Part of the process

You can’t throw a turnip in this town without hitting a small-farm grower. The same goes for entrepreneurs. With Asheville’s notoriously tight job market, the area has become known for those going — and growing — into business for themselves.

For farmers and small food-business owners who grow and process food, building and equipment costs can be prohibitive — easily reaching into seven figures.

Enter the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. The agency has proposed a solution to those money worries: a shared-use facility. Already operating in more than a dozen locations nationwide, these so called “value-added” food centers provide the means for farmers and small-business food producers (such as caterers, bakers and festival vendors) to use large equipment and kitchens on an hourly-rental basis.

From washing and grading to baking to making jelly, the center would be equipped to handle several tasks at once, says Smithson Mills, of the NCDOA, Consumer Services Division. Mills has been conducting a local survey to determine public interest in the center.

“It’s not like anything anybody’s done around here,” Mills pointed out during a recent tour of the proposed facility site. The building, located on the A-B Tech Enka Campus, is comprised of 80,000 square feet of abandoned rooms and equipment left by the previous tenants two years ago. Mills and the consultants he brought in on the project have already envisioned kitchens, drying rooms, cold and dry storage and other usage for the space.

“It’s been a revelation for me just looking at what small farms need,” Mills noted. The value-added center would use nearly 15,000 square feet of the site.

The farmers, as well as food service representatives and engineers, who showed up for a meeting last week at A-B Tech helped Mills explore the topic. They also got a look at the first-draft blueprints for the facility.

“It’s a very grounded idea,” said Aubrey Raper, an organic farmer and member of the Carolina Organic Growers Association. All of the farm co-ops he has participated in have expressed the need for the ability to deal with surplus, Raper noted. Whether chopping and bagging heads of lettuce into salad mix or freezing vegetables into ready-made stir fry, processing and preparation can help farmers get the most out of a crop before it spoils.

The ability to process and package may also help get some of the food onto the shelves of larger grocery chains, or ship the products to other states, suggested Bob Weybright, a food-entrepreneur expert brought down from Cornell University. Weybright has worked with most of the value-added centers around the country.

“Nobody can go out and buy a $23,000 piece of equipment,” Weybright told the group. “This is a tool to help you try some of these avenues.” The cost for equipment rental would run between $17 and $25 per hour for regular users, Mills said.

So far, Mills has rounded up about 25 positive responses to his survey; he says word of the proposed facility is spreading through the organic-farming community. Mills hopes to get more feedback, as the plan for the center will be based heavily on the results of the survey.

Rosario Villarreal, who came to the meeting representing members of the Hispanic community, says that over the past three months, she has heard from more than 50 people who would use such a facility. She emphasized that, like other business starters, they cannot afford to buy the equipment needed to make traditional but hard-to-find Mexican food staples, such as mole mix.

“They want to be legal and register their business,” Villarreal stated. “If they have a resource like this, they can.”

Based on other centers, Mills says users of the facility would likely break down to about a 20/80 split between farmers and entrepreneurs. With that in mind, the center would also offer business and marketing advice, giving farmers an idea of what it will take to be competitive with their product.

“You are not selling them greens. If they wanted greens, they would grow them themselves,” Weybright told the farmers, “You are selling them convenience, value, knowledge.”

Educational aspects of the facility would also include job training for the food industry, Mills continued.

Mills and the Department of Agriculture are about halfway through the feasibility study, but are already pursuing funding based on preliminary information. (Most of the funding would be in the form of grant money from government and other sources.) The project will cost an initial $600,000, and will probably open in phases, with one section used for production as the next is constructed. The entire facility could be up and running in two years, Mills estimated, with the first stage done by next spring.

Farmers and business owners interested in the project can still have their voices heard: The deadline for responses to the value-added center survey is July 5. Call Mills at the (828) 231-7695 or e-mail for a copy of the survey or more information.


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