The roots and reason of Asheville’s buy-local sensibility

FARMER POWER: “Per capita, Western North Carolina consumers buy nearly three times as many goods directly from farmers than do the rest of North Carolinians,” says Charlie Jackson, executive director for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. Photo by Amy Sims

When wandering downtown Asheville’s shops and restaurants, potential customers often see prominently displayed signs proclaiming wares and food to be of local origin. The city’s local push has transformed from mere trend to full-fledged movement, a move that now seems natural, but how did local businesses get whipped into such a unified front?

“In the last few years, it’s exploded,” Howard Nemon, director of the Center for Local Economies, a small advocacy and research group, says of the buy-local boom.

Nemon, who moved to Asheville in 2007, started the center three years ago, holding conferences and talks on the motivation behind keeping money circulating within the area.

“We provide an understanding about what it means to buy local, and we also advocate for local production and how to become more self-reliant,” says Nemon. The group’s message has hit home, he says: “People have really taken notice and seen the benefits of spending their money locally.”

Planting the seed

Looking back, he says, one of the earliest players in the go-local movement was the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which started its local food campaign in 2000. (ASAP is the source of the local food bumper stickers that are ubiquitous around Asheville.) This is the earliest such local food campaign in the country, according to Charlie Jackson, director of ASAP.

“Our region is out ahead of a lot of other places in the country in terms of buying local food,” says Jackson. “When you leave this region, it’s a lot harder to find things made local. Per capita, Western North Carolina consumers buy nearly three times as many goods directly from farmers than do the rest of North Carolinians.”

Jackson said the history of his organization’s local food push is rooted in the eclipse of the tobacco industry, namely the federal government’s 2004 tobacco buyout. The government ended its support program for tobacco farmers, effectively ending large-scale tobacco production in North Carolina.

With the end looming for tobacco, ASAP started to think about how the region’s small, geographically fragmented farms could stay afloat by shifting production to other crops. The local food movement was born out of this quest for survival.

“We wanted to keep these farms in operation and needed a homegrown strategy,” says Jackson. “We connected them to the community, with people who consume food. Since these farms are small due to the mountains intersecting the land, it was much easier to shift production into other things and [encourage] selling them locally.”

ASAP has helped grow the local food movement into a regional powerhouse by connecting area chefs and food-service buyers with the farmers who can meet their needs, by certifying products as locally grown and raised in the southern Appalachians, by organizing the Asheville City Market and coordinating the Mountain Tailgate Market Association and by publishing ASAP’s Local Food Guide.

According to Jackson, people in the region embrace buying local food because they can easily make the connection between what they eat and the landscape around them.

According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, which was released in May 2014 and shows the most recent figures available, the region has reversed a trend in loss of farm acres, adding more than 10,000 acres between 2007 and 2012, while the rest of the state and most of the country lost farmland. ASAP’s data indicates consumers statewide spent more than $170 million on local farm products in 2013, a 42 percent increase from the previous year.

“Not only are we seeing these large increases in direct sales, we are seeing more and more restaurants, grocery stores and even universities, hospitals and public schools embrace local food,” says Jackson. “It’s remarkable across the board and truly astounding. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the growth seen.”

Diverting money from fast food to local business

If shoppers don’t know about Asheville’s Go Local Card, they should. The card is linked with 400 businesses in Asheville and those presenting earn net discounts and special offers. one-half of the proceeds from buying the $16 card, which is issued annually, go toward Asheville City Schools.

Franzi Charen, who helped start the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, says the genesis of the Go Local card traces to when school representatives asked her organization to come up with a replacement for the then-current fast-food company-based fundraisers city schools were using. They wanted something more wholesome and something that would benefit local businesses instead of funneling money to a large corporation. The Go Local Card was born in 2012.

“Pushing fast food in schools and having the money benefiting a chain didn’t make sense,” says Charen. “We wanted the money to stay local, and this was a grassroots way to do it.”

Charen says since her organization really started the local push in December 2009 with the Go Local posters, stickers and T-shirts, and since then, thousands have been printed and distributed.

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“We’re getting the message out, how important it is to support the local economy. When you purchase from an independent shop instead of a chain, the money put back into the local economy is tripled,” she says. “Local shops use local services, accounting, marketing, and they hire locally. This all contributes to a stronger local community.”

She emphasizes that a key component of any small city, but especially Asheville, is the unique character of its shops and restaurants. Chains have the money to either come in while a place is booming and pack up when it’s not, leaving a vacancy, or planting a big store here — while it doesn’t make a profit, its presence in a hip place like Asheville helps make the chain “cool.” None of this benefits Asheville in the long run, says Charen.

“The local movement preserves the unique character of Asheville,” she says.

Co-ops and capital

Going forward, Nemon says, cooperatives will be part of the future for Asheville’s economy, and a key strategy to anchor jobs and money in the city is to localize production and supply.

“The wages are low in Asheville,” he says. “To increase them, you’re not going to get that from businesses who aren’t interested in paying their employees. The conventional way is to bring in business from outside, but we’d like to emphasize the benefits of developing our own businesses here.”

Local government could do more to help out, such as putting more support behind co-ops, says Nemon.

“Cooperatives build local ownership, and that’s what we need here to create good-paying jobs,” he says. “The city government could play a larger role. A lot of times, they say, ‘We could put a hotel here, a parking lot there.’ Let’s convene the players to organize more co-ops.”

Convening local players is what the Venture Local conferences, put on by AdvantageWest in 2011 and 2012, aimed to do. The gatherings applauded recent progress, unveiled new projects and helped local entrepreneurs learn successful business strategies and how to connect with investors. All of that paved the way for this year’s March 18 Bringing It Home conference, which will bring new players to the table.

Accelerating Appalachia, a self-described “nature-based business incubator,” will be one source of capital at the conference. This Asheville-based nonprofit, which will provide one-on-one meetings with parties of interest, has become an important source of financing for local businesses, orchestrating the transfer of a half-million dollars in investment funds to sustainable, nature-based ventures in WNC last year. The organization strongly favors local applicants and hopes to match even more local businesses to investors in 2015, advancing such enterprises as sustainable food, farming, clean energy, forests, textiles, green building, craft brewing and distilling, and integrative medicine.

Blue Ridge Naturally, a collaborative venture among several area development organizations, seeks to raise awareness of quality natural products such as personal- and pet-care items, cleaners, food and beverages in the Blue Ridge Mountains region. Its stamp of approval on products means ingredients have been reviewed, are traceable, are safely made or grown and, if necessary, tested. BRN will serve as one of the technical service providers at the conference.

Small businesses looking for coaching or funding can turn to Mountain BizWorks, which has operated in the region for 25 years. Its mission is to generate jobs and ensure economic resiliency in WNC, by providing loans and peer-to-peer business coaching to businesspeople who may find it difficult to secure funding from banks and other traditional sources.

At the conference, meetings will be also available with these potential funders and technical service providers:

Sources of capital

Accelerating Appalachia, Asheville Angel Investors, Community Sourced Capital, Green Opportunities Fund, HomeTrust Bank, Mountain BizWorks, Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund, Natural Capital Investment Fund, Scale Up WNC, Self-Help Credit Union, Sequoyah Fund, Slow Money and The Support Center.

Technical service providers

A-B Tech Small Business Center and Incubator, Asheville Grown Business Alliance, Blue Ridge Naturally, Blue Ridge Food Ventures, Family Business Forum, Lenoir Rhyne MBA Program, WNC MedWeek Committee, NC Economic Partners, NC Natural Products Association, OnTrack Financial Services, the Small Business Administration, Small Business and Technology Center, SCORE, Spark Tank and the city of Asheville’s Office of Economic Development.

WHAT: Entrepreneurs, investors, nonprofit workers, business professionals and all other interested individuals are invited to attend the Bringing It Home economic conference.

WHERE: The Haynes Center at A-B Tech’s Enka campus

WHEN: Wednesday, March 18, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

TICKETS: $30 for general admission and $25 for students.

MORE INFO & RESERVATIONS: bringingithomewnc.org

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About Pat Barcas
Pat is a photojournalist and writer who moved to Asheville in 2014. He previously worked for a labor and social rights advocacy newspaper in Chicago. Email him at pbarcas@gmail.com. Follow me @pbarcas

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