Q&A: Charlie Jackson, founder of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project

OPTIMIST: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project's Charlie Jackson founded the nonprofit in 2002. Photo by Amy Kalyn Sims & Asheville Art Family

At many grocery stores in the area, consumers can find at least some local produce, meat or dairy products. Plenty of restaurants tout local ingredients on their menus and  farmers markets are ubiquitous here. But it wasn’t always that way.

“It’s hard to remember what it was like 20 years ago, but there was not much that you could buy that was grown locally,” says Charlie Jackson, founder and executive director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. Jackson, who was born in Durham, worked in grassroots sustainable agriculture programs since the 1990s and founded ASAP, a nonprofit dedicated to those same causes, in 2002.

After two decades serving farmers and the local food community, Jackson will retire at the end of April. On Jan. 1, Molly Nicholie, who has worked at ASAP for 16 years and became co-director earlier this year, will become ASAP’s executive director. Jackson will shift into a part-time strategic adviser role for the transition before he retires.

Xpress caught up with Jackson to learn about ASAP’s origins, the importance of buying local and what tobacco has to do with the local food movement in Asheville.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

How did you first become interested in agriculture? 

I grew up with a garden, and my grandfathers were farmers. When I was in graduate school, I did some graduate research projects on the Back to the Land Movement. My graduate degree was in American history, and there have been multiple times in the course of history where people have felt we’ve lost some of our independence by  relying on grocery stores or other places to get food and to generate our livelihood.

That got me interested in the idea of people connecting with food and where it comes from. The Back to the Land movement was important in Western North Carolina at various times, but there was a resurgence in the 1970s, when land was relatively inexpensive. You could come out here, have a farmstead and grow your own food.

How did the founding of ASAP come about? 

In Western North Carolina, tobacco had been the primary cash crop for almost a century. By the ’90s, it was pretty clear that big changes were coming with tobacco and those changes could really have a dramatic impact on our communities. At that time, there was something called the Master Settlement Agreement where the tobacco companies agreed to pay the state for the health care costs associated with smoking. But in 2002, the federal government ended the tobacco program, and tobacco essentially disappeared in Western North Carolina.

We started to realize that the problems and challenges of farming in our rural community were really connected to some bigger issues around food: where it comes from, how it impacts the environment, our economy and our health. We became a nonprofit, in part, to help tobacco farmers with that transition.

What’s one thing that consumers could do to support a healthy farming economy in WNC? 

Buy local. That right there triggers all sorts of other opportunities. If more people are thinking about where their food comes from and making the choice to buy local,  that makes all the difference for local farmers.

From a consumer perspective, when you start thinking about food and the impacts of it on the workers, on your health, on the environment, on the economy, you then get some power. You get to be an actor in a way that you don’t if you’re just relying on food that you don’t know where it comes from.

What gives you hope for the direction WNC is headed regarding our food systems and farming?

I’m in a period of looking back and reflecting and seeing how many more farms there are that are growing food, how many more markets there are and how they’re continuing to grow.

In the mid-’90s, downtown Asheville was a pretty bad place. There really wasn’t a food scene, and it was actually a kind of a dangerous town. When we started promoting the idea of local food, it was pretty new. Asheville’s growth and development and the whole region around food and its connection to farms all developed together.

People are continuing to ask questions of themselves about the food they eat, where it comes from and the impacts. That’s what ASAP has been about — to provide lots of opportunities for people to engage with food.

I think it has been remarkable over the last year-and-a-half to see how farmers adjusted and figured out new ways to connect to the people who were buying their food. In some ways, you look around and you see things like the extreme weather, you see the pandemic — it’s just one thing after another! But to see the community bounce back and then to learn from it, [we will] build resiliency so that we’re stronger the next time something happens. So I’m pretty optimistic about things.

Why are you stepping down as ASAP’s executive director?

Well, I’ve been doing it for a long time. So many things relate to the pandemic these days, but it was certainly a period of reflection. I feel good about what I’ve accomplished. And I feel great about the people that are teed up and ready to come in and take these things to their next place.

When you’re involved in a startup, like I was with this as a nonprofit, it’s your whole life for a long time — for over two decades for me. So I just want to step back. I’ll continue to help ASAP wherever they need it. But I’m also ready to rest a little bit.


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One thought on “Q&A: Charlie Jackson, founder of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project

  1. Voirdire

    Thanks for all the good work Charlie…. much appreciated. Stay safe out there brother.

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