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.
The Haywood Historic Farmers Market hopes to open its selection to an even larger portion of the population by exercising its new ability to accept food assistance money from the SNAP program — and use $14,000 worth of grants to make those dollars go further for SNAP users.
“Everyone deserves the same access to healthy local food, regardless of their circumstances,” said Carol James, a president of the market board. “We are pleased to be able to provide this access to those who use SNAP. Not only does it allow them to buy quality products from their local farmer, it puts them in a setting where they have the opportunity to take advantage of the educational programs at the market.”
The Swain County Farmers Market recently enjoyed its final Friday alongside Main Street in Bryson City. After taking a break for the Fourth of July holiday, it will reopen on the other side of the Tuckasegee River.
The grassy field is empty and the playground vacant as the sun sheds evening beams across the grounds of Cowee School. But when Susan Ervin looks at the unoccupied asphalt track and pavilion bare of coolers and tablecloths, she sees the busy community scene she’s hoping to experience on the long-awaited May 13.
It’s the day that will kick off the new Cowee Farmers Market, a goal Ervin and a core group of eight others have been working toward for months. In the empty field of the decommissioned school-turned-community-center, she sees vendors setting up displays of fresh produce, crafts, preserves, meats and plants. She sees a local band playing in the pavilion, tip jar open. She sees children playing on the swing set, teenagers tossing a football around in the field — just people having fun.
Justin Phillips narrowly avoided a stand-off with Maggie Valley town hall last week, but rest assured, he was ready to go the distance if need be.
Phillips launched a new farmers market last week in a large grassy field beside his coffee shop, Organic Beans Coffee Co., along the main commercial drag of Maggie Valley.
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.
Food stamps and food pantry vouchers are finding their way into the farmers markets in Jackson and Swain counties, putting local produce into hands of the needy who are often quick to cut healthy, but more expensive, fresh fruits and veggies from their diets and budgets.
The Bryson City Food Pantry is in its second year of a program called Farm to Family, handing out $5 vouchers to the weekly Swain County Farmers Market. The initiative started with a surplus of funds that the food pantry needed to spend.
Because the pantry’s premises are pretty tight, it had never been able to offer produce before. There was no refrigeration for it.
So when the idea was floated that the money be put toward the farmers market, it seemed perfect.
“I mean, we could have given them vouchers to go to the grocery store and find produce,” said Renee Mulligan, who helped start the program, “but we wanted to support the local farmers.”
Mulligan now works for Cherokee Choices, a health program with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but she used to be a cooperative extension agent, where she helped get the idea going.
For families who visit the food pantry, what they’re getting is dry or canned goods and many can’t afford to buy fresh produce.
“For health and disease prevention, it’s extremely important, but it’s also a matter of access in rural areas,” said Mulligan. “It’s important for them to have access to fruits and vegetables in a way that’s convenient.”
With that in mind, the food pantry gives out the vouchers on Friday, the same morning that the farmers market is open just down the street next to the old courthouse.
There, under a smattering of canopies, farmers and crafters set up to peddle their products each Friday in season.
Don and Belinda Carringer said that they’ve been pretty pleased with the new customers they’ve gotten through the program. They sell produce at markets in both Swain and Macon counties.
“We love the program because it’s great for us and it’s great for them, they get fresh produce,” said Don Carringer.
The vouchers are only good for fruits and vegetables, not fish, meat or other market wares like crafts.
Carringer said his patrons with vouchers seemed happy to be able to get their farm-fresh produce, and Belinda said that she often provides recipes to voucher customers, giving them ideas on using what they’ve just bought.
That’s another problem that’s plaguing the country’s low-income families.
“People who aren’t used to having those kinds of things in their diets might not know what to do with those or how to prepare them,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of the Community Table in Sylva.
Her organization has a garden worked by volunteers who give a third of its bounty to the Community Table, which shares the yields with clients who come to them in need of food.
Now, they’re also taking donations from the Jackson County Farmers Market, where vendors can deposit their unsold produce that might otherwise be on the compost pile at the end of a selling day.
The Community Table is working the fresh food into the hot meals it serves, as well as packing it in the boxes sent home with locals strapped for food.
Grimes said she’s seen an increase in interest from her clients in the produce, and in learning how to prepare and serve it.
She hopes that by next year, she’ll have classes running to teach those skills.
Whether it was on the old-school food pyramid or its more modern, streamlined offspring the food plate, we’ve learned since childhood that fruits and veggies are foundational for a healthy diet.
The plates of the needy, however, are far less likely to play host to leafy greens and other garden bounty.
Earlier this year, the USDA released a study that proved what community workers like Grimes have seen firsthand: the closer a family comes to the poverty line, the less they spend on fruit and vegetables.
Americans who make 300 percent more than the federal poverty level — that’s around $66,000 for a family of four — will spend about 50 percent more on fresh produce than families at or just above the poverty line.
“It’s stuff that’s pretty expensive to buy in the store,” said Grimes. “I mean, avocados are two for $5 now.”
Besides what it’s sending to the Community Table, the Jackson County Farmers Market is also opening another option to people who perhaps couldn’t ordinarily afford its local, organic fare.
After a multi-year effort, the Jackson market will soon be able to accept food stamps. An EBT machine, which reads the electronic debit cards issued to food stamp recipients, will be set-up at the market.
“It’ll provide an avenue for people who need it to be able to purchase fruits and vegetables that are fresh and local,” said Jenny McPherson, who manages the Jackson County Farmers Market.
In Swain County, the voucher program is proving to be a win-win for all parties, said Christy Bredenkamp, the extension horticulture agent who is running it in partnership with the food pantry.
“We’re worried about food security in Swain County and really in Western North Carolina. There’s a lot of people who are really struggling financially and the quality of their food is really not as good, so this is a way for them to get fresh produce that’s more healthy for them,” said Bredenkamp. “And the vendors like it because it’s extra income for them, and they’re tapping in to customers they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
In just the first year, they handed out nearly 600 vouchers, and 73 percent were actually used. Similar, federally funded farmers market programs only had a redemption rate of around 60 percent, said Mulligan, who considers the program a success.
In its second year now, organizers hope it will continue to support local growers, who took home an extra $2,150 last year from the vouchers. They’re currently looking for other sources of funding to keep the program going in the future.
“This song was written before the USDA got their hands on organic standards,” announces the booming voice from the stage. It’s a Friday night in late April and the attention of the crowd at Sylva’s Soul Infusion Bistro is centered on bass player Adam Bigelow.
“We in no way endorse USDA organic standards,” Bigelow continues. “Buy local from someone you know. We support the Jackson County Farmers Market — because we’re for real.”
At six-foot-four, with a distinctive baritone and seemingly permanent smile, Adam Bigelow is one of Jackson County’s most recognizable local musicians. He might also be one of the busiest. He performs every Tuesday night at Guadalupe Café’s “Old Timey Music Jam” and is also the bass player for local groups The Dan River Drifters, The Imperative and Cooking with Quanta. In the last two weeks alone, Bigelow has played 11 gigs, with several more still to go.
But musician is only one of Adam Bigelow’s many roles. He might be just as quickly recognized for his work in several Jackson County community and conservation groups. And apart from being a self-professed “plant nerd,” a rock-and-roll evangelist and an active community member, now Adam Bigelow will have a new title — 40-year-old college graduate.
Last Saturday, Bigelow got his bachelor’s in environmental sciences from Western Carolina University.
Thursday evening finds a bare-footed Bigelow at downtown Sylva’s Community Garden, a volunteer organization that supplies organically grown produce to The Community Table, which serves meals to Jackson County residents in need. Bigelow coordinates a weekly volunteer workday, but this particular Thursday also marks Bigelow’s last day of classes at WCU.
“This is exactly where I want to be right now,” he says. “In my happy spot.”
A native of Hampton, Va., Bigelow moved to Sylva from Goldsboro at age 22, intending to study radio and television production at Southwestern Community College. Those plans quickly changed.
“I dropped out of school, but fell in love with the mountains,” he says. “People come here, go to school, and leave. Or people grow up here, stay for a little while and leave. But then there are others that move here from elsewhere and say, ‘This place is amazing. Why would you want to live anywhere else?’ And they stay.”
These days Bigelow is involved with many community efforts, mostly centered on environmental conservation. This is his fifth season at the Community Garden, but he is also involved with the Cullowhee Revitalization Effort, the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the Highlands Native Plants Conference and the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference.
“Unfortunately, I have to credit Wal-Mart with sparking my interest in plants,” Bigelow says. He worked in the garden center at the Franklin Wal-Mart for a few years before working for a local landscaping company and taking courses in horticulture. Seeking to “just learn more,” Bigelow returned to school and earned an associate’s degree from Haywood Community College, an experience that he credits with turning him from “a person who liked plants into a horticulturist.”
“I never thought I was going to get a real degree.” Bigelow says. Then, with a characteristic grin, he adds, “It’s an A.A.S. degree, but I wish it was an A.S.S. degree to match my B.S. degree.”
As far-fetched as attaining a degree might have seemed to Bigelow at one time, being a performing musician must have seemed even more unlikely.
“For most people, when you get to your mid twenties, if you haven’t already become an artist, the chances are you’re not going to do it,” he says. “It was really a response to trauma and life changes that put me into playing music.”
Despite taking guitar lessons as a child, Bigelow had abandoned his musical ambitions, due in part to a disastrous elementary school talent show and a failed attempt at performing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Bigelow didn’t perform in front of an audience again until he was 27 and began playing electric bass for a four piece jam and cover band that lasted two shows. But then sometime around August 2001 (the actual founding date is apparently a matter of debate), Bigelow was approached by his friend Greg Walker about a new project.
“That second band was Cooking with Quanta,” Bigelow says. “I have been in that band ever since and I will be in that band for the rest of my life.”
After four years of playing electric bass, Bigelow was introduced to what would become his trademark instrument, the acoustic upright bass. With the upright, he started attending the Old Timey Music Jams, where he began playing with fiddler Ian Moore and guitarist Hal Herzog. The immediate results, however, were not entirely encouraging.
“I played that first night and I didn’t know any of the songs,” Bigelow recalls. “Hal denies this but I remember. At one point, he looked over at me and said, ‘Boy, when you don’t know a song you sure do play it loud.’”
Despite initial set-backs, Bigelow has been playing with Moore and Herzog for three years now. In addition to those performances, Bigelow plays his upright acoustic for the Dan River Drifters, a group of younger “pickers,” with whom he has been playing for over a year.
“I don’t like listening to only one type of music,” Bigelow says. “I don’t even like playing only one type of music. You know, four hours of bluegrass will drive you insane. Four hours of any one type of music will.”
Like most recent and soon-to-be college graduates, Bigelow is nervous about his future. Faced with the daunting task of paying back student loans, he jokes about entering into “an experiment in poverty.” At this point, graduate school is not a favored option, though his hope is to work in garden-based environmental education “teaching people how to create a sustainable future.”
But perhaps most fittingly, his first move upon graduation was to kick back and play some music in celebration, at a graduation-cum-birthday bash to herald his achievements and hope for the future.
“I was thinking, ‘What do I want to do for my graduation?’ and I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than play music. I love the fact that I’m a musician. I’m so lucky.”
— By Carrie Eidson
Kathy Calabrese, who makes herbal-medicine products such as lip balms, sprays and salves using herbs she grows at her Whittier home or gets from local farmers, is glad to see winter go — not so much the passing of winter weather, though that was rough enough this year, but because those long months of squeaking by financially are coming to an end.
“I’ve been more or less living off credit cards,” Calabrese said, only partly in jest. Additionally, the start of the season is fun, she said, and serves as an opportunity to see other local farmers and the familiar faces of regular customers.
“It’s really exciting,” Calabrese said.
Most vendors get a jumpstart into spring by participating in local growers’ festivals, such as one this month in Jackson County — the Appalachian Grower’s Fair — and one next month in Waynesville — Whole Bloomin’ Thing Festival in the Frog Level District.
“The festival has become an excellent outlet for the local growers,” said Jim Pierce, an organizer of the Whole Bloomin’ Thing. “They look forward to getting their business kick started this time of year.”
The festival, which has maintained a true local flavor despite burgeoning growth, connects growers with the community. And that in turn leads to sustained support the rest of the year, Pierce said.
After the spring festival season wanes and before the fall festival season kicks-in, most of these make-a-living-off-the-farm folks can be found anchoring local farmers markets.
Robyn Cammer of Frog Holler Organiks in Haywood County, like Calabrese, is also happy to see winter go.
“There’s 90 days to pay the bills for the year,” Cammer said of the mad rush that marks the lives of most farmers when spring arrives.
Frog Holler Organiks has found its niche primarily by making and selling biodynamic garden soil, a blend of what Cammer describes as “hyper humus-rich growing mediums” containing a “full mineral and nutrient spectrum.” The farm also offers fresh vegetables, berries, eggs and more, but the most important financial leg on this farm’s stool is the garden soil sold by the scoop.
Cammer and other small farmers in Western North Carolina are juggling work with marketing, plus finding the necessary time to actually sell the products they produce. Like Calabrese, Mernie Wortham, who has Falcon Hill Farm in Jackson County, is set to work both festivals as a vendor. She sells products developed directly from her farm, including soaps, shampoo bars, and fiber products such as knitted items and yarn from her sheep and llamas.
“It’s very good to get back out there and be in the community,” said Wortham, who also sells through the Jackson County Farmers Market in Sylva.
Wortham, like other farm vendors in the region, are impressed with the sustained interested in local foods and other locally produced items they are seeing and experiencing.
“It is growing, and continues to grow, and we’d love to see it grow even faster and quicker and bigger,” Wortham said.
Two local grower’s fairs are on the horizon, the Appalachian Growers Fair in Sylva, and the Whole Blooming’ Thing Festival in Waynesville. The festivals are wildly popular home gardeners looking for vegetable and herb starts, annuals and perennials. Savvy plant buyers have learned to come early with stack of cash in hand and wagons to haul their potted finds — and to set aside plenty of time the rest of the weekend to get their new plants in the ground.
Appalachian Growers Fair
Saturday, April 16, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Monteith Park in Dillsboro. A chance to buy plants and seeds and other agriculture-related items as a fundraiser for Full Spectrum Farms, which is a service organization dedicated to providing a full spectrum of life’s opportunities for persons with autism.
Whole Bloomin’ Thing
Saturday, May 7, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Frog Level district in Waynesville. More than 50 local growers, area artisans and a variety of nature-related professionals will be there, selling locally-grown garden starter plants, flowers, crafts and other beautiful gifts for Mother’s Day. 828.734.5819.
It’s that time of the year, and farmers markets across the region have — or soon will — open for the season.
• The Haywood’s Historic Farmers’ Market will open on Saturday, April 16, the earliest opening date in its history. Growers have been busy getting spring crops ready to sell, as well as vegetable and herb starts and perennials for gardeners. This will be the market’s third full season of offering locally grown produce, farm-fresh eggs, baked goods, cheese, preserves, local meat, fresh North Carolina seafood and heritage crafts.
Haywood’s Historic Farmers’ Market is held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday and Saturday at the HART Theater parking lot Pigeon Street (U.S. 276) in Waynesville. www.waynesvillefarmersmarket.com.
• The Jackson County Farmers Market opened last weekend at its usual location at Bridge Park in downtown Sylva, held Saturdays from 9 a.m. until noon. In addition to plants, seeds and greens, honey, breads, sweets and locally made crafts, this year’s market sees an expansion into local meats. 828.631.3033.
Stay tuned to the calendar section of The Smoky Mountain News for farmers market listings as more markets, from Cherokee to Cashiers to Canton, begin to open for the season.
While the summer bounty of tomatoes, corn and green beans are still a couple of months away, there is still plenty of local grown food items to be found as local farmers markets gear up for the season.
Markets are overflowing with spring greens and lettuces right now. The markets are a great place to stock up on vegetable and herb starts for your garden, and perennials and annuals, as well as hanging baskets. Other all-season staples found at many markets include locally grown eggs, herbs, jams, with some even offering local meat, cheese and fish. All markets listed have opened for the summer unless otherwise noted.
• Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market. 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. Located in Waynesville at the HART Theater parking lot on Pigeon Street (five blocks off Main Street from the Exxon station.)
• Waynesville Tailgate Market. 8 a.m. to noon Wednesday and Friday. Located in parking lot of American Legion on Legion Drive (Turn beside Bogart’s on Main Street.)
• Canton Tailgate Market. 8 a.m. to noon on Tues. and Thurs. Town hall parking lot on Park Street in downtown Canton. 828.646.3412.
• Jackson County Farmers Market. 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Downtown on Mill Street in the parking lot next to Bridge Park.
• Cashiers Tailgate Market. Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. In the parking lot of Cashiers Community Center on N.C. 107 between Cashiers and Highlands.
• Blue Ridge Farmers Co-Op. 8 a.m .to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Not a farmer’s market per say, but a year-round co-op where local farmers bring their bounty. Located at 3111 on N.C. 107 N between Cashiers and Glenville. 828.743.5106.
• Franklin Tailgate Market. 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Located at West Palmer Street across from the old post office, between the barber shop and the antique store. (Opens first week of June.)
• Friends of the Rickman Store. 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays. Located at the T.M. Rickman General Store, seven miles north of Franklin on N.C. 28.
• Swain County Tailgate Market. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday.
Located in the parking lot beside Fred’s Market Take Bryson City Exit 67, go to the second light, take right onto Old Hwy. 19 West.100 yards on left. When: Fri., 9 a.m to 1 p.m. (Opens in June.)
• Cherokee Farmers Tailgate Market. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday. Located on Acquoni Road in downtown Cherokee. (Opens mid-June)