Looking for some longform (or longer-form) reads to cozy up with over the weekend? Here’s a round-up of our leading feature stories from the last seven days. Happy reading!
Smoke and mirrors: The death of tobacco in WNC
By Max Hunt
Few crops have been as central to North Carolina’s economy and culture — or as controversial — as tobacco. Historically, its high market value and the relative ease of growing it made tobacco a staple for many Western North Carolina farmers. As late as 2002, 1,995 mountain farms grew tobacco.
The crop’s prevalence, however, was closely tied to the long-standing quota system, which regulated where it could be grown and set a guaranteed price range each year.
Significant government involvement with the industry began during the Great Depression, but changing times and social attitudes eventually caught up with the program. Increasing health concerns and lawsuits ultimately led to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, which restricted tobacco advertising and gave states substantial payments to offset Medicare expenses and fund anti-smoking programs. In conjunction with other changes, this accelerated a continuing decline in sales of American-grown tobacco.
Of more immediate significance for local farmers, however, was the 2004 Fair And Equitable Tobacco Reform Act, which put an end to the quota system.
Commonly known as the “tobacco buyout,” the federal law gave both quota holders and actual growers annual payments for 10 years to help them transition to new enterprises or find other income streams. But there was no obvious substitute crop, and since the end of the payment program in 2014, many farmers across the Southern Appalachians have faced both the challenge of replacing lost revenue and, at a deeper level, a kind of identity crisis.
Although assorted state agencies and nonprofits have tried various approaches, the lingering effects of the buyout continue to confront rural mountain communities. (continue reading)
Yaupon tea takes the Asheville stage as a native source of caffeine
By Gina Smith
Craft beer may be the star beverage in Asheville, but many would argue that this is a city fueled by caffeine. Independent coffee shops are thriving, Ashevilleans know their baristas as well as their bartenders, and the number of local coffee roasters is steadily growing.
Even so, in this area that fiercely prides itself on a strong and ever-growing local food system, coffee beans, with their tropical provenance, are an inherently nonlocal commodity.
So, what if we could source our caffeine buzz from a plant that grows regionally, or even right here in Western North Carolina?
Enter the yaupon holly, or Ilex vomitoria. This wild, perennial evergreen shrub is listed by multiple sources as the only plant native to North America known to contain caffeine. With a range that spans the southeastern United States coast from Virginia to Texas, many scholars assert that yaupon leaves were used for centuries by native cultures, and later by European settlers, to make a tea known as “black drink.”
Although its unfortunate Latin name paints it as something you’d be better off avoiding (the vomit-referencing misnomer is based, perhaps, on the tea’s use by certain native tribes during rituals that involved purging), yaupon, in fact, has no emetic properties and yields a very drinkable dark tea. A close relative of the more celebrated yerba mate, yaupon tea is known to be mellower than its cousin with no bitter edge, even after prolonged steeping. It also delivers a pleasantly energizing caffeine buzz, minus the jittery side effects that can accompany coffee. (continue reading)
Beer Scout: Shave and a haircut … cold pints!
By Jesse Farthing
Asheville has a unique history of combining beer and, well, whatever you want into retail shops. From bikes to camping gear and even motorcycle repair, there are a growing number of places where you can shop with a locally crafted beer in hand.
Enter the Local Barber and Tap, a neighborhood barbershop opened downtown on Walnut Street by former Asheville Barber & Beard employee Jordan Stolte. Here, one can pop in for a haircut then stop and enjoy a brew at the small bar in the back.
“I just wanted to make a hangout, you know,” Stolte says. “It’s a walk-in barbershop — you might have to wait 10 minutes, but you can get a beer while you wait.”
Stolte has been a barber for 12 years, and he says beer has gone hand in hand with haircuts at other places he’s worked.
“A lot of shops I worked at, we would give away complimentary cans of cheap beer,” he says. “I figured, well, it’s Beer City, there are a lot of beer lovers here, so we’ll get some on draft. Luckily it’s easy to get a beer license around here.” (continue reading)
UNCA hosts solo exhibition of paintings by retired professor Virginia Derryberry
By Steph Guinan
Like a dream or a memory, the large-scale figurative paintings by recently retired UNC Asheville professor Virginia Derryberry are strangely familiar. The works, ranging from 5 to 8 feet high, depict larger-than-life figures set in lush environments. The exhibition, Private Domain, remains on display at S. Tucker Cooke Gallery on the first floor of UNCA’s Owen Hall, through Friday, March 4.
“I’ve given myself permission to select the visual components that interest me,” says Derryberry. Through subtle alterations and slight modifications to reality, she creates an eerie, not-quite-real atmosphere. “In some paintings, I might have two slightly different times of day being represented by the lights and the shadows,” she says. There’s also Derryberry’s selective intensification of color. These variances work just under the radar of the viewer’s perception to create the appearance of an imagined space or a representation of a memory.
“I’m fiddling with truth,” says the artist. (continue reading)
Mission Health helps expand national bone marrow transplant registry
By Clarke Morrison
To save a life, Julia Killen endured six hours with each arm stuck with two needles that drew cells from her bone marrow.
While the process involved some discomfort and inconvenience, Killen says the sacrifice was well worth the benefit to a blood-cancer patient who needed a transplant. The process started with a swab of her cheek and a few questions, all of which led to Killen being listed in the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match registry.
“The person I donated to, if I wasn’t on the registry, she wouldn’t have my cells in her now,” says Killen, a nurse at Mission Health in Asheville. “Knowing the fact that I could save somebody’s life was all it took for me to do that.”
About every three minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with blood cancer, and one person dies of the disease nearly every 10 minutes, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. New cases of leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma account for nearly 10 percent of the estimated 1.7 million cancer cases diagnosed in the U.S. last year. (continue reading)
Underwater rock farming, anyone? Ashevillean grows coral reefs off Florida coast
When most people think of farming, their thoughts turn to rows of neatly planted produce or herds of beefy cattle, but likely not to what Tim Birthisel, proprietor of Terra Sub Aqua, is up to. At least twice a year, this Asheville resident can be found 55 feet under — underwater, that is. And, he’s not alone.
Birthisel’s coral farm sits about 5 miles off the coast near Key Largo, Fla., and serves as a model alternative commercial wildlife refuge that increases biodiversity in a threatened biome while it delivers a product. What started as a hobby and a way to pay for his passion to scuba dive, has turned into a sustainable asset.
With a B.S. in zoology from Ohio State, Birthisel worked in the agribusiness industry for nearly 40 years and focused primarily on research and development. So, when he decided he had enough of “Big Ag,” he had the chops to strike out on his own.
“I’ve always loved the sea,” he says. “And, I’m constantly thinking of ways to give back to it.” (continue reading)
The Gospel According to Jerry: High times at the Sky Club
By Jerry Sternberg
In the 1930s, it was called the Old Heidelberg Supper Club, offering superb food and dancing in an iconic mountainside venue that was originally Oliver Cromwell Hamilton’s mansion. It was purchased by Gus and Emma Adler as chronicled by the esteemed Rob Neufeld, who has so brilliantly brought Western North Carolina’s history to life.
The porch offered breathtaking views of downtown Asheville and the magnificent mountains beyond.
Gus was an extremely talented chef, and his tall, stately, affable wife was the quintessential hostess, greeting everyone with a gracious smile and a big hug while she quietly and efficiently managed the place with an iron fist.
This was the place to see and be seen, frequented by the business community, politicians, judges and law enforcement. Even the carriage trade would slip out of the country club to go slumming at this Gatsby-esque sepia speak-easy. (continue reading)
Confessions of a liberal college professor
By Milton Ready
First, I’m not really all that liberal, progressive, radical, left-wing, elitist or, in truth, any of the other dismissive, mocking labels hurled at college professors by those who inhabit the swamps of right-wing thought these days. Gosh, I enjoyed saying that. I suspect that few radical professors even exist in today’s threatened, insecure, volatile academic environment. I’m also not very snarky, whatever that term means.
I’m from rural Texas, reared by parents who never finished middle, much less high school, and you were considered privileged if you had indoor plumbing, green grass and spoke as well as Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush or Rick Perry. Really. Of course, they all went to college and graduated, though I doubt that any of them had more than a C average. Heck, with those credentials, you could even be president. But I suspect that whatever dollop of liberalism I have came from living in other foreign countries, besides Texas, and serving in the Army, an experience that taught me a lot about diversity, other cultures, gender equality and real patriotism. So did Asheville. (continue reading)