“Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.”
– from Starlings in Winter by Mary Oliver
Nine-year-old Mya Gunn sits under a blanket on a crisp Saturday in late November, bundled against the wintry wind whipping down Market Street at the Asheville City Market. Nearby, her family’s vending table shows signs of preparation for the winter ahead — colorful scarves and hats piled high among a dwindling supply of late-fall vegetables. As the season shifts from harvest to holiday, farming families like Mya’s often switch focus from produce to value-added goods such as hand-knit hats and scarves.
Mya’s grandmother, Julie Gunn, co-owner of Myseanica Family Farm, says Mya and her two siblings are an integral part of their 12-acre biodynamic farm in Candler. “She’s learned to knit, needle felt, wet felt and so many other crafts,” Gunn says.
Indeed, Gunn reports that in the fourth quarter, sales of handcrafted items increase dramatically for Myseanica as shoppers search for seasonal wares that are unique to local farms. Holiday earnings from Myseanica’s hand-knitted items help support the family as crop production slows, enabling Gunn to contribute 10 percent of her fiber-arts profits to the community-supported education program Mya attends.
According to Molly Nicholie of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, many other Western North Carolina farm families also rely on shoppers willing to think outside the box stores during the holidays. “Most of us tend to think of farms at the peak of growing season when things look lush, but remembering farmers at the end of the season provides support during the leaner times of winter. Keeping farm products as an option for gift giving at the holidays really helps support farmers during the winter,” she explains.
Nicholie invites shoppers to take an eclectic approach to perusing winter tailgate markets. She suggests collecting items from a variety of farms to fashion a themed collection of goods. For example, some vendors at the indoor Show and Tell Holiday Pop-up Shop, which runs through Wednesday, Dec. 19, at the Masonic Temple, offer handmade cutting boards, she notes. “These pair beautifully with the local cheeses and cured meats offered by other farms.”
Other food and handicraft combinations — a handmade mug paired with locally sourced tea blends, for instance — are also waiting to be creatively curated to “capture the community of the market and a taste of the Southern Appalachians,” she adds.
For those looking for a more spirited gift, Nicholie points to WNC’s wide range of locally produced ciders, liquors, beer and wines, which are often made with ingredients grown on area farms. It’s not just the brewers, vintners and distillers who gain from those purchases, she says — local growers and producers, such as those who supply the grain used in Troy & Sons whiskeys, also benefit from seasonal sales. To enhance the gift-giving experience with a lesson on the relationship between potables and pastures, Nicholie encourages shoppers to visit the vineyards and farms that produce, inspire and infuse Asheville’s signature beverages.
For Gunn and other Asheville City Market vendors, relocating their wares inside the Masonic Temple for the holiday shopping season provides a comfortable venue that preserves the communal spirit of the market. Some other markets follow suit, including the West Asheville Tailgate Market, which wraps up its 2018 season with its final indoor holiday market at The Mothlight on Tuesday, Dec. 18; the East Asheville Tailgate Market, which will hold its only holiday market 3:30-7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, inside Groce United Methodist Church on Tunnel Road; and the Weaverville Tailgate Market, which hosts its last winter market inside Honey and the Hive on Wednesday, Dec. 19.
But a lack of indoor facilities doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of holiday shopping opportunities. The North Asheville Tailgate Market will present the final installment of its annual holiday bazaar in its usual outdoor location at UNC Asheville 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, offering value-added creations from preserves to locally sourced fiber arts.
Beyond the tangible items, Nicholie points out that farmers markets provide a unique way to give experiences that can connect recipients — and gift givers — to the role farms play in our community. Gift certificates to ASAP’s annual Farm Tour, as well as classes and tickets to dinners and other events offered by local farms, make for experiential holiday presents that can be picked up at area tailgate markets. Likewise, market tokens and gift certificates are available, which can be used with any vendor, providing freedom of choice while “keeping local farms a part of the conversation in our community.”
Hitting the trail
Keeping agriculture a part of the local conversation also benefits the families who farm along the Farm Heritage Trail in northwest Buncombe County. A grant- and donation-based project, the trail provides visitors an avenue for learning firsthand about the importance of preserving WNC’s farmland while directly supporting local farmers.
The farms along the two-hour scenic driving route feature a range of experiential shopping and gifts, says Jessica Hughes of the Buncombe County Soil & Water Conservation District, which manages the trail and the Buncombe County Farmland Preservation Program. “Our farms feature classics such as wreaths, honey and jams as well as rare plants and CBD products,” she says. Some farms along the trail offer wine pairings and farm-to-table dining experiences, which can be purchased as gift certificates or enjoyed during the course of shopping the trail, Hughes adds.
Similar to the Farm Heritage Trail, the WNC Cheese Trail offers maps and information for exploring country roads that are home to vibrant communities of farmsteads, many of which have their own retail shops. The trail is a cooperative effort by regional farmsteads and artisan cheesemakers to connect shoppers directly to the cheesemaking community.
WNC Cheese Trail Executive Director Katie Moore suggests making an afternoon or weekend of exploring the creameries on the trail to try cheese samples, view production and buy directly from farmers and artisans. Moore notes a recent cheese-tasting event and wreath-making workshop held at Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview as just one of the unique experiences to be discovered along the trail.
Whether through visiting farms or shopping area tailgate markets, Nicholie sees supporting local farms through the holiday season as an opportunity to learn about the interdependent relationship between WNC farms and the broader community. “Hopefully, people see that it’s possible to give gifts that aren’t just stuff and support farms by sharing regional foods and experiences,” she says.
Show & Tell runs 10 a.m.-8 p.m. through Wednesday, Dec. 19, at the Asheville Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway. For a full list of local holiday tailgate markets with dates and times, visit avl.mx/5fw. To learn more about the Farm Heritage Trail and holiday events at its member farms, visit farmheritagetrail.org. For details about the WNC Cheese Trail, visit wnccheesetrail.org or look for upcoming events on Facebook.