket of cow fat that was about to turn and made 100 bars of soap. He puts aside The Eddy’s fry oil for a former baker who converted his old Mercedes to run on biodiesel.
Isaiah Allen was not about to let a bunch of hogs eat 800 pounds of green tomatoes while the farmer swallowed the loss.
“I take off my chef hat and put on my farmer hat,” Isaiah says. “I know how stressful it can be to have some really beautiful produce and feed it to pigs, or look in your walk-in and watch it rot.”
He offered the farmer a dollar a pound for the tomatoes.
“Deal,” said the farmer. “How many do you want?”
“All of them,” Isaiah said.
Isaiah talked to his team and told them they were going to have a lot of processing to do. They pickled 15 gallons of green tomatoes. They made green tomato chow chow and green tomato chutney. Everything at The Eddy that used to come with a pickled cucumber came with pickled green tomatoes that year.
“I didn’t buy another cucumber the rest of the year,” Isaiah says.
Isaiah does a lot for the land, using a potato digger to turn low spots on Rocky Run into culverts and irrigation trenches for the orchard, keeping the water on the farm. He uses organic fertilizers like blood meal, feather meal, and soft-rock phosphate. These are fertilizers the land has to digest for a while before they’re available to plants, fertilizers that enrich the soil a lot more, over a few years, than something that can run off in a big heavy rain. His philosophy is to feed the soil, not the plant.
He does a lot for his farming community. Eight-hundred pounds of green tomatoes aren’t the only potential problem he’s taken off someone’s hands.
“I tell farmers, if there’s ever a time you have a ridiculous abundance of something, or you’ve got uglies and you’d like to get rid of it, call me and we’ll negotiate a price, so your problem will be my problem,” he says.
He invests in the wider community as well. The Eddy started a garden club with students, buying some of the produce they grow. It hosts the students for twice-monthly lunches, where Isaiah explains what goes into each meal, and why. He lets our group, the Haw River Assembly, and other groups, like the Saxapahaw Social Justice Exchange, use The Eddy’s function room for free on Tuesdays.
When people ask me what one person can do to make a difference, I think of Isaiah Allen.
In addition to employing practices like contour farming, composting, and using organic fertilizers that protect water in the short-term and feed the soil in the long term, he also fosters relationships with farmers who can depend on him to buy all their chickens.
Through his work, he’s woven a town, a restaurant, and nearby farms together to grow something enduring and beautiful.
Isaiah Allen not only makes my favorite hot chicken sandwich, he serves as a reminder to all of us that we can work from where we are, whether it’s in our state legislature or behind a bar, and lead in a way that protects our waters and builds up our neighbors.
Feature image by The Eddy Pub.