Squeezing the tomato

Corporate food producers expend a remarkable amount of money and marketing brainpower cultivating supposedly bucolic beginnings for their industrial products: Think of the green rolling hills and always-blue skies of “Hidden Valley,” a trumped-up patch of California farmland notable for its ranch dressing (and, more recently, its bacon ranch, spicy ranch and black peppercorn ranch.)

Saucy: Ricardo Fernandez, chef/owner of Waynesville’s Lomo Grill, created tomato sauces using local produce, products bolstered by the Buy Haywood program.

But can the equation work in the other direction? Haywood County is hoping to parlay its fresh produce and farmscapes into a recognizable—and desirable—brand, with the first prepackaged products featuring the “Buy Haywood” logo hitting grocery shelves this month. So far as folks who monitor this sort of thing know, it’s the first instance of a North Carolina county aggressively promoting itself as a brand to seek out in the supermarket.

“Beneath the forested slopes of Cold Mountain in Western North Carolina, Haywood County farmers grow hundreds of acres of fresh produce, shrubs, trees and other farm products,” reads the scene-setting description on BuyHaywood.com, the electronic component of an ambitious project to revitalize the region’s agricultural economy.

Farmers living in Cold Mountain’s shadow aren’t only growing, as the ad copy says—they’re also fretting about how to pay the bills, coping with a series of natural disasters and seriously considering selling their land to developers. After being drowned out and dried out in the span of just a few years, many farmers figured it was time to get out: Haywood County acreage devoted to farming has shrunk by 80 percent since the 1960s.

In response to what was quickly becoming an agricultural crisis, the Haywood Economic Development Commission in 2000 launched Buy Haywood, and two years ago secured a $120,000 marketing grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, a state-run nonprofit that underwrites programs to wean North Carolina’s farmers off growing tobacco.

“We had great products here, but we didn’t have the edge we needed in marketing,” says Buy Haywood coordinator George Ivey. “The farmers were already growing great crops, so they didn’t need any help with that.”

Buy Haywood’s first big project was a Web video of an animated dancing tomato, illustrating the long journey Mexican ‘maters were making to Haywood County. The short was so relevant and good-humored that it grabbed the attention of L’Informatore Argrario, an Italian magazine that’s read by more than a million European farmers.

“Instead of just saying ‘We’re good people and we’ve got great soil,’ we needed to engage people in a new and different way,” Ivey says.

Still, the shelf life of a tomato video is short. Buy Haywood had to find more sustainable ways to keep shoppers from reaching for imported veggies—and to persuade grocers to carry locally grown products.

“The hardest obstacle to overcome is the retail buyers and their wanting a product for 12 months out of the year,” Ivey says. “We know customers are asking more for local, but the stores have an emphasis on the bottom line.”

Enter, smoked-tomato jam and spicy-tomato sauce, the winning finishers in a contest Buy Haywood sponsored in anticipation of launching its first line of value-added products featuring Haywood County tomatoes. The jam, created by Sunburst Trout Farms chef Charles Hudson, and three tomato sauces invented by Ricardo Fernandez, chef/owner of Waynesville’s Lomo Grill, were recently put into production, with hopes that the shelf-stable products would extend Buy Haywood’s selling power beyond the harvest season and build consumer confidence in Haywood County tomatoes.

“It’s like a Cinderella story, but it’s real,” exclaims Fernandez, who’s openly thrilled by the opportunity to jar his signature sauces. Fernandez uses the kitchens at Blue Ridge Food Ventures to boil down tomatoes from Johnson Packing House in Cruso, roast the 16 different peppers that lend his Mucho Macho sauce its “wonderful heat,” and blend the spices integral to his Mediterranean-style sauce.

“There is Ricardo with his tomatoes, where one guy’s making his little truffles and one guy’s working with ginger, and the smell of the tomatoes goes through the kitchen, and I look like the mouse in Ratatouille,” Fernandez says, sniffing the air for a remembered whiff of his handmade product.

Fernandez’s sauces are priced at $10 a jar, and already available at many Earth Fare locations, Greenlife and Grove Corner Market.

“When you go into the supermarket and you see the sauces on the shelf with all the competition, it’s like we’re playing in the big leagues,” Fernandez says. “It’s wonderful to see our products with the rest of the world’s.”

Fernandez has been a fan of Haywood County tomatoes since long before it was fashionable, using them at his restaurant since it opened in 1994. A story published in The Mountaineer the following year quotes Fernandez as saying: “We have the fresh tomatoes here. You pick them off the vine, you can have it like a fruit.”

“The American market always wanted immediate satisfaction,” Fernandez recalls today. “We have four seasons, and when it’s over, it’s over. The same way we change clothes, we have different foods for different seasons.”

The current mania for local food, so essential to Buy Haywood’s chances of meaningful success—“I hope it’s not a hula-hoop or a pet-rock thing, but a fundamental shift,” Ivey says nervously, forced Sally Eason, owner of Sunburst Trout Farms, to rapidly overhaul her business model.

“We first developed a national reputation in ‘01, and we rode it til ‘06,” Eason says. “And then restaurants in New York and everywhere else stopped buying. We used to have customers all over the country. Now I’m targeting Greenville and Charlotte. Local food’s not just a random trend: It’s a national mindset, and I’m not bucking it.”

Eason is now highly invested in making Buy Haywood work, since her fortunes depend largely on her neighbors buying her product.

“Farmers just need a boost right now,” says Eason, whose family has been in the trout business for more than 60 years. “Cost of feed has gone up. Gas prices. Stainless steel costs have gone through the roof. Labor is kind of a sticky wicket: I could be hiring migrants doing piecework, but I’ve hired different groups of people and pay more than what most farms do. I offer health insurance. You can only turn so much of that over to customers.”

Ivey says Buy Haywood is continuing to develop new programs, expanding its focus beyond the tomatoes and peppers that have thus far been the beneficiary of most of Buy Haywood’s Golden Leaf-supplied dollars.

“This county has embraced agriculture as part of its future,” Ivey says. “It’s not like what you see in a lot of other counties, where agriculture is written off as something of the past.”

And, speaking of other counties, what happens when the state’s 99 other counties follow Haywood’s lead and start branding their products? Will diners argue the merits of a Pitt County hog over one raised in Duplin County? Will a chef refuse to work with Wilkes County sweet potatoes, allowing only Stokes County taters in his larder? Chef Charles Hudson, the man behind Sunburst’s tomato jam, thinks such a scenario would be indicative of the state’s culinary evolution: “If you look at France, you’ve got domaines for wine and cheese and mustard,” Hudson says. “There’s plenty of room for competition.”



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