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Mountain Grown: Appalachia’s New Local Food Economy

Hungry for okra, collards, and trout? In Appalachia, you can now get all your soul food cravings from local farmers.

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Restaurants like Knife and Fork didn’t use to exist in places like Spruce Pine, a town of just 2,200 people nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. About 80 percent of what the restaurant serves is sourced from within a 40-mile radius. For the most part, the only things that aren’t local are beer, wine, and cheese.

“I see myself as less a chef and more as a sourcer or a seeker of great products,” says chef Nate Allen.

Since 2002, skyrocketing demand for local food has been recorded in the Local Food Guide published annually by the Asheville-based Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. The number of local farms listed in that guide has grown from 58 to 691—a startling increase of 1,091 percent. Likewise, the number of farmers markets is up 197 percent, and the number of restaurants serving local food is up 542 percent.Ten years ago, Allen says, there was no real demand for local food here. But over the last decade, southern Appalachian consumers have started seeking it out. Restaurateurs, specialty food producers, and farmers have shifted their business models to meet this demand, and for many, the local food movement has been a welcome answer to shifts in the national economy.

The reasons for such a dramatic shift are manifold—but like so many social movements, this one started with a problem.

Finding a post-tobacco future

Back in the late 1990s, Charlie Jackson and plenty of other North Carolina farmers were watching tobacco profits melt away, and coming to terms with the prospect that no other cash crop could take its place. So they decided to try something different: touting the economic and environmental benefits of local food.

Back then it was often difficult to explain the importance of buying local, Jackson says. On the one hand, some farmers had handed down sustainable food practices for generations. On the other, convincing people to pay a little more for a little less convenience is one tough elevator pitch.

But Jackson and other volunteers spent a few years making that pitch anyway. After a few years, the idea started to catch on, and in 2002 Jackson helped to found the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, along with two initiatives that would help transform the local and sustainable food movement in southern Appalachia. The Business of Farming Conference was founded to teach farmers how to market their products to local and regional customers, while the Local Food Guide showed consumers how to find food produced nearby. Just over a decade later, Jackson, now ASAP’s executive director, estimates that more than a million copies of the guide have been printed.

ASAP has also set the standard for what qualifies as local through its Appalachian Grown certification program. The primary criteria for qualification is that a certified producer must be within roughly 100 miles of Asheville, where dozens of restaurants serving local food have sprung up, supplied by several thriving farmers markets.

In a 2011 ASAP survey, 59 percent of Western North Carolina residents reported buying local food products on a weekly basis when they were in season. ASAP’s success means it’s now setting the standard for local sustainability programs: it’s sharing its ideas with budding programs in Knoxville and Chattanooga, and is even helping to start a local food program in the Mary Valley region of Queensland, Australia.

A better market close to home

Sunburst Trout Farms has been a family-run business for three generations, producing everything from trout fillets to marinated trout, trout sausage, and caviar. Before gas prices started to spike in the early 2000s, Sunburst generated 30 percent of its business by selling to Whole Foods stores nationwide. When gas prices continued to rise, Whole Foods asked Sunburst CEO Sally Eason to drop the price on fillets, her biggest-selling item. The new price would be so low that she’d be losing money on the deal.

“I said, ‘I just can’t do it,’ and they pulled the plug,” Eason remembers.

But the same price hikes Eason was experiencing had also affected area chefs, who were seeking out lower-priced sources of fish. They found that buying closer to home reduced the impact of gas prices, and Sunburst happened to be only about 30 miles away from Asheville’s thriving restaurant scene.

Finding enough purchasers turned out not to be a problem: After the Gulf oil spill, demand was so high that Sunburst ran out of fish and almost went out of business. By early 2011, Sunburst had a waiting list of about 180 customers it was unable to supply. A capital grant from the USDA that year brought the company back online.

Since that time, Sunburst more than doubled its workforce to 23, and has been able to supply half of those customers on the waiting list, most of them chefs. Today, around 90 percent of Sunburst’s customers are within 100 miles of the farm.

Selling locally is good business for Sunburst. Eason charges $5 to $10 for delivery to most of her customer base, and that covers costs. Compare that to two-day overnight shipping to the West Coast, which might cost as much as $100, by Eason’s estimation—a cost she generally had to deduct from her own profits.

Andy Perkins, who co-owns Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview, N.C., with his wife, Jen, agrees that small-business owners make more by selling locally. For four years, Looking Glass cheese has been sold by posh retailer Williams-Sonoma, and up to 80 percent of the company’s business is through wholesale. But the Perkinses recently opened a retail location on their property and at the local farmers market because “your margin is much greater when you sell directly to the consumer,” according to Perkins.

Looking Glass Creamery was founded in 2009, and by 2011 demand for its cheese was so high that Perkins left his job as an audiologist to work at the creamery full-time. Today, the Perkinses have three employees, all learning to make cheese.

Those aren’t the only jobs the creamery has created. The Perkinses source their milk from farms within about 30 miles of their house, and one third-generation dairy farmer was even able to reopen his farm after commodity-scale production proved unsustainable. Today, Pack Dairy has only about a dozen cows, but Perkins estimates that he pays 50 to 150 percent more per gallon of milk than the local milk cooperative once did; in any case, Perkins offers a much more stable price.

A more social economy

When the Perkinses buy from local farmers, they say they’re getting a better-quality product. But just as important is building a more deeply networked community—and part of that is collaborating with other farmers to achieve shared goals. Perkins’ wife, Jen, joined with other local cheesemakers this year to launch the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, a nonprofit collective open to tourist visits.

“We have this idea that having the cheese trail is going to help us all,” Perkins explains. “It’s a way of keeping these sustainable businesses going. It’s not looking at each other as competition.”

Other local farmers echo Perkins’ perspective on the issue. “There are things about it you can’t put a price tag on,” says William Shelton, whose Shelton Family Farms operates a Community-Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, offering weekly food shares out of Whittier, N.C. “I have four sons, and the experience has been good for them. … At the market, it’s a social experience. It’s a connection to the community.”

Nate Allen was seeking a sense of community, too, when he and his wife, Wendy Gardner, opened their restaurant, Knife and Fork, in 2009. As a private chef, Allen had traveled all around the world—but he found home in Spruce Pine: “Suddenly you have a group of people that work together to benefit the whole, and that can’t really happen on a global concept.”

On the Sunday brunch menu this August, Knife and Fork offered up sweet and spicy rabbit wings, trout terrine, and locally sourced eggs cooked any way you like. But a decade ago, the climate wasn’t right for a hyper-local restaurant like Knife and Fork, Allen says. “There wouldn’t have been the agricultural community to support it; there wouldn’t have been the understanding,” he explains.

Today’s Appalachian consumers are different, says Allen. They’re willing to go without tomatoes in February, to eat what’s in season instead. In the process, they’re rediscovering a connection to the land.

“You’re going to get a sense of time and season,” Allen explains, “and you will once again have reason to celebrate different occurrences at certain times of year.”

The extra work may not be for everyone, but luckily, Allen has a passion for seeking out local producers.

“It’s a ridiculous amount of legwork,” he admits.

The challenges of going local

Selling locally can involve a lot of extra legwork on the farmer’s part as well, and the fewer customers there are, the more work it is.

“I’m too big to do that all myself,” Shelton says, “but I’m too small to hire a full-time secretary.”Shelton Family Farms is about five years into its CSA program, but William Shelton says he might transition away from the model. His mid-sized farm is too far from Asheville for Shelton to access that customer base, and he worries he’ll never have enough members to justify the extra workload. Packing individual boxes and transporting them to customer pick-up locations is more work than selling wholesale, and farming is already a tough job.

Jackson agrees that a smaller customer base creates problems. But he says that the market is growing even in rural areas, a trend that ASAP is trying to accelerate through its farm-to-school programs, which help farmers connect to distributors who sell to local schools. The programs also educate kids about where their food comes from, taking them to local farms and organizing cooking demonstrations. ASAP is also working to bring local food into area hospitals, though Jackson says the biggest driver has been word-of-mouth.

The online Local Food Guide lists four hospitals, five school districts, and one child and family center buying locally.

Farmers markets help producers expand their local customer base, too.

“In 2002, there were 32 farmers markets in the Western North Carolina [and] Southern Appalachian region,” Jackson says. “Now there are 95.”

Amber Lax of Black Mountain, North Carolina, has been buying from her local farmers market for eight years, during which time she guesses the number of vendors has roughly tripled.

“It grew from us buying produce to us being friends with a lot of the farmers,” she says. And now that she’s visited several farms with her kids, ages 7 and 1, she feels that her son, Benjamin, is more willing to try new foods—even healthy ones.

“My son knows when he puts honey on toast that it comes from Milo Acres,” she says. “When he eats kale he knows that our friend, Lori, picked that herself.”

Customers demand sustainability

Still, few farmers can say they sell exclusively at farmer’s markets or through local CSA programs. So ASAP also helps connect them with larger-scale markets. It works most closely with Ingles Markets, which distributes out of Asheville to its network of more than 200 stores in the region. Appalachian Grown signage in these stores helps local products stand out from the crowd.

ASAP’s Appalachian Grown certification program is geographically oriented, open to just about any family-owned producer within about 100 miles of Asheville. Theproducer agreement sets no expectations regarding farming practices such as the use of pesticides and fertilizers, yet environmentally sustainable ways of farming are on the rise. In the last two years, the number of organic farms in the Local Food Guide has increased by 22 percent, with certified naturally grown farms showing an even bigger increase, at 33 percent (naturally grown certification is similar to organic certification but is cheaper for farmers in terms of fees and paperwork). Farms with GMO-free products have also increased 33 percent; free range is up 16 percent; and humanely raised animals are up 16 percent.

Jackson says demanding a change in farming practices a decade ago would have meant turning away a lot of struggling farmers.

“If I had gone to [farmers] a few years ago and said, ‘You should do organic,’ they would have looked at me like I was crazy. And I would have been, because there wouldn’t have been a market for it,” Jackson says.

“Historically, we’ve lost farms at an alarming rate over the last half century. … Our strategy is to keep as many farms as we possibly can.”

So ASAP didn’t try to push farmers into sustainability. Customer demand pushed them, instead.

“If we connect people to farms and food, they’ll start changing the way they eat, and they’ll start changing the way farmers farm,” Jackson explains.

For many customers and restaurateurs, knowing the farmer who produced their food eliminates the need for an official organic certification, which can be prohibitively expensive to acquire.

“A lot of the chefs in the area, we don’t need a governing stamp of organic,” Allen explains. “We just want to know the people doing it. We want to see the property.”

Consumer motivations are indeed shifting, and not just toward more environmentally sustainable practices. One of the first surveys ASAP conducted around the year 2000 found that freshness was the most important motivator for consumers who chose to buy local. By 2011, more than eight in 10 consumers said they bought locally to contribute to the local economy and support local farms.

The shift points to just how interconnected this local community has become: consumers once again know where their food comes from, know who produced it, and are proud to support those producers.

It’s pretty good proof that local, sustainable food in Appalachia isn’t just a passing trend. It’s both a return to tradition and a new model for economic and environmental viability.

What’s more, while southern Appalachia may be ahead of the curve in making this model work, it’s by no means limited to these mountains. It’s a way of doing business that’s worth trying anyplace where a critical mass of farms and tables exist within a few hours drive from one another.

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