Giving Thanks Where Thanks is Due

By Laura Lauffer

During the Thanksgiving season, we often recognize and appreciate the farmers in our community for the abundance of food on our tables. Three women farmers in the region shared their farming experience during this challenging year, what it means to them to farm as women and how they continued to grow and distribute their goods to the community in the challenging times of COVID.  

Jackson County Farmers Market celebrates 20 years

Back in the 1990s, Karen and Johnny White were in a nomadic phase of life, spending several months traveling the country in search of a place to call home. Time after time, they found themselves most drawn to small towns with vibrant farmers markets. 

Farmers market starting in Cashiers

Locally Grown on the Green farmers market offers local produce 3 to 6 p.m. each Wednesday during the growing season at The Village Green Commons on Frank Allen Road next to the post office.

Planting for a pandemic: Agricultural community navigates through COVID-19 crisis

For farmers and agriculture businesses across Western North Carolina, spring is the time to plan and plant for the green season ahead, but uncertainty cultivated by the COVID-19 crisis is complicating that process, often in devastating ways. 

Haywood farmers market now more accessible to low-income people

out frThe 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.”

Down by the river: Swain farmers market makes a move

fr swainmarketThe 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.

Growing Season: New farmers markets to bring local focus to Cowee, Maggie Valley

out frThe 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. 

Coffee shop owner launches farmers market sans permit

fr maggiemarketJustin 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.

Fresh from the farm: Meat gets a sizzling reception at farmers market

coverBy 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. 

Produce vouchers connect farmers with the needy

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.

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