Where’s the dirt?: Local grub from local ground

In the old days most food was local, but in the modern era, it’s become more and more an interstate, even international affair. In 2005 the U.S. turned a little-noticed corner, becoming a net importer of food—a major milestone in the outsourcing of basic necessities. Yet even as imports have grown, interest in “eating local” has kept pace in some quarters, including Asheville.

Get it fresh: Peter Marks, of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, notes that getting local food into mainstream supermarkets is an important goal for area growers. photo by Cecil Bothwell

The French Broad Food Co-op became one of the first organizations in Western North Carolina to tackle the issue when it founded Carolina Organic Growers more than a decade ago. A farmers’ co-op, COG picked up produce from producers and delivered it to stores statewide, helping to develop the market for local, organic food. But according to former Manager Rob Everett, “It always lost money.” Maintaining long distribution lines with a relatively small amount of produce just didn’t work financially, he said. The French Broad Co-op, meanwhile, continues its commitment to local food at its Biltmore Avenue store.

Everett later worked in the produce department at Earth Fare’s Westgate store, which jumped on the bandwagon early on. From its initial location in Asheville, Earth Fare quickly expanded to 11 stores in four states, adding a level of complexity to the geographic definition of “homegrown.” Troy DeGroff, head of marketing for the natural-foods chain, told Xpress that the company had weighed a few alternatives. “We ended up going with a local definition that asks all of our stores to label a tomato as local if it comes from North Carolina, South Carolina, north Georgia or east Tennessee, but they have to list the city or county that it comes from on the sign as well. That way, customers can decide if they consider it local.”

Earth Fare, said DeGroff, is willing to pay a bit more for local food as long as it can still be sold at a price that’s fair to customers. He also stressed the store’s efforts to support regional growers. “Our watermelons right now are from a Cordell, Ga., grower, Dan Thomas. And we have heirloom tomatoes and organic corn from Johnson Family Farms in Hendersonville. That food goes through our distribution center to all the Earth Fare stores. So we’re supporting a local grower and distributing that food to 11 stores.” Produce managers at individual stores are also encouraged to buy from local growers on a store-by-store basis.

With two locations—Asheville and Chattanooga, Tenn.—Greenlife Grocery faces a somewhat different situation in determining what might be called local. “Selling local food was one of the primary goals of [Greenlife] from its inception,” Hugh Bradburn, who manages the Asheville store, told Xpress. “Of course, Chattanooga is not the same community as Asheville. We have so many people here involved in farm-stewardship and food-security issues that in some ways it makes it easier, but sometimes it can be overwhelming.” He added: “We try to support local value-added products, and not just produce but meat suppliers as well. We have a relationship with Hickory Nut Gap Farm and don’t just sell retail but incorporate their meat into items in the deli. Another supplier is Sunburst Trout Farm. Working together helps them and helps us.”

Greenlife co-owner John Swann agreed, saying: “Anything that improves the security and survival of local farms is good for the community and for us. We are willing to pay more for local food because there is a value in supporting local farmers that deserves a premium.”

He continued, “We really want to help develop the local infrastructure. It’s the only long-term, viable model. Anything we can do to develop that paradigm, we want to do. We want to serve as the community focal point for the debate about food sources and food security.”

Everett, who is now produce manager at Greenlife, told Xpress: “We have a high commitment to local growers, despite the fact that it can be a hassle to deal with a dozen farmers instead of placing one order. For instance, I can’t run out of broccoli—it’s our No. 1 seller. I don’t want to buy from California, but I don’t know how much will be available locally, so I have to guess.” When he buys from local growers, Everett includes the name of the farm and location on signage. “Because no one small farm can supply our needs, we have had to change the source on curly kale, for example, three times in one day,” he noted. Everett also observed that he has customers who demand local and customers who demand organic, and it isn’t always possible to satisfy both demands. Sometimes, for example, the only organic garlic available comes from China, and the only local garlic available isn’t organic.

And though much of the local-food movement has focused on natural-food stores, they represent only a piece of the puzzle. “No matter how local the produce is at the co-ops and Earth Fare and Greenlife, most people in WNC buy their food at Ingles,” noted Peter Marks of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which publishes a Local Food Guide and spearheads the “Thousands of Miles Fresher” campaign.

On the other hand, Rob Ainspan of Mountain Food Products observed, “I’ve got a beef with the whole ‘local’ definition: I define it as no more than 100 or 150 miles, whereas Ingles will define it as the whole Southeast.”

Marks, however, noted, “We’ve been working with Ingles for the past two years on sourcing, identifying and marketing local food.”

And if you’re looking for real homegrown, they don’t come much more local than Robert “Chairman Bob” Ingle.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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