Editor’s note: Liz McCarthy, a UNCA senior from Crystal Lake, Ill., who’s majoring in photography, spent the past few months serving as a photo intern for Mountain Xpress. In June, she embarked on a mission to document the area’s small farms and how their products reach local markets. But as the summer wore on—and the effects of one of the worst droughts in recent memory became clear—she shifted her focus a bit, capturing images of how local farmers grappled with, and to varying degrees overcame, the dearth of water.
“Asheville is really lucky to have access to such an abundance of diverse farms in the region,” McCarthy says.
Here are selections from her work this summer. To see her extensive photo galleries on farming, food and other local matters, visit www.mountainx.com/gallery.
At Hickory Nut Gap Farm, Jamie Ager says his cattle are grumpy because their pastures are too dry. Normally, he can keep his herd fed all summer on his family’s 80 acres of land in Fairview—but with this year’s drought, he says, that won’t suffice. Luckily, the Ager family has greener pastures in Rutherford County. They’ll have to move the livestock there to graze, since the rain has not replenished their Fairview fields. Other local farmers, who don’t have the option of moving their cattle to land in wetter areas, have been forced to purchase hay as a supplemental feed source.
Pigs at Hickory Nut Gap wish for mud to roll around in during the summer heat. They hide under the shade of bushes, hoping for rain. Some even try to crawl into the water trough to cool themselves.
In Bethel, owners Sally and Steve Eason of Sunburst Trout Co. hold their breath as the dry conditions persist. In 1986, they lost their entire fish stock to drought. The trout farm’s raceways—concrete troughs where the fish are raised—are fed by the Lake Lure Dam. As the lake’s water level drops, so does the water quality at Sunburst. Rain normally helps maintain a steady flow and keep the water cool. But as the summer sun heats up the water with no precipitation to balance it out, the trout start to die.
Flying Cloud Farm, also based in Fairview, has had a great harvest this year—but only because they irrigate regularly. Farmers who have to pay for water to maintain their crops are hit with higher costs during times of drought.
Flying Cloud co-owner Annie Louise Perkinson, who is Jamie Ager’s cousin, is excited about her beautiful tomato crop this year—a silver lining of the drought. “Tomatoes hate wet leaves,” she explains. “They’re very sensitive, and they wilt and get disease when the plants have water all over them.”
Isaiah Perkinson, Flying Cloud co-owner, harvests corn for CSA customers. Much of the farm’s business comes from community-supported agriculture, in which customers buy a subscription for the season and get a weekly supply of fresh produce. Corn is one of the most popular items.
Lola Coston of Coston Farm in Henderson County looks over her older apple trees. Many of the apples are half the size they should be due to lack of rain. “These small apples can’t be sold commercially,” she says. They’re fine in the pick-your-own area, where size doesn’t matter, but disastrous among the apples grown for commercial use. “Places like Gerber and cider houses require larger apples in order for the machines to process them,” Coston explains. “Processing small apples would produce more waste than meat after the core and skin have been removed.”
Thanks to irrigation (not to mention the area’s growing fondness for locally grown produce), the drought hasn’t stopped farmers’ markets from booming this year. With the recent addition of the Asheville City Market on South Charlotte Street, total revenues for the farmers who sell at these venues are at an all-time high, Mike McCreary of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project reports. ASAP, an Asheville-based nonprofit, promotes the use of local produce by area residents and businesses—a growing component of the regional economy. Selling directly to customers also helps preserve Western North Carolina farms by giving farmers a greater profit margin.