Though the culinary and agricultural history of Southern Appalachia is as vast and robust as the tall and rigorous mountains that make up this region, the intense worldwide focus and adoration for the ingredients, recipes and folks who stir it all together is more of a 21st century phenomenon.
Ricardo Fernandez is a renowned chef, master gardener and also a former national diving champion, but there’s one thing he can’t do.
“I’ve tried to get my hair to grow back, but it doesn’t work,” he laughed.
By Katie Reeder • SMN Intern
Demand for locally grown food is soaring in Western North Carolina, but recruiting — and retaining — the farmers to grow the goods has been a challenge. That’s a problem a trio of farm-centric groups is hoping to address through a $100,000 grant they just landed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Organic Growers School and Western North Carolina FarmLink are collaborating to create Farm Pathways: Access to Land, Livelihood and Learning, a new program that will mentor beginning farmers and link them with the resources they need to succeed. It’s set to begin in 2016.
Heidi Dunkelberg is determined to make hops synonymous with Western North Carolina.
“I’ve got to figure it out,” she said. “There’s just got to be some way, there’s just got to be.”
A group of Jackson County locavores is hoping to bring the Ramp-Berry Community Market Co-op, a store that will sell all things local, to fruition before the year ends.
The “Buy Haywood” initiative is a work-in-progress example of how local businesses benefit by connecting with each other.
The growing local food movement that is gaining traction around the country has made its way into Haywood County Schools, where the first shipment of Haywood County produce rolled in earlier this year.
The tomatoes, peppers and corn came courtesy of Skipper Russell, a local farmer who is the only one in the county allowed to sell to the school system.
Russell works a 35-acre farm in Bethel called Seasonal Produce Farms, and his newest client is thanks to his recent GAP certification, a requirement for any farmer wishing to peddle their wares in schools and other government cafeterias.
GAP is short for Good Agriculture Practices, and it’s a strict set of guidelines that ensure food safety, making sure that what gets to the plate was grown and tended the right way. Most farmers say it’s just a recorded verification of what they’re already doing, since good agriculture practices aren’t just nice, they’re what produces quality, sellable produce.
But it’s not a cheap proposition, and each crop must be certified separately. It can take around $1,500 per crop, and sometimes that burden is too much for small farmers to recoup.
Plus, it’s time consuming and pretty onerous.
“The manual’s probably about two inches thick,” said Russell. “It’s a long drawn out process to get to them (the school system), you don’t just go up to them and start selling. But it’s something that more and more people are going to be looking for.”
And that’s why he did it, because he can see what’s coming down the road. Getting certified opens a lot of doors for medium and large farms to get their food into steady, reliable markets like schools. But Russell thinks it will soon close doors for those who don’t have it, as an increasing number of restaurants, stores and even consumers want to know just how the tomatoes on their table were taken care of before getting there.
With the recent outbreaks of E-coli in Europe and listeria still rearing its head in this nation’s cantaloupe, food safety is a hotter button than ever.
In Jackson County Schools, the move has been afoot towards local food — defined by the federal government as anything grown in-state, while local advocacy group the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project considers anything grown within 100 miles as local.
Jim Hill, the child nutrition director there, said he’d love to buy from more hyperlocal producers, but is overall in favor of the GAP regulations that sometimes hamstrings him in that effort.
“I don’t really want 10 farmers in pickup trucks backing up through the schools,” said Hill “You’d rather go through some kind of centralized co-op or warehouse or somewhere where it’s being checked really closely.”
But, he said, with GAP being such a costly endeavor — farmers have to pay the auditors for every hour of their inspection, starting when they leave Raleigh — it’s unfortunately pricing many local producers out of the market.
“The problem with that is, in my opinion, that it really, really, really hurts the small farmer because it’s very expensive to get that GAP certification,” said Hill “The state encourages us to by from locals, but they do make it really hard for us to buy from local farmers.”
One way around that, he said, is to go through a third party, a distributor who is certified, but doesn’t buy exclusively from GAP approved farmers.
That is a tactic he and other school systems use, but they’d prefer to ax the middleman and deal straight with the farmer, a better deal for both sides.
Alison Francis, child nutrition director in Haywood County Schools, said that, with Russell, cutting that middleman has helped them support their neighboring farm and reduce their bottom line simultaneously.
Tomatoes bought from Russell, for example, are nearly half the cost of tomatoes from their national supplier. And for a system that buys a dozen 25-pound cases of them each week, $10 per case instead of $19 adds up quickly.
In Jackson County, they’ve cut out the middleman on the salad bar by simply growing their own.
The hydroponic lettuce is grown by high school students at Smoky Mountain High School in their on-campus greenhouse, and eventually makes its way into the cafeteria what Hill has dubbed ‘Mustang Salads.”
“It’s the closest thing you can imagine to branding a salad,” said Hill. “You can brand a pizza ... but it’s really hard to brand a salad.”
The idea is that if kids know their classmates or siblings or friends grew the salad, they’re much more likely to eat it. They feel more invested in it.
And that’s one of the benefits both Hill and Francis find in local food: it teaches students about where their food comes from, an area in which many kids have a surprising dearth of knowledge.
Francis tells of a time when the subject of food origin came up in an elementary school.
“They asked about if anybody knew where bacon came from and most kids didn’t even know that bacon came from a pig,” said Francis. “I think it’s really important for the kids to see where their food comes from. It’s good for them to know that their food came from just down the road.”
There’s a new term coined by the federal government for places with low income and little access to quality food. It’s called a food desert.
And Maggie Valley is sitting right on the edge of one. The town doesn’t really qualify for the low-income component, but anyone who lives and works there will tell you the food access part is spot on.
However, if the town gives its nod of approval, that situation might improve.
A grocery store could be setting up shop on Soco Road, to the delight of residents who currently trek to Waynesville when the pantry runs dry.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Jeannie Shuckstes, a Maggie Valley dweller. “Anything to help the economy of Maggie I know is a plus, and everyone has to go into Waynesville to do any sort of shopping.”
She works in Waynesville, but lives in Maggie Valley, so she can hit the store on the way home from work without a special trip. But retirees, those who both work and live in the town and the tourists who populate the valley’s many vacation cabins, must venture out every time they need anything more than a loaf of bread or some lunch meat.
The town won’t be getting a shiny new Ingles, Bi-Lo or Food Lion. The proposed shop will be a locally owned endeavor housed in the cabin that was once the Bear’s Den restaurant.
There have long been rumors swirling that a big chain was eyeing the small town, said Nathan Clark, Maggie Valley’s planning director. But a smaller store with local appeal is just as good, he said.
“You have an entrepreneur like Ms. Weinstein coming in here trying to help the community, I think it’s going to be a really, really nice thing,” said Clark.
The aforementioned Ms. Weinstein is Bari Weinstein, the woman behind the new store.
Formerly, she ran the Bear’s Den in the same location. Now, she’s clearing out the tables and installing aisles, hoping to accommodate a request that she’s heard floating around the valley for years.
“My customers who are locals and my tourists customers have always said ‘Where’s the grocery store, why don’t we have a grocery store?’” said Weinstein. So after her restaurant closed its doors, she thought this was the year to fill that niche.
At first, she said, she’ll stock the basics and rely on her customers to fill her in on what they want and need.
That more personalized service, combined with the improved proximity, she hopes will bring her new venture success.
It’s the closeness, though, that’s the real selling point of the idea.
The closest actual grocery store is Ingles on Russ Avenue in Waynesville, and from the center of Maggie Valley, it’s a little more than eight miles, about 20 minutes one way, and the trip is much longer for those who live further along Soco Road or in one of the many circuitous subdivisions that pepper the valley’s mountainsides.
That means that even the most cursory jaunts for the essentials can take upwards of an hour.
There are a few closer options, the most comprehensive being the Dollar General that sits on the very edge of town, at the intersection of Jonathan Creek and Soco Road.
“That place, it’s the busiest thing that I see out there anymore,” said Shuckstes, when asked where she can go in town to pick up a few grocery items. “They’re doing great business.”
And in fact, that’s pretty much how Dollar General has made its money around the country, posting up in tiny communities with little in the way of retail other than fast food or gas stations, including Bethel and Beaverdam here in Haywood County.
But their business isn’t strictly food, and as a discount store, their offerings are constantly in flux.
A few convenience stores on both ends of Maggie Valley give their patrons a cooler or two of more substantial food than is usually found in a gas station — a gallon of milk here, some cold cuts and bread there. And in season, Duckett’s Produce has a well-stocked stand with a bounty of farm produce.
But as far as dedicated grocery stores go, Weinstein’s competition is nonexistent.
Some residents remember an A&P supermarket that once served locals and tourists, but it’s been gone so long the years have faded into one another. Did it close 10 years ago? Maybe 15?
Weinstein hoped to have the new, as-yet-unnamed establishment open by Labor Day, but fears she might be hamstrung by paperwork.
She does plan to have it open this autumn, though, and she’s hoping that the town will see the benefit her business would be to the valley.
“You know you have to listen, you can’t just hear, you have to listen to what your community wants,” she said.
For years, residents of Maggie Valley have been asking for a grocery store. And this year, they might finally receive.
Farming is not an easy life — the hours start early, the labor is pretty backbreaking and success often depends on the vagaries of weather. One factor, however, that’s been working in the farmer’s favor is the recent trend in local food.
With farmers markets popping up across the country, and campaigns like Buy Haywood and the statewide Farm-to-Fork initiative encouraging consumers to patronize local growers, small farmers are tapping local markets where they can share their bounty. The Center for Environmental Farm Systems estimates that they’ve funneled $6.6 million dollars back into local farms in the last year alone through their 10 percent program, which urges people to buy 10 percent of their food locally. And they’ve only got 324 businesses signed up.
But there’s one segment of the farm population that isn’t jumping as readily on the local, straight-to-consumers bandwagon: dairies.
It would seem like a natural progression, especially in this area. The Southeast drinks more milk than anyone else in the country, so why not buy it from the dairy next door?
The simple answer is cost. But the factors that play into that are far less simple.
“It’s just a lot more complicated once you get into it,” said Ronnie Ross. He runs Ross Dairy in Haywood County, and the farm has been in his family for 45 years. “The equipment is really expensive, and you would have to have someone full time, someone really competent full time, to manage the other end of that, the marketing and the selling. Unless you went into it in a big way, I don’t think it would be cost effective. I think you would be losing money, a lot of money.”
For a regular farmer to sell their produce to neighbors or friends or farmers market customers, the regulation is pretty low level. In fact, in North Carolina, it’s nearly nonexistent. If you want to sell your produce, you can set up a stand and do just that.
For a dairy, the regulations are infinitely greater.
Diaries on the whole are heavily regulated, requiring testing and licensing and paperwork at the state and federal level. But those selling to the public require a whole other raft of costly licenses and equipment.
Peter Jackson has seen that problem firsthand. He is the executive director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, and he’s been working with and surveying dairy farmers in the region for years.
“You know, we’ve been losing those dairies. That used to be a really big industry in Western North Carolina,” said Jackson. “The cost of processing it yourself is just huge if you weren’t already, if you were sending it away on a truck.”
And because of that high cost, that’s what most dairies in the region do.
Ross sends about 16,000 pounds of milk — almost 2,000 gallons — each day to Milko in Asheville. Milko is what’s called a milk pool; they buy from farmers and then process and package it for sale. At Milko, which is owned by Ingles and produces their Laura Lynn brand, around 80 percent of the milk comes from a 120-mile radius.
“We have the most local milk supply in the Southeast,” said Buddy Gaither, the plant’s manager. “But there’s not enough milk in Western North Carolina to supply our needs.”
Because, in recent years, dairy farmers in Western North Carolina have found it hard to compete with farms in the east, where contiguous, arable land is much cheaper and easier to procure. And where regular farmers might be able to turn to their local markets to boost sales, it’s hard for dairies to do that.
According to a 2007 study done by Jackson’s group, dairy farmers had dwindled by 70 percent in the region since 1985.
“Most of the 68 who were left said they weren’t going to be there another decade,” said Jackson.
In WNC, there’s only one dairy that sells its own milk, the Spring Ridge Creamery in Otto, just before the Georgia line in Macon County.
And their business isn’t hurting. They’ve got a pretty steady milk trade and they also process it into cheese and ice cream that sells fabulously on those hot summer days to travellers traversing U.S. 441.
But Jim Moore, the dairy’s owner, got into the business when startup costs were lower and second-hand equipment was much easier to come by.
Jackson said he now knows of farmers who would love to get into the business, but can’t afford the tens of thousands required to get going.
Of course, there are always under-the-table sales, which, Jackson said, are likely happening around the region.
With the recent trend in raw milk — milk that hasn’t been pasteurized — he posits that there are probably farmers selling to folks on the side.
Although raw milk has a wide interest base, it’s still illegal to sell for human consumption in North Carolina. After a spate of sicknesses last month caused by raw milk smuggled back over the border from South Carolina, it doesn’t seem like the law will soon be changing.
But while the outlook for local dairies may not be particularly bright, it’s not quite apocalyptic just yet.
Yes, it’s costly, but it is possible, especially for farmers who get into just cheese, rather than milk. That doesn’t require living up to the more onerous grade A standards.
Jackie Palmer is proof of that fact.
Palmer is the owner of Dark Cove Creamery in Cullowhee, and hers was the first licensed goat dairy in Western North Carolina. She’s been running the business for about 15 years and started it by depleting her savings.
“I’m the sort of person that doesn’t like to have debt, so I just worked a little at a time and it was paid off as I worked,” said Palmer. “I just bought the equipment that I needed when I had the money. It took me a number of years to make it happen. I just was lucky I guess.”
But she was also smart, making sure not to place a larger financial burden on the dairy than it could handle.
“The dairy is a huge part of this farm, but I find for sustainability purposes it’s good to diversify,” said Palmer.
The goat business is probably the main breadwinner, said Palmer, but she keeps other enterprises running because she wants to keep the dairy small. That’s part of what makes it successful.
“I believe in a tiny business,” said Palmer. “I think I can produce a better product if I can stay small. It’s a cleaner product, a more consistent product and something that I’m really proud of.”
And that’s essentially the conclusion Ronnie Ross and his family have always come to.
“We’ve thought about it, and it would be a nice thing to do, but it’s just so much work and stress and we’re pretty much loaded up as we are,” said Ross. It can work, said Ross, if you go really big or really small. But you’re heart really has to be in it, and even then it can fail.
He tells a story of a Buncombe County dairy that tried producing their own products and went under, despite valiant efforts.
So for those who get their produce from the farmer next door, finding the dairy next door might not be as easy.
But they’re still out there, like Palmer, you just have to know where to look.
It’s a busy day at the farmers market, and William Shelton is red-faced and sweaty as he hands out boxes of vegetables to his regular weekly customers. One of his four sons — his namesake, Wil — is manning the cash box, adept after three or so summers of making correct change while exchanging pleasantries.
Farming, at least at the Shelton place in Whittier, is a family affair. And keeping that tradition alive and profitable hinges on making personal and meaningful connections with the people who purchase what the farm produces. This is true, not only for the Shelton family, but for all small farmers in Western North Carolina — and one of the best opportunities for farmers to do just that is coming up this month at the third-annual Local Food Gala in Macon County.
The gala is a fundraising event for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, headquartered in Franklin. Last year, the sold-out gala raised $22,000 for the group, which since 1999 has conserved more than 12,000 acres in its six-county area of Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Jackson, including 1,000 acres on actual working farms.
Farmers such as Shelton donate produce for the event so proceeds can go entirely toward the land trust.
“It’s a good event, with really good food, and it’s mutually beneficial for everyone involved,” Shelton said as he handed a woman a box of vegetables grown on his farm, taking time to tell her that yes, corn was included this time in the selection.
Jill Wiggins, outreach coordinator for the Land Trust, said the money raised through the farm-to-table event goes into the group’s agricultural fund to help preserve farmland.
In addition to showcasing what’s in season, local and fresh (though there is a possibility that locally grown but frozen asparagus also might be included on the menu), the gala features a local wine and beer tasting. Plus a silent auction featuring “experiential packages,” Wiggins said, including a scholarship for John C. Campbell Folkschool in Brasstown.
“Not only do local foods reward our sense of taste, but locally produced food nourishes and strengthens our families and communities, sustains our mountain farming traditions, and protects our natural resources through productive land conservation practices,” Wiggins said, adding, “there’s nothing else like the local food gala. It’s a great feeling to be there.”
That’s true, said Ron Arps, a Jackson County farmer who has been involved with the gala since its inception. This year, because of heavy demand through a new CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture, Arps said he and his wife, Cathy might be donating only a few pounds of carrots. If, Arps said, they even have those — it’s been busy this year for the couple.
The Local Food Gala, Arps said, has evolved into an important event in Western North Carolina, and serves as an excellent means of connecting consumers to area farmers. He believes in throwing his support behind it whenever possible.
The night’s menu for the gala is still being decided on, Wiggins said, but it will definitely include a vegetarian and meat options. The meat and fish will both be locally produced, plus there will be sides featuring local vegetables. Dessert most likely will be a blueberry popover, Wiggins said.
Macon Bank and Duke Energy are sponsors of the event.
The Local Food Gala, an annual fundraising event for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, will be held Saturday, July 30, at the Bloemsma Barn in the Patton Valley area near Franklin.
A limited number of tickets will be sold at the Land Trust’s office in Franklin, or via the group’s website, www.ltlt.org through July 20th. Tickets are $75 each, or $500 for a table of 8.