Without a doubt, “Local Food: Thousands of Miles Fresher” is one of the most popular bumper stickers in Western North Carolina. Born of the Local Food Campaign launched by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project some seven years ago, the bumper sticker is the sort of mantra I’m proud to sport on my car. And like many, I’ve supported local growers—at least in spirit—by periodically shopping at tailgate markets and looking for the new Appalachian Grown label at the grocery store. In late June, however, I took advantage of a unique opportunity to go directly to the source, meeting the people whose passion for what they do puts excellence on my plate and in my cup.
About 30 of us took part in the WNC AgOptions farm tour. We were taken by bus to four different locations: Spring House Meats at the Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, the Dillingham Farm near Weaverville, the Madison County Cooperative Extension and Zimmerman’s Berry Farm (also in Madison County). And though I’d already embraced the concept of local food, I want to share with you a few of the things I learned on the tour that are transforming the words on my bumper sticker into an exciting new relationship with locally grown food.
Spring House Meats is becoming well-known for its pasture-raised livestock grown in natural, low-stress conditions. The cattle and sheep are grass-fed, which translates into significant health benefits for the consumer. Meat from grass-fed livestock is abundant in healthy nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and beta carotene; it’s also lower in calories. Jamie and Amy Ager at Spring House are eager to help people understand their farming process as well as their product, and each Thursday, the farm store is open from 3 to 6 p.m.—a good time to choose from a wide variety of cuts of meat as well as locally produced jams, jellies and honey. And while you’re at it, you can visit with the baby turkeys.
Our next stop, Dillingham Farms, isn’t currently open to the public, but Marvin and Justin gave us a great behind-the-scenes perspective on their pioneering approaches to the business of farming. There we learned about the Katahdin, one of several types of “hair sheep”—a small but growing niche market of the sheep industry. With burley-tobacco growers looking for other ways to utilize their land, many have turned to raising sheep. As a result, they’ve had to deal with the diseases and parasites that typically afflict these animals. The Katahdin, however, is highly resistant to both; and as a bonus, it naturally sheds its hair, eliminating the need for costly shearing.
The Dillinghams also grow grapes, both table and wine. As they were getting the vineyard under way, said Marvin, they received significant technical assistance from Biltmore Estate, which buys the bulk of his October harvest for its winery. And while we walked around the vineyard, the sound of bulldozers clearing adjacent land served as a reminder that by supporting local growers, consumers also protect WNC’s scenic beauty.
Although it’s not a farm, Madison Farms, a nonprofit organization based at the Madison County Cooperative Extension offices, is in the early stages of a program targeting farmers cultivating three to 10 acres. Currently, about 25 growers are taking advantage of this new value-added facility, where produce is washed, sorted, dried, boxed and stored in coolers. Madison Farms supplies locally grown produce through the Farms to Schools Program, and the day before our visit, the first load of locally grown broccoli had been delivered to Mission Hospitals—an exciting step in providing locally grown food to institutional partners.
The last destination on the tour was Zimmerman’s Berry Farm in Sodom Laurel. And though the farm is a poster child for burley-tobacco-crop transition, there were tough lessons early on. When the Zimmermans first decided to grow berries, they settled on blueberries—not realizing that the soil chemistry hadn’t fully recovered from years of growing tobacco. In their first attempt, the Zimmermans lost an entire field of blueberry plants—an expensive but important lesson. They regrouped, did more homework, and today the Zimmermans have a very productive and popular berry farm. At the end of our tour, Pam served up her famous berry cobblers with ice cream and berry sauce. I couldn’t wait to come home to print off the recipes she so graciously shares on the farm’s Web site.
My opportunity to experience local food firsthand was made possible through the WNC AgOptions Program, a joint effort by HandMade in America, North Carolina Cooperative Extension and the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. There are many similar ongoing opportunities open to the public. Farm- and food-event listings can be found on Web-based calendars such as those kept by ASAP at www.asapconnections.org, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association at www.carolinafarmstewards.org, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at www.ncagr.com/agritourism, among others. And be sure to read the 2007 Local Food Guide (found at newsstands and on ASAP’s Web site) from cover to cover.
We all need the nourishment of quality food, and we need local growers to thrive. Applying a spirit of adventure and inquiry to seeking locally grown food will enrich your culinary experience—and will round out your vibrato as you chant, “Local Food: Thousands of Miles Fresher!”
[Asheville resident Janiece Marie Meek is a freelance writer, communications consultant, gardener and community activist who serves as communications director for HandMade in America. Her blog is at www.lifespot.wordpress.com]