Agricultural traditions in Western North Carolina stretch back generations, particularly farming tobacco and raising cattle, but the idea of a local food movement is still relatively new. When ASAP was founded in the mid-1990s, the idea of consumers seeking out local food and supporting small farms was in its infancy. Charlie Jackson, executive director of ASAP, remembers the early days of promoting local food and farms.
“At the time it was kind of a new idea. It seems like local food is everywhere now, but 15 or 16 years ago it was a new concept,” he says.
As government support programs for tobacco farming ended, farms shifted to other crops or stopped farming altogether. At the same time, new farming families came to the mountains to start produce farms and small-scale livestock operations. It was a time of great change, and organizations like ASAP formed to help farms succeed in this new farming environment.
“We were looking at changes that were happening in agriculture in the Southern Appalachian region of Western North Carolina and we wanted to make sure we kept farmers and kept that culture of farming and the beauty of the farm landscape in our region,” Jackson says.
Walter Harrill, owner of Imladris Farm, was a pioneer during those early days. He grew blueberries on his great-grandparents farm in Fairview, North Carolina, and started making berry jam in the early 2000s. He was confident in the quality of his jams and jellies, but it took some work to get them into the hands of customers.
“The local food scene then was a tiny fraction of what it is now. It’s not that there weren’t committed farmers and committed chefs, it just that it was a much different environment to be in,” Harrill says.
Each weekend, he drove over two hours to the state farmers market in Charlotte, North Carolina to sell his jam. There were a few small farmers markets in the Asheville area, but he says there wasn’t enough local demand to sell exclusively in Western North Carolina.
“Even though Charlotte had a much smaller local food scene per capita, there were just so many more people there. Even though we drew a much smaller percentage of them, there were so many and they were so desperate for local food that we could make the two hour drive down, do the big state farmers market there, and drive two hours back home and still be more profitable than we would have been staying here,” he says.
It wasn’t easy leaving his farm to set up his booth each Saturday at 7 a.m. He eventually bought a pop-up camper so he could arrive on Fridays and return on Sundays, but traveling to Charlotte took up time he needed to grow berries, make jam, and run his business.
“It was hard,” Harrill says. “When Asheville City Market opened, when several of these bigger markets opened and started having more space for more vendors, that really changed the scene for us to where that drive was no longer necessary. By increasing the number of vendors, it rapidly increased the number of customers because suddenly it was a bigger scene that people were more interested in.”
Over the past few years, Harrill has expanded his business model. Instead of growing all of the berries on his own farm, he partners with four other local farmers who grow produce for his jams and ketchup. The other farmers have a reliable buyer for their crops, and Harrill can increase his production. It’s an example of the many connections that are forming between small farmers, and the dedication they have to producing food that’s grown and consumed in Western North Carolina.
Harrill says there are still challenges, particularly for new farmers trying to find suitable land, but overall, he believes the local food movement is here to stay.
“I think we’re all looking around and trying to decide: is this a fad? Or is this something that we continue to see grow? My gut feeling is that a fad would not have lasted this long, that it would have disappeared much quicker. I believe we’re continuing to move forward,” he says.
ASAP’s Local Food Research Center studies changes in the local food system and has documented the growth that Harrill and other farmers have experienced. Charlie Jackson from ASAP has seen it first hand, and expects the movement to continue to grow.
“We saw tremendous change here in that time period and I think that we’re just at the beginning of something that is going to be lasting and truly transformative,” Jackson says.
Learn more about the evolution of local food in Western North Carolina and ASAP’s Local Food Research Center at asapconnections.org/local-food-research-center