Mother Earth Produce started off as many small-business stories do: A couple of folks searched for something that didn’t yet exist in the community, then decided to fill the void. With busy work schedules that made shopping inconvenient, and finding big-box supermarket shelves filled with produce from California and Mexico, husband-and-wife team Graham and Andrea Duvall set out in early 2012 to create an at-home delivery system for local and regional produce.
Now, as they celebrate five years in business and look to the future as a middleman in Western North Carolina’s farm-to-table movement, the pair can’t imagine doing work that is more important and connective than helping to create a more accessible localized food system, one delivery at a time. In the past year, the company’s headquarters outgrew its former South Asheville warehouse space and moved to a unique, 3,000-square-foot facility on a 30-acre parcel in West Asheville. Some of the glass greenhouses lining the property were built to produce food during World War II and later housed ornamental flowers as a more profitable venture.
“Probably 1.5 percent of food or less purchased in western Carolina is local, so less than 2 percent,” says Graham Duvall. The issue he pinpoints is convenience, with the everyday shopper frequenting large chain grocery stores for weekly needs, the majority of which offer limited local produce choices — especially from small- and medium-sized farms. By providing an online shopping experience for locally produced foods paired with weekly at-home delivery, the Mother Earth Produce service creates demand for products from medium-sized farmers and small businesses, allowing them to increase production and generate revenue for continued growth.
“I see great potential,” Graham Duvall says, walking down the grassy hill from the back door of their warehouse space to a row of renovated greenhouses below. “But we’ve all got to show up and help co-create these systems or we won’t make it, and neither will a lot of the farmers, because they can’t compete with the price-point of scaled, organic produce coming from Mexico.”
Over the years, the service has grown to include nearly everything one would want from a grocery store, including locally made jams and sauces, heat-and-eat meals, locally roasted coffee beans, meats and vegetarian meat substitutes, dairy products and much more. With 400 deliveries rolling out each week to residents in Western North Carolina and South Carolina and a network of 25 local and regional farms and small businesses providing the goods for their farmers market on wheels, the model creates a sustainable, localized closed-loop food system.
“We can do upward of 15,000 deliveries with this facility,” he says. “Now, we just have to increase education, touch more people and all grow together.”
Winding through a lesser-traveled area of West Asheville just off Pisgah View Road, the land Mother Earth Produce occupies sits behind a metal gate with a sign that reads Smith Mill Works. Named after the Smith Mill Creek watershed, this expansive property has housed a handful of small businesses since early 2015 when, after sitting dormant for 14 years, the property was rediscovered by WNC native Michael Klatt.
Klatt, co-owner of Asheville Fungi, was looking for growing space to expand his West Asheville mushroom business when he stumbled upon the acres of overgrown land near Spivey Mountain with structurally sound greenhouses dotting the property as far as the eye could see. Here he saw an opportunity to create a new location for Asheville Fungi while providing an incubation site for other sustainability-minded small businesses like Mother Earth Produce.
“I saw a gap between people’s desires and their ability to do them,” Klatt says, sitting behind his desk inside a building tucked away at the top of the three-tiered property. “In terms of a place to be able to carry out those desires, like being an entrepreneur or being an organic gardener or making hot sauces or whatever it is you want to do. I saw this, and its value as a community resource and a way to bring a bunch of entrepreneurial types together, throw them in the same bucket and see what kind of cool innovations we get and what kind of good things we can do.”
Mother Earth Produce aims to take advantage of this resource by creating as many sustainable connections as possible as it continues to grow into its new accommodations. For example, Sunburst Chef & Farmer, whose greenhouse occupies one of the property’s original structures, provides 600-700 heads of lettuce to Mother Earth Produce each week.
The Duvalls hope to cultivate more relationships such as this one and focus on continuing to broaden access to fresh, local foods to all income levels. They plan to add the option to pay for grocery orders on their website using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits via Electronic Benefit Transfer once online use of the cards is approved. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will test-drive online SNAP shopping with a two-year pilot program to launch this summer implementing a mix of national online retailers, grocery chains and regional networks.
“That’s the bigger picture of food sovereignty and helping the community see that vision clearly — more so than a pretty farmers market and the Asheville branding,” says Duvall.