Jon D. Bowman photo
Asheville Farmers Market
You throw on your comfy shoes, a touch of sunscreen, and a big hat and grab a canvas bag. It’s Saturday morning and the tailgate markets are open for business.
Farmers from across the region have backed up their trucks and lowered tailgates. With everything from heirloom tomatoes and petal-soft lettuces, squash, okra, eggplant, peppers, and beans to homemade pasta, jams, goat cheese, sprays of wildflowers and beyond, the market stalls are brimming.
Mingling aromas of fresh baked bread, sticky buns, bunches of rosemary and mint, a whiff of briny ocean breeze of seafood in coolers—all are visceral reminders that the foods we eat come from the labor of human beings—our neighbors, our friends.
While a visit to the market won’t necessarily supplant a regular grocery store schedule, it’s a welcome change from over-bright fluorescent-lit aisles and glossily packaged goods. And for the area’s farmers, it is the best possible way to meet their customers.
Saturday mornings start off somewhat differently for the growers—some waking at 4 a.m. or earlier to travel to their designated market, stack their produce presentably on tables and turn a brisk business.
For many consumers like Missy Reed, a working mother of two, the farmers’ sacrifices allow a return to a ritual that starts in April and lasts until the frigid days of late October. There’s fresh, fragrant produce and the opportunity to chat with those who coax the first shoots from the earth and cultivate them into gleaming bunches of greens laid out on market tables.
Listen to a tune or two, chat with friends. It’s something Reed looks forward to all week. In many ways the market is the old town square resurrected.
“I love the sense of community and the good feeling that comes from purchasing items that are grown and raised and made locally,” said Reed, a life-long western North Carolina resident. “There’s a sense of ‘oneness’ that comes from supporting each other. I imagine how people who once lived in small villages felt.”
Reed, who lives in Asheville, has a tradition of dropping by the City Market in downtown Asheville, then making her way to the North Asheville Tailgate Market. The former is a tourist-friendly market with musicians plucking away at banjos and ukuleles, coffee carts with aromatic espresso beverages, stalls proffering fresh-baked muffins and scones, flower and herb sellers, and jewelry designers displaying their wares among the farm vendors. It is indeed an urban market at its best, a fun and fruitful stop for folks with out-of-town visitors and local residents, even a great place to go with a date.
Reed’s second stop, the North Asheville Tailgate Market is more suburban in flavor. Set up under a canopy of trees in a parking lot at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, farmers greet regulars where the pace slows a bit. Neighbors confer over the best way to plant basil at the herb stall.
While only 20 percent of her grocery shopping takes place at fresh markets, Reed is hoping to increase that percentage this year now that her children are older and willing to try more foods. Bread, fresh greens, fresh goat cheese, honey, apple butter, herbs, tomato plants, body care products, and sweets are some of her favorite buys.
“It feels natural and solid to shop this way,” she said. “I love that there are no product placements, sales pitches or the question ‘paper or plastic.’”
A survey of the Asheville City Market on the day it opened this past April showed 190 new customers who had never been to a tailgate market in the region, according to Rose McLarney, marketing director for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.
“That’s a pretty good number,” she noted. “And that was just from the people who bothered to come over to the booth and sign up. Farmers’ markets are becoming more popular every year.
Buncombe County (where Asheville, N.C. is located) is now home to a dozen markets. There’s at least one in every county in western North Carolina. The 2010 Local Food Guide published by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project lists close to 80 markets in western North Carolina, east Tennessee and north Georgia, as well as more than 400 farms and community gardens in those areas.
“The growth in popularity is likely due to the increased value people are placing on local food, thanks to the local food movement,” McClarney explained. “Farmers markets are becoming more numerous, more diverse and better known. Every county can support its own.”
Additionally, she said, a diversity of community members are becoming aware of markets, ranging from people concerned with health and sustainability to traditional, conventional farmers, to gourmet foodies, to food stamp users.
“It seems like most everyone understands the reason to buy local now,” McLarney said.
In 2007, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project released a groundbreaking study on the potential for local food in western North Carolina. The study noted that every year since 2004, consumer spending at local farmers’ markets has increased by 15 percent.
Field to Table
As important as the occasional Saturday shopper is, local restaurants and caterers fill out the rest of the farmers’ dance card. Last August, when Nate Allen and his wife Wendy Gardner first opened Knife and Fork, their Spruce Pine, N.C., restaurant, they made it a point to visit the small farms in their immediate area to meet the growers in person.
After a decade in Los Angeles, the couple returned to their native mountains to live the sustainable life and open their own venue based on those principles. Doing that meant utilizing the produce from farmers down the road.
“I, just in general, love farmers,” said Allen. “They’ve given their entire life to grow the things that allow me to practice my art. It’s a direct farmer-to-chef relationship that gets to exist here.”
In opening the restaurant, Allen inspected all the farmers’ facilities. “The ones that show me around the farm and are passionate about the practices they use are the most reliable partners for me,” says the chef.
And while he doesn’t require certified organic growing practices (which command a high price and a rigorous testing procedure by the government), he does want to ensure that the farmers treat their animals humanely and grow their product as naturally as possible.
Allen has also made it easier on local farmers. Being one of the only restaurants in Spruce Pine and one with a daily-changing menu, Knife and Fork has become a big-time client and farm advocate for nearby farmers. Yet, even with all the deliveries with which farmers have accommodated, he still relishes a day at the market.
“I love going to Burnsville’s tailgate market,” he said. “It’s everything from serious career farms moving a great deal of product to smaller hobby or subsistence farmers sharing their excess, sometimes little old ladies selling jams. It’s neat to see the products from people whose families have been here for generations.”
Of course, Allen tends to visit at 7 a.m. as people are setting up. He’ll help the farmers unfold their tables so he can get to the produce as fast as he can. The result of such care is evident in the charming restaurant overlooking Spruce Pine’s lower road railroad tracks. A chalkboard boasts the menu of the day that bears witness to the fresh intake from the morning—juicy tomatoes, tender beet and root vegetable au gratin, and crisp greens atop a French country-style pate made of rabbit from a Yancey County farm.
Rabbit pate? Marketplace lattes? Spiced blueberry vinegar or homemade pasta vendors? Dare it be said that farming has somehow turned ... fashionable?
Karen Bowman might agree, and thinks that’s fine. She sold produce at the Watauga County Farmer’s Market since 1993 and has been its manager since 2005. She’s observed a patent increase in young farming families as venders. She’s also witnessed a swell in the Saturday morning shoppers, counting among their numbers second homeowners and tourists, as well as seasoned regulars.
“We call this Boone’s ‘Town Hall,’” said Bowman, as she wandered from stall to stall, making sure signs were prominently displayed with some 90 vendors every weekend. “We also call it a BLT market…where you can find all the ingredients here to make a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.”
This has been the most popular period for farming since the inception of this market in 1974, Bowman added.
“I’d go as a social event, but it didn’t do a lot to sustain farms,” she said. “It’s definitely doubled in vendor participation. It attracts both large-scale and small-scale farmers, and we pretty much have the volume all morning.”
Some 2,000 attendees have been known to make it through on a Saturday.
Crops and Colleges
College and universities teaching farming practices have noted an uptick in applications and more interest in sustainable agriculture and variations thereof as a subject concentration.
Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., boasts an 18-year-old sustainable development program. Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., has its own profitable farm as part of the sustainable agriculture concentration under the environmental studies major. As part of a much-touted work-study program, all Warren Wilson students work 15 hours a week on various crews around the pastoral campus, including the work intensive farm crew. Made up of mostly students studying that particular curriculum, they often work many more hours to accomplish farm tasks that don’t fit into given time blocks.
In fact, Warren Wilson started as the Asheville Farm School in 1894 to educate rural Appalachian youth.
“They farmed and grew their own food and that tradition has continued for over a century,” said Chase Hubbard, Warren Wilson’s farm school manager.
Hubbard and his colleagues teach the key components to sustainable agriculture—economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
“The students that come through our farm program have strong work skills and are able to organize and evaluate their work,” explained Hubbard. But ultimately, students here also become aware of the reality that farming can mean much more than planting and harvesting. There’s often veterinary work, operating, maintaining and repairing farm machinery, fence building, all field operations, painting, carpentry, welding, and more.
Scott Paquin and partner Elizabeth Gibbs run Firefly Farm. Based in western North Carolina’s Yancey County for 17 years, Paquin first came to the area as a woodworker at the Penland School of Crafts. His great-grandfather was a farmer, and in time, Paquin says growing food became the vocation that chose him.
Gibbs, who also helped to organize the 2009 Mountain Farm and Garden Tour and teaches at the Organic Growers School, managed the Durham (N.C.) Farmers Market and worked at Whole Foods Market before coming to Yancey County.
Paquin estimates that he sells 25 percent of his crops to between eight and 12 restaurants in a given season, and the rest go out to tailgate markets or directly to consumers through its Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. Participants pre-pay for a type of “subscription” to a farm. Throughout the growing season, CSA members receive a share of the produce from their farm that week.
Buyers have a direct connection to their farm and see how the harvest from it changes week by week over the course of the season. Paquin is also active beyond the field and market.
“One of the things that’s great about restaurants,” said Paquin, “is that they love to have that flexibility to have that different offering from growers to keep their menu lively. From season to season we keep in contact with them.”
With so much competition in the local growers market now, Paquin suggests that offering diversity is the best way to keep buyers interested and coming back.
“One of the ways to express individuality is in the variety that you grow,” he said.
Seven years ago he began planting a winter squash called a candyroaster. Known to this area, but somehow forgotten except by a considerably older generation of farmers, the splotchy, oblong, pumpkin-like squash has taken off for Firefly Farm. Chefs were clamoring over the sweet, subtle taste and how to work it into their menus, said Paquin.
Additionally, as “seed savers” Firefly Farm actually harvests many of the seeds of the produce, thereby keeping every part of the harvest local, and not needing to go to national sources of seed catalogs.
“The chefs are gracious with this and let us cut them open and removed the seeds,” he said of the candyroasters.
The farm also saves tomato seeds and peppers.
The Nouveau Farm
In Madison County on about 160 acres of rolling hills, Three Graces Dairy raises goats and cows to produce farmstead cheese. In an involved process that Sacha Alford and her mother Roberta Ferguson mainly taught themselves with occasional tutoring from a cheese expert, they prepare dusky camemberts, pungent abbey-style cheeses, and feta, as well as soft goat cheeses they mix with ginger or herbs. A tailgate market favorite (they sell their cheeses at three a week) is the “Date with a Nutty Canadian,” made of organic pure maples syrup, dates, black walnuts.
These former Chicagoans represent yet another breed of farmer—not the old timer, not the younger generation returning to the homestead, but the second career, first-time farmer. With her husband Steve and a young toddler, Sacha Alford followed her mother to the farming life. For Roberta Ferguson, this was supposed to represent retirement.
Early feeding of the young kid goats (sometimes just birthed overnight), mucking stalls, milking the mature goats—all that has to happen before stepping foot into the sterilized cheese kitchen. Yet the effort seems to be worth it, according to the family.
These fancy cheeses involve hard work and making something by hand that can’t be denied.
“Our farm is a small-scale, multi-tasking environment,” Alford explained. “We employ local people who share their knowledge of the community with us and their wisdom in all things land and animal.”
Two young interns from the county help feed and milk the goats, while mother and daughter develop their cheeses in a sterile kitchen. They offer tours of the farm several times a month.
“It’s important to let people see where their product comes from,” said Alford, noting that when embarking on their adventure, observing was key. “Our whole adventure into farming was years of reading books and dreaming and hoping and just throwing ourselves into the fray.”
Whatever their motives may be—seeking tradition or a new endeavor—today’s farmers are allowing a growing number of people to share in the bounty of fresh, local produce that’s readily available and ripe for local economies.
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program’s 10 Reasons to Buy Local
1. Eat fresher, better tasting, healthier foods.
When produce is shipped hundreds or thousands of miles, it loses crispness, flavor, and nutrients on the way. Foods grown to be shipped may be picked before they ripen and treated with more chemicals. Local foods haven’t traveled so far and are fresher. If you’re buying at a farmers market, the produce has often been picked that morning.
2. Enjoy seasonal produce and regional varieties.
As the seasons change, so do crops. If you eat locally, you’ll be trying new things throughout the year. You’re also likely to be eating what naturally grows in your area. While industrial, corporate farms grow varieties that ripen quickly and store well, family farmers often cultivate heirloom varieties that are unique to your home and a part of its heritage.
3. Support your farming neighbors.
Fewer and fewer farms are able to stay in business. Faced with increasing costs and competition from corporate farms, it’s getting harder for farmers to make a profit. Use your food dollars to support a family you know, not a big business based elsewhere.
4. Sustain rural heritage and lifestyles.
Farming has long been a way of life in this area, and farms have been passed from generation to generation. Family farmers are a central part of our communities.
5. Protect natural beauty and open spaces by preserving farmland.
As land prices and property taxes increase, more and more farms are sold for development. Helping to make local farms profitable saves the rural landscape.
6. Encourage sustainable farming practices, benefiting human, animal, and environmental health.
Family farmers value their water and land because they must maintain these resources to continue farming. Family farms often use less fossil fuel and fewer chemicals than industrial farms. Family farmers are also more accountable. Unlike a company in another country or state, their customers can observe their practices.
7. Strengthen local economies and keep your food dollars close to home.
The uncertainty of the global economy makes clear the need for local economies. Use your purchasing power to create local jobs and pay taxes that benefit your own community. Sustainably raised foods sometimes cost more at the cash register, but their long-term costs to the environment and society are far less.
8. Maintain and build local food systems so we can feed ourselves in the future.
As fossil fuels become scarcer and costlier, shipping food long distances will no longer be an option. We are blessed with good farmland and must make thr best use of it, as well as developing the ability to process and distribute food within our region.
9. Keep farming skills alive, and farmland available.
The number of farmers is rapidly declining. We must ensure that farmers’ essential knowledge is passed on, and make staying on the farm a good option for young people. We must also preserve farmland. Developed land can be contaminated and loses its topsoil and fertility.
10. Get to know who grew your food and where, so you reconnect with it and your community.
You can put a face and a farm with local food. You’ll learn about the seasons and weather through their effect on crops, and you’ll learn about the work of farming from your discussions with the grower. When you buy directly from the farmer, more of your money goes back to the farm. And if you shop at a farmers market or subscribe to a CSA, you’ll meet your neighbors and participate in a community event. When you visit restaurants and grocers that use local ingredients, you support businesses that share your commitments.