Three long wooden tables stretch out beneath a canopy of trees, their boughs drooping with the weight of strings of high-hanging Edison bulbs. The tables are set: 30 mismatched plates with knives, forks and cloth napkins. Canning jars are filled with fresh-cut flowers. It is a beautiful day, with a Carolina blue sky dotted occasionally with white clouds that look like biscuit dumplings. One could not ask for a more idyllic setting for one of Sebastiaan Zijp and Ariel Dixon’s “The Farmer’s Hands” farm dinners.
Held twice a month on their almost impossibly picturesque 2-acre Madison County farm in the shadow of their 150-year-old farmhouse, the dinners are cooked in the family’s kitchen. Zijp is a chef, having attended the now-defunct Dubrulle French Culinary School in Vancouver, which was absorbed by The Arts Institute there. As guests mingle and meet, fill glasses of wine for one another and stroll between the gardens, chicken coops and greenhouse, the husband-and-wife team are hard at work preparing an eight-course meal for the crowd.
As the sun continues its descent, the family-style platters arrive at the tables and the visitors pass them around. Spring pea soup with mint and prosciutto, a house-made pickle plate and grilled Caesar salad are served.
FIRST COURSE: The high cost of growing food
Events like these are an increasingly common occurrence across the region, particularly with the constantly escalating cost of food production. As it becomes more expensive to grow food, farmers feel the squeeze: Their return goes down even as the price of the final product rises.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2015 alone, the cost of beef rose 12.3 percent, and egg prices spiked nearly 40 percent, with produce seeing a monthly increase of 5.7 percent. Food is getting costly, mainly because it is becoming more expensive to grow and distribute. But another big factor, particularly in places like Asheville, is the cost of land. Skyrocketing real estate prices are making it harder to grow food locally and sustainably.
“I don’t think agriculture is sustainable anymore for 90 percent of America. If you have to pay what the land is valued at and try to farm it; that’s almost impossible at this point,” says Hickory Nut Gap Farm owner Jamie Ager. “It’s pretty much the reality of small farms; it’s a real challenge to make ends meet. You used to be able to just raise and milk cows for a living. You know, in the old days that worked; in the ’50s, it really worked, in the ’70s, it still worked. But the farm crisis in the ’80s forced a [new] version of agricultural production, and around here it has become a real trend to go after that natural market of all the tourists.”
Robin Lenner, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s events coordinator and organizer of its annual Farm Tour, says Ager isn’t the only local farmer to embrace tourism as part of his business model. “We’ve definitely seen growth in agritourism in this region,” she says. “Farms are becoming more diversified, and they’re looking at agritourism as an additional revenue stream.”
ASAP supports this trend by offering resources and training for farmers who are considering opening their farms to engage the public. In collaboration with Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, the Jackson County Farm Tour and the Polk County Farm Tour, the organization is currently wrapping up a two-year project which looks at ways to strengthen agritourism opportunities for small farmers in the region. ASAP has also recently published the ASAP Farm Tour and Agritourism Guide and now offers a webpage that provides resources on hosting school groups and planning activities for visitors.
SECOND COURSE: Four weddings and a barn dance
Hickory Nut Gap began hosting weddings and other social events at the family’s historic Sherill’s Inn in 2001. The house dates to 1843, and it, the sprawling estate and the apple orchard have been in the family since 1916. “We all want that house to stick around,” says Ager, “and when that roof starts to leak, you’ve got to fix it somehow.” Ager and his wife, Amy, have recently expanded their farm operation to include a deli counter and sandwich shop, as well as beer service. This year, the couple began hosting Friday night barn dances featuring bands like the jazz acts Roaring Lions and the Resonant Rogues. Similarly, Claxton Farms in Weaverville and Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester host weddings and even educational and business events.
“Cash has been moving from rural America to urban America at a pretty steady clip for the past 50-100 years,” says Ager, “so naturally, you’ve got to go where the money is, and it’s all in the cities now. So now the irony is that we have become a beautiful place close to the city to get away from the city.
“Before we did the agritourism thing here, we were making it work, but you’ve got to have another product,” he says. “There are farmers in Eastern North Carolina making lots of money, but they’re all really big [farms]. They took a big risk in 1984 and got a huge loan, built a big barn and made it work.”
From the ’60s through the ’70s there was a comfortable bubble of low, single-digit interest rates, with land prices climbing by double digits. But in 1979, the Federal Reserve Board, under Chairman Paul Volcker, enacted sweeping changes in an attempt to calm that inflation, resulting in interest rates as steep as 20 percent, the highest since the Civil War. It was nearly impossible to afford loans at that rate, Ager relates. Combined with exorbitant land prices, the effect was felt the hardest by farmers. As interest rates rose, farmers found themselves unable to pay their debts. By 1980, after President Jimmy Carter imposed an embargo on the sale of farmed goods to the USSR, causing America’s grain bins to overflow with unsold product, the nation’s agricultural debt climbed to over $200 billion.
Learning a harsh lesson would all be well and good, if it hadn’t happened once before in the 1930s, painting a depressing picture of history repeating itself. One can’t help but recall terms like “bubbles” and “balloons,” causing some in the farming industry to wonder if we are doomed to repeat the past like an agricultural Möbius strip. But some think there’s a way through.
“I think that farming is still viable, but you have to diversify your enterprises,” says Ariel Dixon. When she and Zijp started the Farmer’s Hands dinners, they were still also selling produce at farmers markets. But eventually they realized that a series of dinners, cooking classes and homesteading courses could sustain the farm better than hawking their goods by hand. “Especially in the Asheville area, where there are hundreds of people out there growing food, you have to figure out what your focus is and what lets you stand out and makes you needed within the community.”
In Marion, farmers like the English family of English Farmstead Cheese built a legacy dairy farm handed down within the family for generations. But as prices began increasing, they had to adopt new measures to stay afloat. “The profit margin in dairy is so thin that you don’t make much per production unit,” owner Terry English told Xpress in a 2015 interview. “So most people try to have as many units as they can, but that makes more work and more headache. We toyed around with the idea of renting another farm somewhere and raising 750 units instead of 75, but we just decided that, no, we weren’t going to do that. We decided to stay here.” Instead, the family started a creamery and set aside a portion of their product to make their own cheese.
At the time of that interview, the market sat at 21 cents per pound for their milk. The previous month it had been 28 cents, and English expected the following month to dip to as low as 18 cents: a continually declining market in an increasingly expensive industry. “Right now our income is decided by the world’s [milk] market,” he said, “We just want to develop some kind of stability in our income.”
THIRD COURSE: Tailor-made
As the Edison bulbs begin to buzz above the tables, Zijp and Dixon bring out handmade fettuccine with garlic scape pesto in massive pasta bowls. Other dishes include roasted root vegetables, herbs and candied garlic, and kale salad with pine nuts, apples, pickled red onions and aged cheese. And the entree of lomo al trapo, a salt-crusted tenderloin cooked in a towel on the coals of a campfire, is served with grilled salsa verde and grilled lime.
FOURTH COURSE: Grants and growing pains
“We were in corporate America, so we thought we were just going to farm,” says Frances Tacy of Franny’s Farm in Leicester. “We had no idea how demanding it would be, but I quickly realized that if we were going to farm, I had to come up with more enterprises to fund that farm.”
Franny’s Farm has evolved to hold two eco-cabins, seven campsites and a 1,500-square-foot farmhouse that is available to rent through Airbnb. The farm also regularly hosts Barnaroo and Farm Fest concert festivals and serves as a popular wedding venue and location for events like the Blind Pig Supper Club. “It would be brutal if we were running this as just a straight-up farm at this size,” says Tacy. “We’d easily qualify for welfare.”
Many small farms in North Carolina have relied heavily on funding from grants and trust funds like those awarded by the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and the Golden Leaf Foundation — organizations founded in response to the decline of tobacco consumption and the subsequent squeeze on farmers once reliant on the now-collapsing cash crop. These grants have allowed farmers to convert their tobacco farms into other agricultural projects and helped newer farms get off the ground. But much of that funding was intended to have a time limit and to be used only to help farmers transition to new crops. And with the rising cost of food production, few crops are proving to be golden.
“There is not the money in it that there used to be. Just this year, all the Tobacco Trust Fund money just vanished,” explains Tacy. “There are lots of other grants,” including those offered by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, WNC AgOptions, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and California Certified Organic Farmers, she continues. “But the Tobacco Trust Fund was the biggest money pool for these grants, and now most of that money is gone. So there’s all the same people competing for it, but it’s only about 10 percent of that money left to distribute. Those grants have gotten super-competitive [for] funding for really important equipment to diversify into value-added products. These grants are often going to brand-new, massive operations instead of investing in the people that are already doing it.”
Tacy points to WNC AgOptions, one of the many organizations that offer cost-share grants — meaning that the farmer has to match the money the farm is given with capital of his own, up to $5,000. “What disappointed me was that they were very into new initiatives,” she says. The purpose of many of these grants is to get new farmers into business by inspiring more farmers to grow food. But that’s of little use to farmers who are struggling to expand their businesses. Many of these grants are divided into categories, Tacy says, meaning only one farmer will get a grant for poultry (North Carolina is one of the only states in the country that allows on-site processing for poultry farmers; as a result, there are over 5,700 poultry farms in the state), another for fruit and so on. This makes Franny’s Farm one of hundreds fighting for one grant — a competitive and complicated process that requires the farm to prove it has a workable
“So, I applied for a poultry grant,” Tacy continues. “The person that got it was a guy who wanted to bring in some exotic species from another country, which is fine, but those guys aren’t even in business anymore. It wasn’t a viable business plan. They had not been in poultry before, and it was a completely new endeavor.” It should be noted that WNC AgOptions focuses on funding innovative ideas, which are often risky.
With narrowing profit margins combined with ever-shrinking funding, farmers are often taking on the role of entrepreneur. Rather than rely on a centuries-old family tradition or a career path that has been feasible for the better part of our nation’s existence, it seems the key for many of these families to succeed is now bottled hot sauces, handmade cheeses, canned pickles, concerts, weddings and dinners out under the stars. Or as Ager puts it, “Farmers have to be a little more entrepreneurial these days. But entrepreneurship is really tough. And so I think this whole agritourism thing is a big part of the puzzle.
DIGESTIF: Community supported
As dessert comes around — a strawberry clafoutis with lemon balm ice cream and almond crumble — the sun sets in streaks of purple and pink. This is one of 10 farm dinners on the books for the Farmer’s Hands duo this season. In the winter, the meals will continue, but be pared down to about six seats with a plated and coursed meal.
Dixon and Zijp encourage customers to think of their supper club as an “entertainment CSA [community supported agriculture].” When buying a dinner ticket on the Farmer’s Hands webpage, a note pops up that reads: “By purchasing a ticket to the supper club, you are acknowledging that you are purchasing a share of the farm and helping us continue to create these events. Similar to a CSA…you are not paying for the meal, you are helping us purchase seeds, animal feed, farm equipment and enable us to pay for costs that encompass a farmstead. The meal is a thank you from us for supporting our dream.”