The first full week of October, it rained every day in Asheville, but on Thursday morning, Oct. 7, as the steady drizzle turned into a downpour on the precipice of a deluge, Aaron Grier was surprisingly unperturbed.
“Before [Tropical Storm] Fred, it might have concerned me,” says Grier, who along with his wife, Anne, owns Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester. “But with what we’ve been through and survived, it’s okay. Seeing photos of what people lost in Haywood County puts it in perspective. They lost their homes. We lost vegetables.”
Lots of vegetables. When Tropical Storm Fred turned Sluder Branch and Newfound creeks into raging rivers on Aug. 17, Gaining Ground was flooded with nearly 5 feet of water.
The 12-acre farm lost 85% of what was in the ground and about 30% of its gross revenue for the season. A loss that not only impacts the Griers’ bottom line but many local businesses and individuals within the community.
In addition to pulling their tent at the Wednesday River Arts District Farmers Market and ending their sales to Southside Community Kitchen, Gaining Ground immediately ceased deliveries to 10 of its 12 restaurants, excluding Rhubarb and Cucina 24.
“We had our crop of onions, potatoes and garlic already harvested and in walk-in coolers, so we were able to continue at the North Asheville Tailgate Market, but those vegetables are not very exciting,” Grier observes dryly. “Still, it kept us at a market.”
Additionally, Grier says, Rhubarb and Cucina 24 ordered for four times the normal amount of available produce either restaurant normally would place. “It takes a special kind of chef willing to do that.”
Out of order
The two restaurants, of course, were still impacted. “Gaining Ground has always been our primary produce provider,” explains John Fleer, chef and owner of Rhubarb, The Rhu and Benne on Eagle. “Prior to Fred, Anne would let us know every week what they had, and we’d order as much as we thought we could sell.”
To fill in the holes, Fleer says his restaurants have increased purchases of late summer vegetables from other regular sources, including The Culinary Gardener and Ten Mile Farm.
And, as Grier previously noted, Fleer substantially increased orders of onions and garlic. “We go through a lot of onions at Rhubarb,” he says with a laugh. “We typically buy sweet onions from [Gaining Ground] and added 50 pounds a week of standard onions. Aaron’s garlic is ten times better than any I have ever cooked with, so we just got more of that and bought a lot of potatoes.”
Knowing that Gaining Ground’s produce diversity was radically depleted at the height of summer harvest, Brian Canipelli, chef and owner of Cucina 24, also made similar adjustments to his daily menu to help sustain the Griers in the aftermath of the storm. Canipelli notes adding many iterations of potato and onion toppings to pizzas on the restaurant’s takeout only menu; meanwhile, his five-course daily menus featured more of these same vegetables.
Along with produce, Tropical Storm Fred put a dent in the local trout supply chain. Family-owned Sunburst Trout Farm was the prime source for that popular fish on the menus of over 100 restaurants in the region; when flooding destroyed one of its three farms in Haywood County, the owners had no choice but to reduce weekly allotments to some of their larger clients.
Matt Caudle, chef de cuisine at Curate, previously purchased 50-60 pounds of trout weekly. Currently, “Our allotment decreased to about 30 pounds a week,” he says. “Now we start the week with trout, and when that runs out, we switch it to grilled snapper that we’re buying from Abundant Seafood in Charleston.”
Rhubarb took a huge cut in its weekly allotment from Sunburst as well, cutting back from 100 pounds per week to roughly 40 pounds. Like Curate, Rhubarb is also buying saltwater fish from Abundant to compensate for the loss.
Restaurants were not alone in navigating a reduction in the local food supply chain. Nonprofit organizations and community kitchens that purchase area produce for its meal or food distribution programs were also affected by the flooding that hit their farm partners.
Ali Casparian, executive director of Bounty & Soul in Black Mountain, saw it firsthand when she drove out to pick up weekly produce from nearby farms. “At first it was just shock at the immediate end to those crops,” she remembers. “Then it was the realization that even the vegetables that remained in the field after the water receded could not be used due to the possibility of contamination,” she says, including items planted for the fall.
Southside Kitchen experienced similar shock. Since the start of the pandemic, the community center and commercial kitchen has worked with We Give a Share, a local nonprofit spearheaded by Grier. The organization launched at the start of the 2020 lockdown to help keep local farmers in business while restaurants were temporarily closed.
“In the beginning it was just Gaining Ground,” says chef Mark Rosenstein, director of operations at Southside Kitchen.
Since that time, the kitchen’s network of farms has expanded to include nine additional growers. Still, Rosenstein stresses, Gaining Ground provided the kitchen with a significant portion of its produce prior to the flood.
Furthermore, Southside Kitchen has also lost access to trout it previously purchased from Sunburst. Fortunately, Rosenstein says, most of the other farms were not impacted by the flooding, and with the summer’s decrease in weekly meal production, Southside Kitchen adjusted, in part, by increasing orders to Mountain Food Products.
There is similar good news for Bounty & Soul. Casparian notes that 38 of the 40 farm partners in McDowell County were not impacted by the storm. “We are pretty diversified as far as providers go, so we reached out to them, and they responded. And we continue to try to support the farmers that were hurt by purchasing what they had in greenhouses, even if it’s a really small amount.”
Silver linings abound, even in the aftermath of destructive storm clouds. In August, Cucina 24 donated one week’s worth of its to-go proceeds to Gaining Ground. “We have looked out for each other for a long time,” Canipelli says of the Griers.
The $10,000-plus raised by the Cucina dinners meant Gaining Ground was able to meet payroll and keep its employees to begin the work of rebuilding.
Meanwhile, Fleer had the entire crew from the farm in for a feast at Rhubarb the week after the flood and donated gift cards for Gaining Ground to offer CSA members in compensation for the shortened season.
Grier says those relationships were crucial to restoring his resolve. “At one point, I wondered if we should just close up shop and come back next year, ” he admits. “But having the support of John [Fleer], Brian [Canipelli] and the volunteers who came out to help us clean up kept us going. We gave our fall crops our full attention, and they’re looking great, and we’re where we would normally be this time of year.”
According to Grier, Gaining Ground also expects to reconnect with Southside Kitchen, as well as additional restaurants and markets in the near future.
Canipelli happily reports that on Oct. 6, Cucina got its first delivery of post-Fred, new crops from the Griers. “We got some chicories, turnips, radishes and puntarella, so that’s great.”
For Fleer, the greater lesson from the recent experience speaks to the powerful connections between restaurants and area growers. “When you buy locally from people and you have relationships, it’s a whole lot easier to make adjustments,” he says. “Even though our main provider was destroyed, we did not have supply chain issues. We hated losing Anne and Aaron for that period, but we loved being able to keep our dollars local. We were happy to help our friends get through it and we’re really glad they’re back.”