Backyard farmers know this well—there is little more satisfying and nutritious than food that tastes of where it has been raised. A tomato borne on hand-tended vines is a plump reward for careful cultivators. A baby crookneck squash needs only a little sautéing to sweeten up before gracing a summer plate. Across the region, farmers are using these appeals along with sustainable practices and farm-to-table marketing to reconnect consumers with their food.
“Small farms have a certain intimacy and a hands-on approach that focuses on quality over quantity,” says William Shelton, who can be found, along with his young sons, at the small farmers’ market in Sylva, N.C. “Having a series of small farms offering a variety of products is overall better for the community.”
Shelton runs a multi-generational family farm along the Tuckasegee River in the Whittier area of Jackson County known as the “Cherokee Old Fields.” Shelton’s great grandfather started the farm to grow enough food to sustain the family as well as the cash crops of animal livestock and tobacco. After Shelton graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1984, he made the decision to transition the family farm into vegetable and strawberry production.
“Tobacco was losing its profitability, but also people were becoming more aware of its negative effects on health,” Shelton recalls. “I wanted to produce crops that were healthier, and I wanted to get away from the waste of animal production.”
These days the 35-acre Shelton Family Farm produces strawberries, bibb lettuce, and tomatoes that are sold throughout the region. Shelton uses sustainable practices including limiting the use of pesticides and practicing crop rotation, which keeps the soil viable.
“It’s been important to us to be conscientious,” Shelton says. “This land has been a farm for many years, since before even my family had it. It’s still viable and productive, and that’s a testament to how important it has been to us to keep it healthy.”
When Shelton made the switch to vegetable production he also created an emphasis on selling to the local community. In additional to selling products at farmers markets and a small stand on Shelton Farm, the farm supports itself through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a model of food networking where local residents purchase a share of the farm’s upcoming harvest. In return for providing the farmer with the monetary support, share-holders receive produce grown by Shelton throughout the growing season. Shelton’s CSA now grows enough food for 75 share-holders and their families, though Shelton estimates this is only 10 percent of the farm’s total volume.
Shelton notes that a lot of the support for his farm has come from the region’s growing interest in local food.
“I worried at first that the local food movement was a passing fad,” Shelton said. “But we’re having difficult economic times right now and people are still buying local foods—foods that may cost a little more but that sustain good health for families and help the farmers who make their living growing it.”
Shelton credits a lot of the growing interest in local foods to the work of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), an organization that strives to protect Appalachian agricultural heritage by connecting local farmers with consumers and raising awareness of the economic and health benefits of local production.
“We want local food to be the norm and readily available to everyone,” says Maggie Cramer of ASAP. “We’re working [so that] consumers will come to understand the value of eating local food for themselves and the economy; farmers will change growing practices to reflect local demand; businesses will change or invest in more local capacity; new farmers will begin farming and increase production; community organizations and institutions will look to local food as a strategy to address food access community health, and development issues; and more consumers will have more access to local food.”
ASAP offers training and consultation programs to farmers, estimating that their efforts helped 2,500 farmers in 2011, including both experienced farmers and new farmers who received assistance through ASAP’s Beginning Farmers Project. Through its Business of Farming Conference the organization sets farmers up with other agriculture professionals as well as marketing and business specialists.
ASAP also facilitates a “farm to school” program known as Growing Minds, which aims to teach children about local food through field trips to farms, nutrition education, cooking classes and demonstrations, and school gardens. The program also brings local food into school cafeterias and has had success in Jackson County where students at Cullowhee Valley Elementary participate in taste tests of local foods and proudly wear “I tried local food!” stickers.
“Over the last decade [we] have focused on ensuring that farms can continue farming and that everyone has access to local food,” Cramer said. “Our approach has been to create supportive environments in which farms, businesses, and consumers can innovate and try new things.”
Since 1999 ASAP has been publishing the Local Food Guide—a resource for consumers that lists the local farms, roadside stands, and wineries of Appalachia in addition to the grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, caterers, bed & breakfasts, and tailgate markets that carry local products.
“When we printed the first Local Food Guide, we could not have imagined how much could change in a decade,” says Charlie Jackson, executive director of ASAP. “Today, the guide is the most comprehensive source for local food in the country, and the Appalachian region leads a national local food movement that is reshaping our farms and the way we eat.”
Restaurants throughout the region are adopting principals of the local food movement. The Mast Farm Inn, a full service bed and breakfast located in Valle Crucis in the High County area of North Carolina owned by the Deschamps family, is one such example. The inn’s restaurant, Simplicity, creates 300 to 400 meals each week using locally sourced ingredients, including produce grown in the restaurant’s own organic garden.
Simplicity’s farm, though small in size, produces 150 types of vegetables, 15 different herbs, and more than 40 different types of flowers. The garden is hand-tended by the staff and chefs using no chemicals and only one piece of machinery—a small tiller used once a year.
“To us it just makes good sense,” Henri Deschamps said. “It’s more work and it’s very labor intensive, but when you own a restaurant and grow your own produce, it makes you feel so involved.”
The garden creates a unique challenge for Simplicity’s chefs who, as Deschamp notes, are forced to “think on their feet and test their creativity.” The crop may fall prey to unexpected weather or an unwelcome invasion of deer and other animals, leaving the chefs without all the ingredients they had hoped for. As a result, Simplicity’s menu is a four-course dinner determined daily and based on the garden’s best offerings.
“Guests get to see us picking things that end up on their plate an hour later and they enjoy that,” Deschamp said. “It makes the restaurant feel down to earth. It’s very relaxed and unpretentious, and helps us keep the feel of family dining even when we’re serving high-quality, organic meals.”
For ingredients not grown in the garden, the chefs at Simplicity turn to local producers, almost all in the High County, to obtain hormone-free, organic products, including all the meats used in the restaurant.
“We’re not experts in this,” Deschamp said. “But it’s more and more obvious that there is a serious problem with food production—with hormones, with antibiotics, with animal cruelty. And there are simple, minimal things we can do to improve it, things that are logical.”
The efforts of Simplicity have won them many admirers, including the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which named the restaurant a top 10 finalist in its “Best Dish in North Carolina” contest in 2010.
“Some guests that eat here might not know or understand all we do (with organic food sourcing), but I think they still appreciate it,” Deschamp says. “The food is so much better. The flavor you get when things are fresh-picked, out-of-the-ground is just unbelievable.”
Many other restaurants throughout the region are embracing farm-to-table practices even when they are not able to maintain their own garden. This includes restaurants in urban areas, such as Chez Liberty in Knoxville, Tenn., which serves traditional American food with special emphasis on using fresh and locally sourced ingredients.
“Our primary drive is to produce food that tastes good, is good for you, and that reflects the best that food can be,” says owner Ross Young. “Our secondary drive is to make sure we participate only in constructive, sustainable farming practices. It so happens that [local] vegetables taste the best. It makes sense that something grown in Friendsville, Tenn., is going to taste better than the same thing grown in Chile, picked early, packaged, shipped and warehoused.”
Whenever possible, Young and head chef Robert de Binder source their ingredients from regional farmers and farmer’s markets. The menu changes with the seasons because, Young notes, “it allows us to show what is best in the market.”
“We are getting foods in season, when they are best,” Young says. “You should be suspicious of any tomatoes in February or turnips in the summer. We are in the good, and luxurious, position of being close to most of our farmers, who love what they do.”
Chez Liberty features produce from nearby Tennessee farms, steaks from Strong Stock Farms, a multi-generational family farm in Knoxville, and runs a special called the “Chef’s Garden Platter,” which Young describes as “a great way to show what you can do with winter vegetables.” The diversity of Chez Liberty’s menu does not allow for all it’s ingredients to be sourced locally; however, this does not mean that the principles of the local food movement and its emphasis on environmental responsibility and fostering small economies must be abandoned for variety. When desired ingredients aren’t available locally, Chez Liberty reaches out to farmers who use sustainable practices in other regions.
“On our current menu, we have over 60 cheeses, most of them from involved, artisan producers who care about their animals,” Young says. “Our sushi-grade halibut is from managed Norwegian wild stock where the fishermen know the area the best, fish only to certain amounts, and monitor the schools for health, number, and quality.”
For those looking to bring the local food movement into their home kitchen, several organizations throughout the Appalachian region help conscientious consumers locate and purchase locally-sourced products. ASAP’s Local Food Guide is published regularly in print, though an online version is always available at BuyAppalachian.org.
In addition to ASAP, the Buy Haywood Market Development Project, which formed in 2007 and works with about 40 farms in the Haywood, Jackson and Buncombe counties of North Carolina, helps to put residents and visitors in touch with local farmers.
“Local farms are incredibly important for economic vitality,” says Anne Lancaster of Buy Haywood. “Agriculture is a big employer in this region. And there are the environmental factors to consider, like the amount of fuel that is saved when we buy local products instead of shipping them in, and the benefit to the land as many of these farmers use few or no pesticides.”
As part of their initiative, Buy Haywood has created easily noticed labels bearing the words “Haywood County—North Carolina Mountain Grown.” Farmers can place the labels on their products allowing them to be spotted in grocery stores such as Ingles, Whole Foods or Earthfare. ASAP offers a similar service through its “Appalachian Grown” logo, which farmers in Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians can apply to use. Both these labels assure customers that the purchase supports a local farmer using sustainable practices.
“When you see the Appalachian Grown logo, you know you’re buying fresher foods that support family farms, strengthen the local economy, preserve rural culture, and protect the region’s natural beauty,” Cramer said.
In addition to their label campaign, Buy Haywood offers a farm guide through their website that gives residents and visitors to Haywood County maps to local farms that offer everything from fresh vegetables and artisan cheese to trout and Christmas trees. Visitors can browse BuyHaywood.com to find itineraries to help plan day trips or excursions to meet local farms and sample local products.
“With the exception of a couple down months, there are local products available in this region year-round,” Lancaster says. “And visiting a farm allows you to interact with a basic part of life. You get to see how your food or your Christmas tree was grown. You get to feel close to the land and close to the people who work it.”
Many of the farmers participating in Buy Haywood sell their products at the Historic Haywood County Farmers Market, which runs from April to October in Waynesville, N.C. Carolina. However, consumers throughout the region can find a farmer’s market in almost every county, many of which are listed in ASAP’s Local Food Guide.
“There are many ways to buy local products,” Lancaster said. “You can get them from your local farmers’ market, a tailgate farm stand, and from many grocery stores. Local products may be a little more expensive, but there are many ways to cut down on the cost such as planning your meals to buy what is in season. And often when you buy directly from the farmers you’re able to buy things in large quantities for affordable prices.”
Many farmers throughout Appalachia are benefiting from consumers growing interest in locally sourced products. As William Shelton notes, farmers are becoming less susceptible to the “volatility of market trends” as direct interaction with their customers allows them to form long-lasting relationships and friendships.
“A lot of farmers don’t do this for the money because it’s actually a very frustrating way to make money,” Shelton said with a smile. “Farmers do this because they love what they do. It’s exciting to know there’s increased awareness because it really is mutually beneficial for the farmer and the community.”