The foundation of culture in Western North Carolina lies in a keen emphasis on things locally made and grown. Whether it’s the porch sounds of music or stitching together ones heritage with an elaborate quilt, quality and one-of-a-kind are attributes to the many products offered in this region. And at the heart of these traditions is the fresh produce raised and harvested from the rich soil of Southern Appalachia.
It’s about preserving tradition — delicious tradition.
“We live in a small town, and it’s wonderful when you start meeting local farmers and seeing what they’re trying to do, trying to support themselves by living off the land,” said Jessica DeMarco. “It’s appealing, and we want to help support this concept, this way of life.”
By Paul Clark • Correspondent
Mary McNeil carried her shopping bag around Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market like a kid on Halloween. In went fresh-ground sausage, newly prepared chorizo and a few cuts of meat from animals that spent the summer happily munching Haywood County’s glorious green grass.
Walking through the market outside the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre on a crisp fall day, McNeil felt good not only about the quality of meat she was buying from a surprisingly large number of meat vendors, but also about what she was doing for the local economy. Buying meat from local farmers helps them keep their land in farms and their families in the pink.
By Jake Flannick • SMN Correspondent
A group of merchants in Sylva rallying their fellow shopkeepers and restaurateurs in the downtown area to jump on the buy local movement as a way to strengthen their own economy from the ground up.
Get to know your local farmers and learn some tricks from green thumb masters during the annual Jackson County Farm Tour and Garden Walk from 1 to 5 p.m. this weekend, July 20 and 21.
The tour takes participants from sheep farms to urban gardens on a self-guided agricultural jaunt across Jackson County. The event gives the public a chance to meet the farmers who grow and raise their food. It is put on by the Jackson County Farmer’s Market.
If you have it, they will come.
That’s the philosophy for the small facet of independent toy stores remaining in Western North Carolina.
“The kids know it’s here, and this is where they want to come,” said Melanee Lester, general manager of Mast General Store in Waynesville.
Each day, James Bandy and Clifton Coleman hangout with soldiers, princesses, dinosaurs and aliens.
Their domain is Blast From The Past Toys in downtown Canton, a business endeavor partly forged out of necessity to make a living in a down economy and partly from their love of toys.
When Annie’s Naturally Bakery closed down last November, among those mourning the loss of the beloved coffee, bakery and gathering place in Sylva was Annie’s faithful Charles King.
Without a new owner, the fate of the long-time Main Street institution seemed uncertain.
“Annie’s closing left a void that needed to be filled,” King said. So eventually, fans of the bakery and café decided to take matters into their own hands.
King can now count himself among a group of local investors who helped reopen Annie’s under the new name of Mainstreet Bakery and Café. King, who retired from working in the banking industry, knew a good bet when he saw it.
He’s one of 10 people who live in Jackson, including a couple with seasonal homes here, who have invested money into getting Mainstreet Bakery and Café open. The bakery opened its doors two weeks ago.
“At the end of the day it’s about the people. And this is an investment in the community as well,” King said over a grilled cheese sandwich this week during a late lunch at the Mainstreet Bakery.
The bakery is now under the ownership and management of two former Annie’s employees, Heather and Chad Kindy. Heather was the retail manager of the store, and Chad did a local wholesale bakery delivery route.
“I’ve known Heather and Chad for six years,” King said. “And I know they are hard workers and that they are willing to put in what’s needed to succeed.”
Heather and Chad said there’s been a learning curve to going from employees to owners, however.
“We’ve definitely learned a lot real fast,” 30-year-old Chad said. “About the flow of the kitchen and what people really want.”
The bakery features pastries, bagels, simple breakfast sandwiches and lunches made up of homemade soups, salads and sandwiches.
Everyone who invested in Mainstreet Bakery and Café were loyal regulars — people the Kindys already knew and who loved the place, Chad said.
The decision to buy was made abruptly, with no prior discussion, the day before Annie’s closed.
“We sat down at the house and Chad and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this,’” 29-year-old Heather said. “We didn’t even have to say what we were talking about — we knew.”
One of their first moves was to seek out Frank Lockwood, a professor of entrepreneurship at Western Carolina University, for advice. Lockwood had been one of Chad’s professors.
With Lockwood’s help, they crunched the numbers and put together a full-fledged business plan. They realized they didn’t have the money to get up and running on their own, however.
That’s when the idea for “locavesting” was hatched, the concept of pulling a group of local people together who have both the money and desire to invest in the community. There is something of a national movement in locavesting, with the bible of the movement being Amy Cortese’s book Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It.
Though other businesses in the region have certainly benefited from local investor dollars, Mainstreet Bakery and Café appears to be the first full-fledged attempt to put locavesting into action.
“We didn’t do a pubic announcement that we were looking for investors,” Heather said. “We had a group of advisors and we contacted people through that. Those people wanted to get us up and going.”
Being an investor doesn’t give those involved the right to have a say in the day-to-day operations of Main Street Bakery and Café.
“It’s not like they are buying a stake in the business and have that say in the daily business,” Heather said. “But Chad and I are very open to suggestions.”
Chad said the couple is already seeing areas to tweak at Mainstreet Bakery and Cafe. They want to do more vegan things, for instance, plus they’d like to add a line of diabetic-friendly items.
For now, the Sylva community is just glad to have its bakery back.
Linda Smalley ventured in with sons Cooper, who got a bagel, and Henry, who selected a cinnamon roll, on their way to Kung Fu practice.
“I love to have a bakery on Main Street,” Smalley said. “The (boys) love coming in to some place like this.”
The Jackson County farmers market had three or four vendors who regularly showed up each week to sell their homegrown goods in 2001.
For the most part, the growers would sit around, chew the fat and trade produce.
“It was kind of our farmer’s morning out,” said Cathy Arps, who runs Vegenui Garden with her husband Ron.
The vendors would make maybe a few sales during the day. However, mostly, people would drive-by the market, roll down their car windows and glance at the offerings before zipping off.
“It was very difficult,” Arps said. But, “The farmers of the farmers market hung on.”
Now, about a decade later, the number of vendors has more than septupled and the amount of customers has grown even more.
The Jackson County market is not an anomaly. The number of vendors at the Waynesville farmers market went from fewer than a dozen in 2008 to now more than 60, with crowds perusing all their options. Beeswax candles, goat’s milk soap, sauces and rubs, cheese and round out the traditional baskets and tables of produce.
“There is a tremendous movement underfoot to save your local farmers,” said Carol James, former president with the Haywood Historic Farmers Market.
Both markets are representative of a nationwide trend that spread during the last several years. Considerably more people are buying local.
“The farmers market is sort of a snapshot of the radical change,” Arps said.
The desire to buy local goes beyond food. People are growing tired of the mass-produced, dime-a-dozen riffraff made overseas that line the shelves of retail giants. Locally made is a hip alternative.
Looking to capitalize on the movement, Haywood County and the downtown Waynesville business district are finding ways to promote locally produced merchandise that is unique to the area as well as items made within the U.S. — which seem difficult to find when perusing the tags at any area department store.
Taking a cue from the Good Morning, America series “Made in America,” Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Waynesville Downtown Association, decided to find out what businesses in Waynesville’s downtown sell items crafted in Western North Carolina and in the U.S.
“I just thought it was time we came together and promoted it,” Phillips said. “I find that customers are asking. They want to know what is made in the USA and locally.”
Phillips has been compiling a list of downtown businesses with U.S. and locally made wares. Although American-made clothes are still difficult to find, people can find WNC-made jewelry at the Jeweler’s Workbench or buy dog treats at the Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery. High Country Home sells furniture and cabinets constructed in Waynesville and hardwood floors from Franklin. And, the local brews are taking off with Headwaters Brewing Company, Frog Level Brewery and soon at the Tipping Point. With the exception of a few items, most food necessities can be found around town — from the smoked tomato jam at Sunburst Trout Market to barbecue sauces to jams and salsa.
Phillips is distributing stacks of stickers and signs to businesses along the downtown Main Street strip that each can used to advertise whether they sell products made in the U.S.
Twigs and Leaves Art Gallery is already one step ahead of the curve with a map displayed in its window, showing where in the U.S. each of its products hails from — all but a handful are from within WNC.
“I would love to think that everybody on the street would have something made in North Carolina,” Phillips said.
And, in a couple of months, the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority will launch its own similar campaign “Homegrown in Haywood.” The logo of the advertising initiative is a needle inside of a fish, inside of a duclimer, inside of an artist’s palette, inside of an apple.
Visitors want to experience the local culture, buy things that are specific to the area and eat what the locals eat, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood TDA. The marketing campaign helps point people in the right direction and also advertise the things that make the county different.
Part of the movement in Western North Carolina is also about preserving Appalachian culture, which is why the dulcimer — a locally significant instrument — is included in the tourism agency’s logo.
In addition to food and art, there are blacksmiths who makes tools, woodworkers who build tables, soap makers, bookbinders, people who manufacture guns — all too numerous to count.
“Locavesting” catching on
People aren’t just purchasing more items grown, constructed and masterminded in Western North Carolina, but they are willing to invest in local ventures.
For example, when Annie’s Naturally Bakery closed late this year, 10 area residents pooled their money to help the popular Sylva joint reopen.
“I think this is a concept that makes a lot of sense to a lot of people,” said Frank Lockwood, an assistant professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Western North Carolina University. “I think we will find more and more examples of this locavesting as we figure out how to do it.”
Along the same vein, some area growers have begun selling season-long memberships to their farm’s bounty, guaranteeing an individual a portion of the crops that are harvested each week.
“It is basically like people buying a subscription to your product,” Arps said.
Although the products are slightly pricier than their grocery store counterparts, people are willing to pay that little extra for natural products without all the additives, preservatives and extra unnecessary stuff.
Jackson resident and farmer Jackie Hooper hasn’t heard any complaints about her reduced sugar apple butter-like spread. In fact, she said, less is what more people are looking for.
“People don’t seem to mind that there isn’t more sugar,” said Hooper, who also sells chicken, quail and rabbit, among other items. “They are actually glad because sugar is one of the things they are actually trying to cut down on.”
That sentiment hits on a big reason why people want to buy straight from the farmer rather than the grocery store. People are more health conscious compared to the past.
“They are really reading package labels,” said Hooper, of Shared Blessings Farm in Cullowhee. “They no longer want to buy it ready-made in a grocery store.”
In many cases, the product is also tastier, since it had a shorter distance to travel before it ended up on someone’s plate.
Robin Smith, of Lenoir’s Devon in Canton, is one of several cattle farmers in Haywood County whose focus is to deliver fresher, higher quality beef without a middleman.
“We were just really interested in selling a better product than the grocery stores had,” Smith said. “(The beef) doesn’t go from a big plant and have additives in it.”
In places like Western North Carolina, the movement only seems natural given the vast tracts of open land. There have always been farmers in the area, but after WWII, fewer Americans grew their own food or received produce from a nearby farm. And now, the nation is moving back toward its roots.
“There are now people that are willing to grow the products and make it available,” Lockwood said. “In the neck of the woods we live in … it’s something that makes a lot of sense.”
The dour economy has also played a role in national shift in mentality as people lost their jobs and saw manufacturing facilities move overseas, making buyers more conscious of where their purchases come from.
“I guess now with a loss of businesses and employees, we don’t want to lose anymore,” Phillips said.
When it comes to connecting farmers with students and substituting common cafeteria fare with fresh, local produce grown here in the mountains, Jackson County Schools stands at or near the forefront of Western North Carolina school systems.
Jackson County has encouraged students to actively grow lettuce used in the school’s cafeteria, utilized grant money to help introduce elementary school children to fresh vegetables and tapped into nutritional expertise at Western Carolina University and area community colleges. School cafeteria workers have even been taken on field trips to visit the local farms where some of the produce they use comes from.
On a recent weekday at Smoky Mountain High School, students such as Jesse Ammons were busy in the school’s greenhouse testing the waters for the airoponics lettuce they produce. The roots of airoponics lettuce are neither in soil nor water, but are misted with water droplets.
These students are part of an unusual local foods program here in Sylva that involves those in the school’s agriculture classes learning to grow salad for themselves and other students to enjoy in the school’s cafeteria. “Mustang salad,” they call it, in honor of the school’s mascot.
Ammons is busy, but he takes the time to acknowledge briefly that he does enjoy the hands-on experience he receives in this particular class.
“I do like it,” Ammons said before rushing off to complete another assigned task.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Jim Hill, the schools’ nutritionist. “This has really helped us in ‘branding’ a salad. That means consumption of salad goes up. Just getting the word out that students’ friends have helped grow the salad gets them more interested.”
Agriculture educator Jeremy Jones said there’s been quite a learning curve to growing the lettuce. It required fieldtrips to Haywood Community College, among other things, to see it being done correctly.
The lettuce project at Smoky Mountain High School is in its third year. To serve the lettuce, Jackson County’s school system had to gain OKs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jackson County’s health department and the state Department of Public Instruction.
The students can’t grow enough lettuce to fully supply the demand of fellow students, so Hill has reached out to local farmers to help supply additional homegrown products for the cafeteria. This has helped foster ties into the local agriculture community.
Steven Beltram and wife Becca Nestler, who operate Balsam Gardens, are working with the schools in Jackson County. It hasn’t been easy circumnavigating all the federal and state regulations involved, Beltram said.
“But Jim Hill has a major interest in making it happen,” Beltram said. “So we’re hoping our work with Jackson County Schools can be sort of a pilot project and model for other school systems in the region.”
Beltram and Nestler grow organic vegetables, plus raise and sell small livestock such as pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens off their small, diversified farm. The couple just had their first child and has a special, but understandable, interest in seeing the farm-to-schools program work.
This led them to explore renting greenhouse space at the county’s Green Energy Park. Beltram and Nestler hope to start growing hydroponics lettuce there starting this year and sell the resulting produce to Jackson County Schools.
“That’s an idea we are trying to make happen,” Beltram said.
‘Mustang Salads’ might be the flashy calling card for the local foods program in Jackson County. But there’s much more going on than just that. The schools are also working with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to introduce kids to local food through school gardens, farm field trips and cooking demonstrations. There are “tasting” events at Cullowhee Valley School on a regular basis, where kids sample a variety of vegetables, presented in fun ways, exposing them to tastes they might not otherwise enjoy.
“It’s phenomenal what ASAP is doing here,” Hill said. “We don’t have the staff or financial ability to do and fund the amount of nutrition projects they are now helping us with.”
Specifically, ASAP was awarded a three-year grant of $600,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to integrate farm-to-school course work into the teaching college curriculum at Western Carolina University. The purpose is simple but complex: to get the future teachers of America thinking about how local foods and ultimately, get school kids eating good, locally grown foods.
Cullowhee Valley School, just across the street from WCU, has served as a learning lab for the WCU initiative.
“The students from WCU can come see farm-to-school in action,” said Emily Jackson, program director of ASAP. “They can see first hand children cooking in the classroom, children gardening, taste tests in the cafeteria.”
In addition to the pilot program at Cullowhee Valley, ASAP is working with the Head Start program run by Mountain Projects for pre-K children.
“This is new for us,” said Maggie Cramer, communications coordinator for ASAP, said. “We want to arm (students and educators) with healthy cooking techniques, and how to cook using local ingredients.”