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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.

Late Bloomer: Local bassist in full flower

“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

Gearing up for spring

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.

 

Get your garden off to a good start with spring growers festivals

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.

828.293.2521 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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.

 

Farmers markets begin rolling out the green carpet

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.

Farmers markets welcome the growing 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 County

• 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

• 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.

Macon County

• 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

• 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)

A two-horse town

A rift that splintered the town’s longtime farmers market in downtown Waynesville into two opposing groups of vendors continues to persist this season, resulting in two separate markets that will operate just half a mile apart.

“They’re going to have their market, and we’re going to have ours,” said vendor Judy West matter-of-factly.

The markets both start on May 13, and will operate during the same time period on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

The split occurred at the end of last season, precipitated by the market losing its long-time spot on Main Street. A philosophical division over the direction of the market had been brewing for some time. When it was time to find a new location, factions went in two directions: one to the parking lot of Haywood Regional Arts Theater and one to the American Legion, just half a mile apart.

The two groups have yet to reconcile.

“We have not had any communication with the other market,” said Joanne Meyer, director of what has been renamed Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market. “We just went on from where we started at the end of last season, and took it forward.”

Whether the community can support two markets so close to one another remains to be seen, though both groups express confidence in the viability of their own respective market.

“I think ideally it would be better if we had one market, but I think the markets have split, and I think that people will shop both markets,” Meyer said. “They’ll have their customers, and we’ll have ours. The value-added products will bring a lot of interest to our market.”

Indeed, that’s the major difference between the two farmers markets. Haywood’s Historic Market sells baked goods, cheese, meat, and even fish, from vendors both in and out of the county. Meyer says more than 30 vendors have applied to hawk their goods this year, and there’s ample room in the HART parking lot for more.

The Waynesville Tailgate Market, as it is called, may not offer value-added products, but it’s promoting itself as the original, strictly Haywood County growers market.

“This is the one in operation since 1985,” West said. “We’re strictly Haywood County growers, and Haywood County grown.”

The Waynesville Tailgate Market will continue to offer the same goods it always has.

“We growers of Haywood County wanted to keep our own market, and we wanted to stick strictly with the fresh fruits and veggies,” West said. “We didn’t want the value-added products like jams, jellies, salsas and everything else. We just didn’t want to go down that route.”

That doesn’t mean the Waynesville Tailgate Market lacks diversity in its offerings. West alone will sell dahlias, blueberries, raspberries, grapes, potatoes, onions, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and asparagus this season. She said more than 40 vendors have applied to sell at the market.

Despite the competition, Meyer believes that a desire to eat locally will help her more recently established market sustain itself.

“The response was very good last year, and I do think it will actually grow,” Meyer said. “There are a lot of people who are really interested in buying local food. I think it’s going to do really well this year.”

 

 

Origins of the split

The rift between the markets started when a group of vendors created the Waynesville Tailgate Market Committee to study the possibility of moving the burgeoning market from its home in the parking lot of Badcock Furniture on Main Street to a flatter, larger location. Some vendors also wanted to expand their selections to include meats, cheeses, baked goods and other value-added products.

But the idea wasn’t supported by a segment of market vendors, including West, who favored continuing to operate the market as it had been for nearly 20 years. The group was opposed to moving the market or beefing up the selection of goods, and objected to an expansion which would bring in competition from other counties.

The vendors’ case for staying put was complicated by a request from the owners of Badcock, who wanted the tailgate market moved due to limited parking space and liability concerns. But on the day vendors were supposed to vacate the Badcock lot, some refused to budge, culminating in a tense standoff with police.

The vendors finished up the day and were told they had to find a new spot. Meanwhile, the Waynesville Tailgate Committee and about half the vendors had already moved to a new home in the parking lot of the HART theater. The other vendors, however, refused to join them, and the next week set up shop just a half mile away in the parking lot of the American Legion.

Local farmers markets

Haywood

Waynesville Tailgate Market

8 a.m. to noon Wednesdays and Saturdays at American Legion parking lot near downtown Waynesville. Haywood County grown vegetables, fruits, cut flowers, honey and nursery stock.

Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market

8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays in HART parking lot off U.S. 276 in Waynesville. Produce, plants, baked goods, cheese, meat, fish and more.

Haywood Fairgrounds Farmers Market

7 a.m. to 2 p.m. first Saturday of the month at the Haywood County Fairgrounds (second Saturday in July). Fresh veggies, fruits, plants and more. In conjunction with monthly flea market.

 

Jackson

Jackson County Farmers Market

9 a.m. to noon Saturdays in the municipal parking lot next to Bridge Park in downtown Sylva. Home-grown vegetable seedlings, native plants, flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruits, honey, jams, jellies, soaps, lotions, baskets, crafts and art.

 

Swain

Swain County Tailgate Market

9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays starting June 6 in front of Swain County Administration Building in Bryson City. Organic and sustainable growers of produce, plants, herbs and honey; art including jewelry, quilts, pottery, photographs and more.

 

Qualla Boundary

Cherokee Friday Farmers Tailgate Market

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays in downtown Cherokee on Acquoni Road one mile from U.S. 19. Fresh produce from local farmers and gardeners; look for organics and heirlooms.

 

Macon

Franklin Tailgate Market

8 a.m. to noon Saturdays starting June 6 in parking lot on Palmer Street (backside of Main Street across from Drake Enterprises). Homegrown fruits, vegetables, herbs, cut flowers, plants, eggs, locally made cheese, trout, and honey.

Rickman Store Market

3 to 7 p.m. Fridays at old T.M. Rickman Store located on Cowee Creek Road next to Cowee Elementary School. Vegetables, plants, flowers, organic eggs, baked goods and more, as well as local arts and crafts.

CSA programs bring together consumers and the hands that feed them

Walk among the rows and rows of hydroponic butter leaf lettuce growing in William Shelton’s greenhouse, and you’ll notice a distinctive dark green patch that seems out of place. While the butter leaf is destined to be neatly packed in a clamshell case and shipped to a Food Lion or Ingles somewhere, the variety of dark, mixed greens are headed somewhere totally different, a place Shelton’s veggies have typically not gone before — a local family’s dinner plate.

Shelton, who has spent 25 farming years selling his lettuce and a handful of other crops to big-name retailers, is making his initial foray into Community Supported Agriculture. For the first time in his career, Shelton won’t just know what town his produce is destined for — he’ll know the name of the person eating it.

Customers who pay Shelton $500 at the beginning of the growing season — right around now, or earlier in many cases — will receive a box of fresh vegetables each week for six months. They’ll start off with early spring greens; then transition to strawberries, zucchini, and tomatoes; then eggplant and okra; and finally, as the season winds down, root vegetables like acorn squash and pumpkins.

Shelton appears to have his plan down pat, but in reality, he says he has no idea what to expect — whether customers will like the vegetables he’s chosen; whether many people at all will sign up for his CSA test run.

“I feel like I’m looking into the abyss in a way,” Shelton says. “I’m stepping into uncharted territory.”

It may be an abyss, but he’s not alone in taking the plunge. CSA’s have experienced a surge in popularity with the growing local food movement. In 2008, the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program’s Local Food Guide listed 28 CSA’s within 100 miles of Asheville. This season, there are 42.

“It’s relatively new in this region, and it’s something I’ve really seen take off in the last few years,” says Rose McLarney, communications director for ASAP. “A lot of farms are realizing that people are interested in that direct connection.”

 

Loving local

The connection with local consumers is a whole new experience for farmers like Shelton.

“My focus has been on wholesale markets,” Shelton says. “I’ve been resistant to CSA because I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect of direct marketing.”

But the wholesale markets haven’t been kind in recent years.

“The market pressures have gotten worse instead of better,” says Shelton. “We’ve been overproducing a small variety of traditional crops like tomatoes, and it’s just cutthroat supply and demand. For the last couple of years, the markets have just been horrible in the summer.”

Typically, Shelton says, with every spring comes renewed hope that somehow, the next season will be better. Sometimes it is. Lately, it hasn’t been.

At the same time market prices are plummeting, however, the interest in local food is rising. The priorities of consumers are shifting, says McLarney. It’s less about getting any kind of food anytime you want it, even if it means it has to come from thousands of miles away; and more about knowing where food comes from.

“I think people are really interested in different qualities than looking for the exotic,” McLarney says. “I think knowing that the flavor comes from things that haven’t traveled as far is of more interest to people than being able to eat tropical year round.”

Cathy Arps, a Jackson County grower, has seen that trend emerge firsthand. She and her husband Ron have run a CSA for 11 years.

“That freshness is one of the things that has sold people on the idea of local food,” says Cathy. “It’s just so good, and most people think it’s fun to learn how to eat what’s really growing, and to know something about their food.”

The Arps’ were overjoyed to hear a fellow farmer was starting up a CSA. Theirs has been so popular that the coveted 21 spots fill quickly year after year and they’re forced to turn many people away. More CSAs haven’t popped up to meet the growing demand.

“When William called me and said he was starting a CSA, I practically jumped up and down,” Ron says. “We’ve been talking to people for years about getting more CSAs going, because we’ve always had to turn so many people down.”

Julie Mansfield, owner of Mountain Harvest Organics in Madison County, was also happy to hear of Shelton’s plan. She and her husband started a CSA in Haywood County nine years ago when they saw locals were having to drive to Asheville for consistent access to local produce. Today, they’re still one of the few CSA programs west of Asheville, and they deliver to customers each week at the Waynesville tailgate market. Earning one of the Mansfield’s 50 slots is difficult, because customers return year after year.

“We have a really high retention rate, and so we haven’t been able to add new members for a long time,” Mansfield says. “We have a waiting list every year, so I’m very excited that other people are doing it.”

 

For better or worse

Haywood County grower Danny Barrett is another farmer jumping on the CSA bandwagon this year. Like Shelton, Barrett had sold his crops wholesale for nearly his entire career. One day several years ago, his daughter convinced him to put up a produce stand.

“So we threw in some heirloom tomatoes and decided to put up signs on the road and sell them for a quarter a piece,” Barrett remembers. “And it just kinda boomed.”

The response was so great that Barrett switched from growing peppers and tomatoes for wholesale markets to mainly selling from his produce stand. Now, he hopes to have the same success with a CSA.

Barrett, like many CSA farmers, is attracted to the idea of getting paid for his crop at the start of the growing season.

“I gotta look at it from the benefits at my end, which is it gives me some early startup money,” Barrett says. “Instead of going to the bank and having to borrow enough money because it’s so expensive to put a crop in, you have that money to start with, and you won’t have to pay it back at the end of the year.”

Traditionally, farmers have had the burden of getting the money together to start their crop, then hoping they can make that money back as the season progresses.

“Usually if you’re growing a produce, you make all the investments, take it to the market, and hope somebody buys it, and if they don’t, you’ll lose money,” says McLarney.

The CSA model gives farmers a leg up at the start of the growing season.

“The upfront money that people pay, it’s like seed money, because it pays for our seeds and our fertilizers,” Mansfield says. “You don’t get that money up front from the market. If we have a crop failure, we still have income coming in no matter what.”

That’s another reason CSAs are attractive to farmers — they provide assurance that, “customers will stick with them throughout the season,” McLarney says.

The model creates a deeply personal connection between customers of a CSA and the farmer. If the farm has a tough season, the customer feels it directly in the form of smaller boxes of produce each week — and if the season is plentiful, customers reap the rewards.

“They invest in a farm and share in the risk of that farm, but they also get to share in the bounty of the crop,” Shelton says.

 

Lessons learned

The personal connection a CSA forms between a farmer and customer is deepened by the fact that the experience is often a learning curve for both. For instance, to entice customers, farmers tend to plant a much more diverse array of crops than they have in the past.

“It allows farmers to grow a variety of crops, because people like to see different things in their box,” says McLarney. “Whereas farmers in recent years may have been encouraged to specialize in one thing and sell it wholesale.”

That’s the experience Shelton is going through. Last year, he grew strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. This year, “I’m doing a whole lot of different things for CSA, some for the first time,” Shelton says. “It’s kind of reintroduced me to gardening.”

As he walks through his greenhouses and fields, Shelton points out the wide array of things he’s planted this year: mixed greens, okra, cantaloupe, soybeans, broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens, turnips, zucchini, sweet corn, eggplant, blueberries and chard.

“This is the first time I’ve grown shallots in my life,” Shelton laughs, gesturing to a row of small green shoots.

For Cathy Arps, “the category of food that has been a learning experience is greens,” she says. The Arps’ will sift through a seed catalog, picking out as many edible greens as they can find in order to give their customers some variety in early spring.

“We grow all kinds of greens that people can’t even pronounce the names of,” Cathy chuckles.

The wide variety of produce offered through a CSA encourages customers like Larissa Miller, a longtime member of the Arps’ program, to be inventive in the kitchen.

“Lots of times we’d get things I wouldn’t typically grow in the garden,” Miller says. “It forces me out of my normal paradigm of cooking to try some things a little different.”

After a while, customers get good at figuring out what to do with the weekly bounty of produce.

“A lot of members said the first year, it was challenging to eat all the food,” Mansfield says. “You accumulate a repertoire of recipes, so you might have 50 ways to cook kale.”

The Mansfields have created an online collection of member-submitted recipes, which can be accessed at www.mountainharvestorganic.com/recipes.html.

 

Planting a seed

Shelton is working hard to make his CSA succeed. He’s had a crash course in direct marketing to the consumer, creating a new Web site, distributing brochures, setting up a booth at Greening up the Mountains and joining the local Chamber of Commerce. He hopes to snag between 100 and 200 customers this season.

Though Shelton says the learning curve is steep, he’s undoubtedly committed — not just to his CSA, but to the larger idea of eating locally.

“I’ve decided that if the idea is to connect local food to local people, and I have the capacity to grow a good volume of food, it’s a good route to take,” he says. “Ideally, I think I’m going to try to build this community around my farm.”

 

 

How to sign up

Interested in purchasing a CSA share from one of the farmers in this article?

• The Arps are already full for the season.

• William Shelton’s CSA is $500 per share for a 24-week season. The cost can be paid up front, or half now and half Aug. 1. Shelton Family Farm is located in Whittier, but Shelton is considering possible pick-up locations in Sylva, Bryson City, Cullowhee, and Waynesville. To sign up, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit www.sheltonfamilyfarm.com.

• Danny Barrett, owner of Ten-Acre Garden in Haywood County, is offering 21-week shares for $300. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shares in both CSAs are limited, so register as soon as possible. Shares can be split, so if the weekly produce box seems a bit daunting, feel free to invite friends, neighbors, or family to take part.

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