A legacy of local

KINDRED SPIRITS: Husband and wife Harry and Elaine Hamil met in Black Mountain and together have helped grow the community’s local food culture. Photo by Mary Pembleton
KINDRED SPIRITS: Husband and wife Harry and Elaine Hamil met in Black Mountain and together have helped grow the community’s local food culture. Photo by Mary Pembleton

Elaine and Harry Hamil will soon move away from the Black Mountain community that they have devoted their lives to nourishing. In their wake, they leave a ripe legacy of local food, including the Black Mountain Tailgate Market, an endeavor that flourished under the couple’s loving guidance, and their store, the Black Mountain Farmer’s Market, the sale of which the Hamils are in the process of finalizing.

The Black Mountain Farmer’s Market serves as a purveyor of locally sourced food and a smattering of other lovingly researched and Hamil-approved products stocked floor to ceiling in the turn-of-the-century home-turned-grocery. Since its inception in 2003, the store has provided regional growers and food producers with an outlet for their goods outside of market season, allowing customers the luxury of six-day-a-week, year-round access to fresh, local produce.

Elaine spends her days stationed behind the counter, greeting her customers by name.  “We always enjoy going to the [Black Mountain Farmer’s Market] with our daughter Ramona,” says Black Mountain resident Shavonna Wardwell. “We've had to buy an extra veggie a couple of times because she's sampled it while we were shopping. Elaine just smiles.”

Elaine arrived in Black Mountain in 1995, leaving a marriage and lucrative job behind in Dallas, Texas, on a soul-searching road trip that landed her amid the beauty of a North Carolina autumn. “The peak fall color spectrum looked like a giant painting. It was so beautiful,” Elaine says. She decided to call Black Mountain home after Chief Two Trees, the late Cherokee healer from Old Fort, prophetized, “In my heart I know you should be living in Black Mountain. There are a lot of people here just like you.”

“He was right,” says Elaine. “As soon as I got here I met lots of kindred spirits.”

One of those kindred spirits was Harry Hamil, her now-husband and business partner, whom she met in a coffee shop next to Black Mountain Bakery shortly after her move. “I’ve spent many years of my life trying to learn to listen to my gut feeling, and when I met Harry, my gut feeling was, ‘This is a genuinely nice man,’” says Elaine.

“I looked up, saw her and felt my heart expand,” says Harry.

The couple initially delved into the local food scene selling home-baked muffins and coffee at the relatively small Valley Garden Market in 1995, then in its second year in the Black Mountain Town Hall parking lot.  They immediately recognized the market’s potential and took it upon themselves to coordinate, organize and develop the venture under the name Black Mountain Tailgate Market.

“The Saturday market was the perfect opportunity for Elaine's love of people, healthy eating and sharing food in community to blossom,“ says Harry.

The store seemed a natural next step to take in providing food for the community and employment for Elaine, though she says she had no idea it would expand into the fully operational grocery it has become. She began with the intention of operating as a seasonal produce market and spent the first year adding stock according to customers’ requests. The business took root and grew like a plant in the couple’s hospitable home greenhouse.

“They have put local and healthy food on the map for us here,” says longtime customer and friend Marina Raye. “I think it’s their concern for their wellness and the health of the planet that makes them have such an impact.”

The Black Mountain Farmer’s Market has also played a pivotal role in Black Mountain’s restaurant industry, which boasts innovative favorites like FRESH Wood-Fired Pizza and Pasta and Louise’s Kitchen.

“Oh my goodness, do they support local. They supply local restaurants with the things they want and need. They support both sides of food needs in Black Mountain,” says Roberta Binder, another longtime customer.

The future of the Black Mountain Tailgate Market is secure — the couple passed on the market’s leadership torch to a board of directors in 2008 — but things are still a bit unclear for their store. Because the sale is not yet final, the Hamils are unable to disclose who the new owner will be. However, they do say the buyer has a son attending Warren Wilson College, and the future of the store could go in any number of directions.

The Hamils are looking forward to retirement in Virginia, where they have purchased a church they plan to use as both a community center and home. Harry also intends to buy land for cultivating a “large, worker-owned farm,” he says.

As the Hamils prepare to relocate, Harry imparts some wisdom gained from his years at the forefront of the local food movement. He urges prospective farmers to “understand the value and necessity of profit.” He points to more affordable options for buying land in Buncombe’s surrounding counties. He encourages producers to sell their food at a price that will sustain them, and to do this, he highlights the need for more small retail distributors in Asheville. Producers, he says, “cannot make a living selling at tailgate markets.”

He also suggests forming trade organizations to increase lobbying presence, and for young farmers to join the Ranch Freedom Alliance and the Farm and Consumer Legal Defense groups.

“Asheville is poised to become a genuine leader in the local healthy food movement,” he says. “We just need to develop our infrastructure.”

— marypembleton@gmail.com

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