Transforming our local food system to feed the region

LINK IN THE CHAIN: Tomatoes being harvested at Charlene’s Garden, a small vegetable farm in Polk County. Most of the food grown in Western North Carolina is not consumed here, according to the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. Photo courtesy of ASAP

It’s been nearly three years since the worst shortages triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic ended, but specific food items still periodically become hard to get or even vanish from local grocery shelves. For the last month, for example, the Sams Club on Patton Avenue has limited customers to two bags of Taylor Farms romaine lettuce, as unseasonably high temperatures and crop diseases in California have triggered lettuce shortages across the country. And in a June 2022 survey conducted by PwC Global, a high percentage of American respondents reported having been unable to purchase a product due to shortages in stores.

This may seem counterintuitive in Asheville, dubbed Foodtopia by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority in 2008. According to data from the U.S. government’s 2017 Census of Agriculture (the most recent numbers available), Buncombe County was home to 1,073 farms and 72,284 acres of farmland. Across 23 Western North Carolina counties, there were over 10,000 farms comprising more than 932,000 acres.

Yet a 2007 report by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, an Asheville-based nonprofit, found that almost all the food produced here was sent to other areas, and while the percentages may have shifted slightly since then, the overall picture hasn’t.

“When you drive through Leicester or Sandy Mush and see giant tomato fields, most of those are grown at a wholesale level, going through a distributor selling up and down the Eastern Seaboard or across the country,” notes Molly Nicholie, ASAPs executive director.

That, in turn, means that almost all the food consumed here comes from elsewhere. That Taylor Farms romaine, for instance? Product of Mexico. This, too, reflects the bigger picture: Californias Central Valley, for example, produces 25% of the nations food despite accounting for less than 1% of its farmland, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Asheville author Laura Lengnick sees this extreme disparity as “the greatest fragility in our [local] food system.” To Lengnick, who wrote Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, the supply chain disruptions exacerbated by the pandemic were a clear sign that the current global, industrialized food system isn’t agile and flexible enough to cope with the unpredictable future posed by climate change and unexpected supply chain disruptions. Resilience, she maintains, is the ability to quickly adapt to such challenges in a way that “bounces forward” rather than merely bouncing back to business as usual. In other words, not just recovering from setbacks but making the entire system better able to anticipate and avoid future problems.

You can’t farm a parking lot

On a sunny day last June, I met Robert Turner at Creekside Farm, his roughly 50-acre operation in Arden. During most of our conversation, we sat in a 100-year-old red schoolhouse that’s been transformed into an educational center with a commercial kitchen. The venue now hosts classes on organic farming as well as locally sourced dinners and other events, in partnership with organizations like the Organic Growers School, on whose board Turner serves.

Hes written two books highlighting the vulnerabilities of industrial agriculture and the strengths of local food systems. Turner’s most recent work, Lewis Mumford and the Food Fighters, came out last year. “This is a terrific area for local food — more advanced than most places,” he says. Nonetheless, if WNC were completely cut off from the broader food system, “We would struggle to feed ourselves.”

One of the biggest reasons, says Turner, is the continuing loss of farmland. He’s had a front-row seat watching neighboring farmers reach retirement age and immediately get swarmed by developers eager to pay high prices for their land. In 2015, Turner bought most of what is now Creekside Farm, augmenting his existing 10-acre hobby farm. This was done, he notes, both to conserve the land and because “We didn’t want to see 50 homes all around us if a developer purchased it.”

Protecting agricultural land has been a key concern of ASAP since the mid-1990s, when community members first came together to discuss how to diversify a mountain farm economy that had been heavily dependent on burley tobacco. Fallout from the 1998 settlement threatened to shutter many local farms that grew the staple crop. “So much of our work is centered around farmland preservation, to make farming economically viable,” Nicholie explains.

In Lengnick’s view, “That’s a great example of how we actually cultivated diversity. We went from a monocrop to these small and midscale diversified farm operations.”

In 2018, Lengnick took part in a resilience workshop organized by the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council. She says the group evaluated 73 programs offered by 46 food-related organizations based on six criteria: fostering strong communities, improving peoples health, emphasizing equity, cultivating vibrant gardens and farms, creating thriving economies and building sustainable ecosystems.

Sustainability is key, stresses Lengnick, because without it any land that does get preserved wont be as viable for farming. Yet of the six criteria, it proved to be the least well represented, as it was a focus of only five of the organizations examined.

Rapid response

In the afterword to the 2022 book Edible North Carolina: A Journey Across a State of Flavor, editor Marcie Cohen Ferris describes how the states local food economies have stepped up to fill gaps created by breakdowns in national and global food supplies. “Because of their size, diversification, locations across markets and face-to-face relationships with consumers, small farmers, food hubs and food entrepreneurs could respond quickly in times of crisis,” she writes.

When restaurants and farmers markets temporarily shut down during the pandemic, direct marketing to consumers proved to be one of the most successful survival strategies for local farms. To facilitate this, many of them created online ordering systems. “Folks that were doing freezer beef got [new] customers that ended up really liking their product,” says Jennifer Ferre, executive director of WNC Communities, an Asheville-based nonprofit. “Even now, two years later, they’ve retained that customer base.”

Some farms, in fact, did so well that they didn’t resume supplying restaurants when the eateries reopened. “The business model that they pivoted to in an emergency situation is now their main business model.”

Even pre-pandemic, however, direct marketing was a significant and growing success story for WNC farms. From 2012-17, notes Nicholie, the region experienced a 70% increase in direct sales, surpassing both the state and national averages.

Direct marketing also enables farmers to form relationships with their local customers, says Ferre. “One of Western North Carolina’s strengths is that we have strong communities. That sense of community, I’ve seen it grow stronger in the last couple of years because people are realizing how important food is to a healthy region.”

And as pandemic restrictions have loosened, she reports, farm tours and related experiences are once again in high demand. “People want to know where their food comes from, and they love that interaction with the farmers.”

In that sense, direct marketing to consumers also fits with other aspects of Lengnicks resilience model: forging strong community bonds, increasing the consumption of healthy foods and helping support farms when their usual revenue streams dry up.

The corporate factor

At the same time, Lengnick underscores the importance of traditional retail outlets such as grocery stores.

“I don’t know of any legitimate thinking that does not include supermarkets,” she clarifies. “The question isn’t how do we kill the big food companies? The question is how do we bring them along into this vision?”

Ingles Markets chose not to comment for this story, a policy that Lengnick and Nicholie say is common among large-scale food-related businesses. However, both women also cite key ways that Ingles supports the local food system. “They are the largest purchaser of local food in the whole region,” Nicholie points out. And since 2007, she continues, the company has taken steps that have made it easier for local farmers to supply its stores.

“At one point, if you were a farmer that wanted to sell to Ingles, you had to provide enough volume to serve hundreds of stores,” Nicholie explains. But more recently, “They localized some of those purchasing decisions so that [WNC growers] could sell to four or five Ingles.”

APPALACHIAN GROWN: “Our approach to food systems is not so much ‘How can we locally fill those grocery shelves?’ but more long-term systems change,” says Molly Nicholie, executive director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. Photo courtesy of ASAP

Lengnick, meanwhile, points to Ingles’ ownership of Milkco, the region’s last remaining milk bottling company, which the grocery chain bought from Sealtest in 1982. In the 1950s, there were 22 such plants, according to Milkco’s website, and the bulk of the company’s current suppliers are within 150 miles of the facility.

“Those seeds of resilience are so important for us to begin to care for,” she says. “No matter what else Ingles does, they have supported a local dairy economy here.”

On its own website, the grocery chain also touts its 1.6 million-square-foot distribution warehouse in Black Mountain, strategically sited within 250 miles of the company’s more than 200 stores. The massive facility enables Ingles to process more than 2 million cases of perishables and groceries per week while typically keeping some 70,000 pallets of product on hand, the website notes.

Still, while the site stresses both the freshness of the company’s produce and the organics on offer, it doesnt identify the local farmers who supply its stores. And in those outlets, notes Nicholie, its not always easy to tell which products are local.

Whole Foods, too, declined to comment for this article. The chain’s website says, “About 25% of the produce sold at our stores comes from local farms.” However, the site goes on to say, “Our stores across the nation define ‘local’ one community at a time. For some, ‘local’ means within the state, while for others it means within a certain mile radius, which may include a bordering state or two.” An informal survey of products labeled local that were available at the Merrimon Avenue store turned up some coming from Charlotte, Raleigh and even Georgia.

Close to home

To fund his purchase of the additional acres of Creekside Farm, Turner fastened on an idea hed come across during his research: an “agrihood,” a residential community built around a farm. According to Civil Eats, a California-based nonprofit news outlet, there are about 200 agrihoods in the U.S., including two in Western North Carolina.

A mere 6.7 miles south of downtown Asheville, Olivette comprises 411 acres, with various “hamlets” offering residential lots for sale. Turners smaller-scale experiment includes 12 lots on the Creekside property. To help finance the acquisition, additional parcels were spun off to The Cliffs at Walnut Cove, an adjacent upscale residential development. As of this writing, 10 of the Creekside lots have been sold.

“Building community around food is the idea,” he says. The neighborhood includes a 3-acre common area and greenhouse, and agrihood residents can “walk out their door and pick a pepper for dinner.” Creekside also functions as an incubator for future farmers. Besides serving the residents, the farm manager runs a community supported agriculture program that currently feeds some 200 people and sells at the downtown farmers market and to restaurants. The idea is that after a few years, during which time managers can build a brand and a customer base, they will acquire land elsewhere and establish their own operation.

Meanwhile, to encourage innovation among existing farmers, the N.C. Cooperative Extension distributed $320,000 to 41 farm businesses last year through its WNC AgOptions grant program; the money came from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. WNC Communities administers the program, and Ferre says her organization prioritized creative ideas. “We want to cover the risk of somebody doing something innovative so that if it works out, that’s an option for other farmers to do,” she explains.

Pinnacle View Farm in Buncombe County, for instance, won a grant to install a fence-line feeding system that will reduce waste and protect the pasture while improving the cattle’s health and comfort. And in neighboring Haywood County, Catherine and Rick Topel of Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa will use their grant to buy a trailer they can use to sell their pork products to folks who pay to camp on the farm and, eventually, at local off-site events.

Think before you eat

In the push for greater sustainability, however, it’s not just grocers and farmers who need to reconsider their approach: Consumer attitudes also loom large in the equation, stresses Nicholie. Shoppers, she notes, have grown accustomed to having far more options than what can be grown locally. “We have set up these expectations of constant availability and affordability anytime of the year.”

Even during the worst pandemic-related shortages, store shelves were never completely bare. Beans, for example, were always available as a source of protein when certain meats were scarce. But “Feeding our community is very different from feeding the community what they want,” she points out.

And since everybody needs to eat, we all have a part to play when it comes to building a truly sustainable local food supply.

“Some folks,” notes Nicholie, “might come to it because they want to know how their food is grown. Some folks may come to it because they want to know the story of the farm. Whatever those reasons, whatever your ‘why’ for buying local … bringing all those whys together keeps farmers farming.”


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About Sara Murphy
Sara Murphy lives in Leicester. Her work has appeared in 100 Days in Appalachia, Facing South, Polygon, and Lifehacker.

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2 thoughts on “Transforming our local food system to feed the region

  1. indy499

    Another idealistic space filler article. Nobody going back to eating food produced largely in their region.

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