In a rural farming community outside the small Western North Carolina town of Waynesville, N.C., Skipper Russell’s thick hands have long toiled the fields, working the soil and picking the cucumbers, bell peppers and beans.
That is, of course, during a good year.
Heavy rains swept across the region last summer leaving much of his 35-acre farm submerged, unfit for yielding much more than the bare minimum. And the effects of back-to-back hurricanes in 2004 linger, as he continues tapping his savings to pay back loans for restoring the farm.
“We’ve just been struggling,” said
Russell, who now works part time at a local grocery store where he also sells some of his produce. The job is among other means that are helping tide him and his wife over, perhaps until next year.
It is a common refrain, particularly among smaller farmers, whose precarious livelihoods are inextricably tied to Mother Nature’s whim and consumer demand’s fickle nature.
As the farming industry has commercialized over the years, farmers have taken a hit, increasingly having to justify further investments amid lower profit margins and soaring prices for fertilizer and equipment. That particularly is true in Western North Carolina, where mountainous terrain hardly offers the vast fertile grounds needed for commercial farms like those seen in the Midwest.
In Haywood County, located in far Western North Carolina where both Interstate 40 and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park cross the Tennessee state line, the agricultural community is experiencing a period of regrowth, as community advocates have worked to preserve, and redefine, what many see as essential not only to the local economy, but to the community’s social fabric.
There are Christmas trees and broccoli rabe growers, trout fishers, cattle herders and cheese makers. Roadside stands and farmers’ markets abound. And there are the local businesses, including restaurants that base their menus on seasonal and local ingredients.
The local food trend has led to, among other things, more creativity in many kitchens.
“The sky’s the limit,” Heidi Dunkelberg, who runs the Coffee Cup Cafe, in Clyde, N.C., said of sourcing from local farmers.
She has nurtured that mindset over the past year or so, displaying weekly specials on the café’s chalkboard menu as she has broadened her cooking ambitions.
Now, she haunts farmers’ markets, gathering whatever she sees as a potential staple for her next dish. “I’m like a blank chalkboard,” she said of her visits to the markets. “When the early spring comes, I just get excited.”
She also has established ties to farmers and businesses, arranging visits for ingredients to be picked up and made into things like a Reuben-style sandwich with locally sourced trout and a beef brisket roasted in a porter from a local brewer.
Her use of such ingredients is apparent in her dishes, she said.
“It’s food,” Dunkelberg said of them. “It’s real food, from the earth.”
Beyond that, it has helped her cope with a work environment that involves much repetition.
“It keeps me sane,” she said of thinking about ways to make different dishes with local ingredients. “It’s a challenge.”
Against the backdrop of a local food movement, “agri-preneurs” like Dunkelberg are seeking to leverage their agricultural surroundings as a way to spur spending in the local food market.
Buy Haywood, an agritourism group, works to establish ties between consumers and farmers. A small group of advocates formed the group 2007, as part of an effort to grow the local consumer base and preserve the county’s agricultural heritage.
“There really wasn’t a huge consumer drive,” said Tina Masciarelli, project coordinator at Buy Haywood.
As an extension of economic development, funding for the organization helps spread word about the county’s agricultural bounty, “from the honeybees to the Christmas trees,” she said.
Beyond arranging meetings among local farmers and restaurateurs and offering coupons at farmers’ markets, the group distributes thousands of brochures featuring more than 700 farms, whose fields and pastures cover a total of more than 56,000 acres, Masciarelli said. Of those, about three-fourths include cattle, she noted.
Among them is Balsam Gardens, a homestead that exemplifies the growing emphasis, particularly among younger generations, on sustainable farming.
The younger couple that runs the farm, Steven Beltram and Becca Nestler, grows organic vegetables and raises livestock without using hormones or antibiotics.
“We enable a chicken to be a chicken, an earthworm to be an earthworm, and a beet to be a beet,” Nestler shares on the farm’s Website. The couple also offers a community-supported agriculture program, or a C.S.A., in which consumers can buy shares of the harvests from their farm.
There are more than a dozen farm-to-table restaurants, ones that source local products during growing seasons—products like Jessica DeMarco’s homemade jams, products that knit the community together.
The 32-year-old has spent the past three years whipping up sweet and savory jams and jellies with her brother at their Waynesville storefront, sourcing much of their fruit from a 10-acre orchard across the county in Canton. The jams embody the essence of each season.
“It gives you a real sense from where your food is coming from,” said DeMarco, who grew up in Western North Carolina, went to culinary school in California, and worked across the country as a pastry chef. Among her latest jams is a sweet-savory mix of apples and beer, both sourced locally.
Beyond economic reasons, DeMarco sees spending locally as an integral part of any sustainable, close-knit community.
“It brings people back together,” she said.
Chef Ricardo Hernandez, who spent more than 15 years running what was considered one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in the county, shares that view.
“It’s a big circle,” he said.
An accomplished Argentine-born chef who has appeared on international culinary shows, Hernandez is one of the more prolific culinary figures in the region and beyond. His contemporary flair has grown increasingly apparent in the local restaurant scene.
While he no longer works full time in the kitchen—he sold his well-known restaurant in downtown Waynesville, Lomo Grill, to another chef—he has spent recent years giving cooking demonstrations in homes across the region as part of his new venture, Chef Ricardo’s Kitchen. His specialty is empanadas, savory Latin American pastries, which he makes with local ingredients.
“If I am using local ingredients, I am helping other farms,” Hernandez said.
His ambitions also have extended to gardening. At his home in the tiny town of Clyde—a town by which most people simply pass on their way to Western North Carolina’s flagship destination, Asheville, Hernandez has planted rows of peonies and fig trees, earning him the nickname “The Fig Doctor.” He gives tours across the 35 acres once tilled for North Carolina’s cash crop—tobacco.
In South Florida, Hernandez ran a grocery store carrying imported wines and South American goods. He found his way to the mountains through a cooking for lodging trade with local innkeepers, and he and his wife decided to stay.
“The mountains give you a certain energy,” he said. “Here, you’re connected with nature, with God.”
It is an outlook he is quick to share, encouraging whomever he encounters during his cooking demonstrations and garden tours to use the land for its food.
“People need to get used to the four seasons,” Hernandez said. “You need to enjoy and eat whatever is coming during those periods of time.
“And when it’s over, wait for the next year,” he said.
Farmers like Russell, the Bethel grower, may consider this leisurely approach to growing to be a luxury.
Prior to farming, Russell spent years working at a paper mill in Canton. He has had to learn to remain financially nimble, sometimes making deliveries as little as a bushel of beans, and at other times, supplying produce to schools across the county, feeding at least some of the local 7,500 students on a daily basis. In addition to working at a grocery store, he attracts visitors with a corn maze during the fall. Money that comes in ultimately ends up in the ground.
“It’s a shame you have to use one crop to pay for another,” Russell said.
He has poured much of his time and savings into his farm over the years. As a result, the prospect of retiring seems a logistical challenge.
“It’s a whole lot easier to get into farming, but it’s a whole lot tougher getting out of it,” he said, referring to the debt many farmers face, particularly longtime ones.
At the same time, such a livelihood perhaps is inescapable for a man who grew up on a local cattle farm.
“Once it gets in your blood, you can’t get it out,” he said.
Russell, 56, is considered among the most prominent farmers in the county. Only a handful of farms the size of his remain, well down from some 150 when he first started growing vegetables in the 1970s. But uncertainty remains over whether he might find someone to take over his farm when he no longer can work its fields.
He does have at least one prospect: his four-year-old grandson, who told his teacher recently that “he wants to grow food and people” when he grows up, Russell said.
In the meantime, he remains committed to his fields, holding out hope as part of his perennial optimism.
“You just have to keep hoping for a better year,” he said.
The local food movement in Western North Carolina has been gaining momentum, as advocates have worked to raise awareness about farmers and farm-to-table businesses in communities across the mountains.
They are seeking, among other things, to continue connecting consumers to farmers as a way to strengthen the local food market.
“Everybody eats,” said Molly Nicholie, who directs the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s (ASAP) local food campaign. “It’s something that ties us all together.”
ASAP, based in Asheville, N.C. has sought to preserve the region’s farming heritage, advancing in recent years a broad effort to strengthen ties between the agricultural community and the food scene.
ASAP distributes an annual brochure across the region that includes an ever-increasing number of farmers, restaurants and other businesses that use their bounty. The Local Food Guide, the most comprehensive in the region, encourages consumers to spend their money on, say, a hot dogs from a Black Mountain, N.C. butchery or seasonal dishes at a Latin American cafe in Sylva, N.C.
ASAP also offers a certification program for products grown and raised here as part of the Appalachian Grown brand strategy.
The group has conducted surveys over the years that suggest a significant portion of Western North Carolina’s population is spending its money on local food.
“There’s a lot of power in our food dollars,” Nicholie said of the sway consumers can have over the food industry.
For more information, visit asapconnections.org.