The Practical Gardener

Whenever I meet someone from another country, I ask about the kind of food they eat at home and where their fresh produce comes from. What I find amazing is that, six times out of 10, they know that their food comes from a local source. Even more incredibly, these foreigners often know the name of the farm or farmer who produces the food they eat. These are not necessarily agriculturally attuned individuals; they seem to know (or know of) the folks who grow their food the same way that I know the guy who works on my truck, or the woman at the local convenience store where I buy my morning coffee on the way to work.

In America, I doubt whether more than one person in 5,000 knows the farmer who grows the veggies or meat they consume. Here, knowing where your fresh groceries are grown is akin to knowing where the coffee you get from a machine at a rest area along the interstate comes from. There doesn’t seem to be much sense of responsibility on the part of whoever produces that vending-machine coffee — and you can tell by the taste. By the same token, there isn’t much incentive to produce good-tasting veggies when the person who ends up eating them is some faceless nonentity living halfway across the country.

In my conversations with foreigners, they often know the names of different varieties of the same veggie. That kind of variety on the market shelves is your first indication that the produce is locally grown for people known to the grower.

If you go to the local grocery chain to buy kale, for example, the chances are pretty good that they’ll have only one variety, Dutch curled. But if you go to the Co-op, you’ll probably find not only Dutch curled, but also Red Russian, Lactiva (also known as Dinosaur), and another lighter-colored variety whose name escapes me at the moment.

Why is Dutch curled on the local chain store’s shelves? Because it’s resistant to aphid damage, it can be shipped a long way without looking any the worse for wear, and the American public is complacent enough about the food they eat that they don’t make waves when they’re forced to buy generic, unremarkable produce. And the reason there are likely to be several varieties on the Co-op’s shelves is that the farmer who brought those veggies to the store (perhaps that very afternoon) knows the folks who will be buying the food he grows. Catering to a client’s taste buds is one way that local farmers raise the stakes a notch.

For more than 20 years, farmers in many areas have practiced something called community-supported agriculture. A CSA sells its produce to local people who buy shares at the beginning of the season; sometimes, they also promise to contribute labor throughout the growing season. The shareholder is guaranteed a certain amount of groceries each week in exchange for the money (or money and labor) kicked in up front. It’s a win/win situation: The farmer gets much-needed revenue at the beginning of the season (when he or she needs it the most), and each shareholder gets a bag or two of groceries every week filled with veggies grown by folks who will stand behind their products.

I have friends in several regions in New England who run organic CSAs. The smallest has a membership of about 200, and the largest has about 600 shareholders. In every case, however, the shareholders gain more than just a reliable supply of locally grown, farm-fresh veggies (no mean thing in itself, to be sure). But they also get a chance to observe and even work on what has increasingly become an anachronism — the family farm.

California and New England pioneered the CSA model, which is why CSAs in those areas may have huge memberships. But things are changing. Here in WNC, we now have 12 CSAs; the largest has about 30 member families, and some serve as few as five or six families. Big or small, however, the important thing is that they’re producing tasty, fresh food for a market that appreciates that commitment to quality.

I was at the grocery store a couple of weeks ago, and I ran into a reader who asked me where she could find locally grown strawberries. I was rushing to get home and didn’t give her a fully satisfactory (to me, at least) answer; eventually, however, I called up my gardening pal Charlie Jackson (who, along with Gary Gumz, is promoting the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program). ASAP has several different projects going, all of them geared toward promoting local agriculture in WNC.

Charley recently returned from a national conference in Milwaukee, where ASAP was one of 10 groups chosen to take part in a nationwide “buy local” initiative. Sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg organization, the program aims to create models for shifting some of the focus of local economies to local farmers. “It was a real honor for us to be chosen for this,” said Charley; “it lets us know we are on the right track.”

One of ASAP’s current projects is helping farmers — especially tobacco farmers, some of whom see challenges looming for their staple crop — transition to growing organic vegetables. This entails much more than merely spreading compost on fields previously treated with chemical fertilizers; it also requires education, paperwork and new knowledge. Here in WNC, ASAP is the helping hand that’s there for local farmers. A year or so ago, I was talking to Gary about ASAP; one thing he said really struck me: “Supporting the purchase of local, conventionally grown produce is more important than supporting the purchase of organic produce shipped here from California.”

Another ASAP effort is the “Get Fresh” program. This volunteer project gets local businesses to commit to buying veggies from local farmers. Earth Fare, the French Broad Food Co-op and a number of area restaurants have already signed up; look for the “Get Fresh” sticker in their windows. It’s your assurance that some of the money you spend there is going to support the local agricultural economy. Some restaurants, such as the Early Girl on Wall Street in downtown Asheville, offer daily specials based on whatever is the freshest locally grown produce available. “Restaurants are a big part of the ASAP picture,” says Jackson, “because chefs know that locally grown produce is the best and freshest.”

ASAP is also partnering with the Mountain Tailgate Association to promote and develop farmers’ markets that give customers an easy way to access locally grown food.

Perhaps the most important ASAP project, though, is a guide listing outlets for locally grown fruits and produce. It should be available next month on their Web site (www.buyappalachian.org). Local farmers who want to make sure they’re in the guide can still contact Charlie at 293-3262 or e-mail him at charlie@asapconnections.org.

According to Charley, ASAP is also a focal point for organizing, developing and promoting CSAs in this region. The vision of a CSA in every community — run by folks producing good, fresh food for customers they know — is not some wild fantasy. The idea has real potential for rekindling something valuable that’s been lost, here in America, to the corporate agricultural paradigm: the customer’s taste buds.

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