As early as their kindergarten days, schoolchildren learn the concept of the food chain. This series of links between prey and predator provides an easy shorthand for understanding an ecosystem: In Southern Appalachian forests, for example, acorns feed squirrels, which feed foxes.
But as they grow in biological knowledge, children come to understand that any ecosystem comprises many different food chains joined together in a greater food web. Individual organisms can act as both predator and prey depending on perspective — the same squirrel consumed by a coyote is itself an avid hunter of small insects.
The same is true of the Asheville area’s human food web, explains Molly Nicholie, local food campaign program director for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. “When people think about the farm-to-fork scene, they envision a farmer showing up with product and a chef putting it on the table,” she says. “But when you consider the system holistically, there’s not always that direct beeline. Food can take a lot of different paths.”
Western North Carolina’s flourishing local food movement has given businesses the opportunity to define niches for themselves outside of that traditional producer-consumer dynamic. The complex interrelationships that result between enterprises bring stability in the face of agriculture’s unpredictable challenges.
Nicholie points to ASAP’s annual Grower-Buyer Meeting at the Business of Farming Conference, held this year on Feb. 24, as indicative of this evolution in the industry. A decade ago, most of the connections that took place were simple sales from farmers to buyers such as restaurants and wholesalers. Now, networking is just as likely to take place between buyers, and in many cases, the definition of buyer has expanded to overlap that of farmer.
Consider meeting participant Walter Harrill of Imladris Farm in Fairview, which distributes jams and jellies throughout the Southeast. “When we started, our pitch was that this was my great-grandparents’ old farm and we would grow the fruit here to make the jam,” he says. “But at some point, we realized that we couldn’t grow enough fruit ourselves to keep up with our potential demand.”
Imladris still produces 3 acres of its own fruit, but Harrill now also purchases raw materials from multiple other area farms, such as Stepp’s Plants, Etc. in Flat Rock and Creasman Farms in Hendersonville. Those additional inputs have allowed Imladris to meet the needs of large grocery accounts, including Earth Fare and Whole Foods Market.
“I’m both a grower and a buyer, and at the meeting, it was pretty much as fast as I could switch hats,” Harrill says. “I’d finish a conversation with a potential grower, then turn around and see a potential customer for my jam at the table next to me.”
For Jennifer Perkins of Looking Glass Creamery in Columbus, expansion ran in the opposite direction. As a cheesemaker, she’d long been a buyer of local milk, but in early 2017, she took the leap into production through the purchase of her main supplier, Harmon Dairy.
“It was a big financial commitment, but it opens up a lot of avenues for our business that we didn’t have access to before,” Perkins says. “We’re excited about getting people out to the farm and being able to tell the whole story.”
Many eggs, many baskets
Both Harrill and Perkins find that broadening their roles in the local food system gives them greater economic stability. Harrill notes that the grocery store accounts made possible by his grower partners help him weather the seasonal cycles of the Asheville economy.
“They’re my smallest profit margin, but when everything else shuts down in early January, those grocery orders are still coming in,” Harrill says. “That steady stream of income tides me over until late spring when the tailgate markets open again and summer when the restaurants pick back up.”
Harrill has even expanded his product line by becoming a buyer: Imladris didn’t produce a pepper preserve until partnering with Joel Mowrey of Smoking J’s Fiery Foods in Candler. He sells the spicy jam directly to Sunny Point Café, which markets the product under its own brand as Oh, Hot Jam.
Perkins recently announced a partnership with Amy Pickett of Asheville’s Sugar and Snow Gelato, agreeing to produce gelato base for the shop using Looking Glass Creamery’s own herd of pasture-based cows. Each batch will yield 100 gallons of base, a volume with business benefits for both companies.
“It’s a way for us to use a lot of the milk that we’re producing without having to expand our own distribution network,” Perkins explains. “[Pickett] can focus more of her time on selling product, and because we’re making the gelato base in a licensed dairy manufacturing facility, she can now sell to wholesalers and grocery stores.”
Moving forward, Perkins hopes to work out similar arrangements with other businesses for private-label cheeses. Just as Sunny Point now sells Imladris jam under its own name, an organization such as The Biltmore Co. or the Tryon International Equestrian Center could use its own brand to drive sales for Looking Glass.
“We have layers of our business, from our cheese shop retail to direct restaurant sales to our distribution network,” says Perkins. “We can diversify the risk from production through these different channels that all feed into our business model.”
Tightening the web
Asheville’s food entrepreneurs have made great progress toward establishing a resilient web of business, but obstacles still remain. Smithson Mills, interim executive director of Blue Ridge Food Ventures in Candler, emphasizes the importance of physical infrastructure in opening economic possibilities.
“Folks can sell fresh vegetables in season, but what can they do the rest of the year?” Mills asks. “We need to grow manufacturing capacity so we can compete on a regional or even national scale with value-added products.”
Mills identifies distribution challenges as another gap in the food ecosystem, particularly for animal products. “There’s a dearth of cold storage in the area, and our meat producers are struggling to find freezer space for their products so they can hold them to sell throughout the year,” he says.
Startup businesses may also have trouble plugging into the food web to find buyers for their wares. Bryan Hudson, owner of Asheville Direct, attempts to solve that problem by curating a collection of food, skin care and herb brands manufactured within 30 miles of his downtown storefront. The visibility of that prime retail location, he explains, often generates new opportunities for producers.
“I was the fifth customer for Waynesville Soda Jerks after they started bottling,” Hudson recalls. “Because people could find them in my window and taste samples, they went from five accounts to 70 without having to work at it.” He says that other brands have found outlets through Ingles and Blue Mountain Distributors through their exposure at Asheville Direct.
Sometimes, Hudson adds, increasing the strength of the local food web is as simple as another ecology term: symbiosis. “If I don’t have Roots and Branches Crackers made in Swannanoa, I don’t sell the goat cheese made in Mars Hill,” he says. “All of these different pieces are really essential for each other.”