In some ways, Balsam Garden’s plot of land in East Asheville looks like a lot of Western North Carolina farms. It’s about eleven acres at the end of a dirt road, nestled next to a river with mountains in the distance.
Farmer Steven Beltram and his wife Becca run Balsam Gardens where they grow everything from cabbage to carrots. You can hear the birds fly over their East Asheville farm, but also the rush of a major highway that’s hidden behind a row of trees. That juxtaposition reflects the versatility of this land—and an unusual partnership between local farmers and the City of Asheville, which owns the property.
“It’s kind of like a secret little gem that we hold. Not a lot of people know about it,” says Amber Weaver, a sustainability officer with the City of Asheville. She describes the property as vacant grassland before the city started leasing it to farmers. The Swannanoa River that runs along the edge of the land has flooded several times, making the land unsuitable for building projects like affordable housing.
The city decided to lease the land for agriculture as part of its Food Policy Action Plan. Weaver explains that the plan aims to increase access to nutritious food, foster a robust regional food economy, and address short term food emergencies and long term food security. Balsam Gardens submitted a proposal to the City Council and they came to an agreement on a three-year lease with a three-year renewal. “It was a good marriage between the 11 acres that were available and an interested farmer who was able to lease the property,” Weaver adds.
The timing was perfect. Steven and Becca had recently purchased another piece of farmland in the city limits, but it required a three-year waiting period before they could become certified for organic production there. Growing produce on the leased land helped them bridge the gap as they waited for organic certification. “It gave us a landing pad to expand our operation during the 36 months that we couldn’t grow vegetables at the farm that we purchased. So it gave us a way to cash flow that mortgage and stay in business,” Steven says.
Although the land is in the floodplain, Steven says the sandy soil is actually quite good for growing vegetables. “These are prime soils here, so I think that if a city has good farmland available, I think they should have it in production.”
Asheville is part of a growing trend of cities that lease public land to farmers. Baltimore has over a dozen urban farms, most of which are located on city-owned vacant properties. The City of Lawrence, Kansas leases vacant properties for free, provided the land is used for food production. Steven says these kinds of partnerships are good for farmers like him, and for the community as a whole.
“I think giving people the opportunity to interface with agricultural production and see where their food comes from is really good for our culture. And I also think that as an organic farm, the green space that is provided and the ecosystem functions that we’re supporting are beneficial in an ecological sense as well,” he says.
Learn about more farm partnerships in Western North Carolina, and ways to get involved with local agriculture in ASAP’s Local Food Guide – www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: July 30, 2018