By Nastassja Noell, email@example.com
On a February day in 2014, Michael Klatt was driving near Spivey Mountain in West Asheville to look at a potential warehouse space for a medicinal and edible mushroom business. The appointment fell through, and he ended up in the driveway of a 28-acre property of derelict greenhouses with walnut trees growing through most of the glass roofs.
He called his partner. “We can grow mushrooms in greenhouses, right?”
Little did Klatt know that in seven years this property would become a bustling center of ideas rising out of the earth, some flowering and bearing fruit while others retreated back into the ground to wait for better times.
Initially developed during World War II by Hyman Young Sr. to grow crops for the war effort, the facility was expanded in the decades that followed. Young added land and over 30 greenhouses and buildings to support a bustling ornamental plant supply business that operated until the spring of 2000.
Today, many of the greenhouses have been partially restored, and Smith Mill Works serves as a hub for sustainability-oriented local businesses. It hasn’t been an easy process for Klatt, who trained as an entrepreneur at Western Carolina University. Along the way he’s taught himself to do much of the work around the property, including restoring pond-fed water lines and cisterns, reworking rusted ventilation equipment and clearing the forests that had taken root in the greenhouses.
Along the way, Klatt has also become intimate with the challenges affecting small-scale agriculture ventures. The profit margins for local farmers are so narrow that many are unable to make a profit using the greenhouse space, even at 15 cents a square foot.
The companies that have flourished at SMW are resilient — and diverse. Current tenants include the Organic Growers School, Nutty Buddy Collective, Mother Earth Food, Asheville Craft Cannabis, Smart Feller Tree Works, Belle Decor and Mountain Flame Yoga.
A fateful visit
I first went to Smith Mill Works last autumn to drop off 100 pounds of green walnuts at the Asheville Nuttery and ended up getting lost in reverie and awe. As I wandered around SMW, I wondered what a resilient Asheville would look like in 100 years, 500 years. Perhaps the future might not look like decay and entropy but rather the reverse — regeneration and resilience.
“That’s what we’re here to do,” says Taig Rehmel, co-owner of Asheville Craft Cannabis. “The next 50 years here in Asheville are about getting to sustainability, the first step in regeneration.”
ACC produced the first Demeter-certified biodynamic hemp flower in the United States. Rehmel describes a cooperative approach that includes sourcing raw organic components from Mother Earth Food to nourish the cannabis plants. The growers also engineered a cannabis flower processor with the help of fabrication shops on the property.
“It’s a miniature ecosystem we’re forming here, and Asheville is the place where this sort of thing can happen,” Rehmel observes. In over 15 years working in cannabis cultivation and breeding in the western U.S., he saw the industry move toward monopolization and conventional farming techniques. Asheville offered an alternative, he says: “This community has the people and the values to keep the burgeoning East Coast markets craft, sustainable and local. There’s no need for small cannabis operations to compete; we can all succeed by sharing our unique strengths.”
Continuity through community
Janelle Tatum, CEO of Mother Earth Food, shares a similar vision. During a recent strategy session, she says, something felt “off” in plans for the local grocery home delivery company. Then she recognized what it was: a too-narrow perspective. “By definition,” she explains, “we have to take the scarcity concept out and focus on what we are trying to do as a collective of food people: growing food, making food and providing food — we have to work together.”
Tatum says she experienced the power and potential of the collaborative approach during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when MEF, kombucha maker Buchi, Farm to Home Milk and volunteers got together to distribute a surge of orders. Over 300 farms, dairies, bakeries and other food product makers kept operating as restaurants and farmers markets closed. “Sustainable agriculture practices are a mirror of sustainability in our communities,” she says.
Brandon Greenstein, sustainability consultant for the Organic Growers School, sees a future in which social dynamics and resource sharing will play key roles in a resilient future for Asheville. “It’s going to be diverse, interconnected, never-before-seen ideas and more consciousness in how people are interacting with each other and interacting with the land.”
Nutty Buddy Collective’s Justin Holt encourages regional folks to gather acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts. The organization processes the bounty into nut meats, flours and butters at its Asheville Nuttery. He acknowledges and honors the Cherokee people who have lived on this land for generations and the native nut trees that are central to their diet. Holt hopes for a future when the Indigenous wisdom that allowed the Cherokee to thrive across WNC will be recognized and practiced. But he notes that it’s impossible to envision that possibility without also envisioning shifts in political and economic systems.
One hundred years from now, Holt hopes for a collaborative regional network of landowners, foragers and processing equipment. By 500 years in the future, he says, the concept of the commons — where land is commonly owned or accessible to the broader community — will be normalized. “People throughout all the eastern forests have managed it that way, and many areas still do,” he says.
At the upper portion of the SMW property, giant derelict greenhouses overlook the valley. From there, Klatt explains his vision of Asheville in the near future as a place for sustainability tourism, where tourists can take the best ideas incubating in Asheville back to their hometowns. He sees SMW as a potential hub for that type of generative sharing.
“Just as the optimism at the end of World War II affected Hyman Young Sr. to create a massive vision of the future in which the entire valley was growing with beautiful flowers, so will the current crises that we face mold the visions of hope and sustainability for future generations,” Klatt muses. As he surveys the sprawling complex, it’s clear he’s seeing what was, what is now and what is yet to be.