ASHEVILLE – Asheville’s growth over the past two decades has had a direct impact on the evolution of the regional agriculture industry, with farm-to-table, small farms and agri-tourism leading the way.
And just like Asheville’s growth, there’s no end in sight for agricultural growth, a good thing, stakeholders say.
“We’re very agriculturally rich in our area,” said Amy Ager, co-owner of Hickory Nut Gap Farm, which specializes in 100 percent grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork. “Asheville was growing, and the interest of customers and people moving to Asheville around food and quality food was also growing, so our business was kind of growing alongside those people’s interests.”
“The (Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority) had an initiative called ‘foodtopia’ where they were really bringing people to Asheville and trying to make it a foodie destination. Restaurants were opening left and right,” Ager explained.
According to the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), a nonprofit that helps local farms connect and build relationships with each other and with consumers and receive resources and education so they can operate as sustainable agricultural enterprises.
“The change on farms over the past 20 years has illustrated farms in our region adapting and responding to this consumer demand to connect directly with people,” said ASAP Executive Director Molly Nicholie.
According to data compiled from ASAP’s annual surveys in 2002, ASAP had contact with 58 farms grown in Appalachia, up from 827 this year. Of these farms, 103 reported selling produce at farmers’ markets, 111 have CSAs, and 85 operate U-pick farms.
In 2002, only 19 farms reported sourcing from restaurants and this number increased to 215 in 2022. Additionally, the number of farms supplied from grocery stores increased from 14 to 66.
The change is not just the number of farms in the region, but the number of farms selling directly to the consumer, Nicholie said.
“Part of this big shift has been in consumer demand to want to buy local,” Nicholie said. “These farmers were able to adapt their agricultural business to meet this demand.
From farm to restaurant tables
The shift of western North Carolina’s agricultural industry to small, diversified farms comes after the state began to move away from tobacco as the dominant cash crop in the mid-1990s, according to ASAP. In 2000, a local food campaign was launched to provide farmers with alternatives to support change.
In 1999, Isaiah and Annie Louise Perkinson started with half an acre of blueberries and gradually grew into a nearly 20-acre farm producing vegetables, fruits and flowers sold at local markets.
“What we’ve seen really change over the past 20 years is the public’s enthusiasm and acceptance of local food,” said Annie Perkinson. “I think people really appreciate preserving farmland and supporting local agriculture, not just for their own health, but for the health of their community.”
Partnerships between farms and restaurants have worked in tandem to strengthen farming and culinary communities, Nicholie said.
“I don’t know how many people remember downtown Asheville 20 years ago, but let’s just say it wasn’t the vibrant dining scene we see today,” Nicholie said. “Part of the success of our region, now so well known as a culinary destination, has been to see the growth of this restaurant industry really parallel and linked to the growth of many of these farms.”
Often, local restaurants list the names of farmers and vendors who source the ingredients on their menus. It helps introduce and connect those diners to businesses, she said, so the consumer is more likely to visit and buy directly from farm vendors.
“It’s something that the restaurant and dining scene in this area has grown with the farming community, and I think that’s contributed to success on many levels,” Nicholie said.
Relationships lead to conversations about what farms can grow and how chefs can use those ingredients in their dishes, she said. The farmers’ innovative thinking has resulted in more sales opportunities.
“Small farmers have a lot more opportunities to adapt to changing market opportunities than large farms,” Nicholie said. “People are thinking and innovating not only to extend the season and grow produce longer throughout the year, but also to add value to those produce by making sauces, dried goods, or pickles? All the different ways to preserve and diversify the product mix.”
Creasman Farms is a third-generation farm that has transitioned from apples to other fruits and vegetables sold at tailgate markets and in the U-pick orchard.
“It’s evolved to extend our growing season and bring more revenue from the farm,” said co-owner Dawn Creasman.
Local food campaigns and organizations have made it easier for small farms to adapt and connect with consumers, she said.
“We are very lucky to live in this area because we have a lot of hard working people who want to produce locally grown produce and fruit,” Creasman said. “We have a lot of good organizations helping us promote this. As Soon As Possible has been a big part of our ability to engage in markets, sell our products and get the word out.”
The revival and resurgence of Asheville and the rebranding of tourism as a “foodtopia” has moved the industry forward, said Ager, who is also ASAP’s treasurer.
Hickory Nut Gap is a family farm established in 1916 and passed down for five generations. Its current owners are Jamie and Amy Ager. They continued their operations and added their own businesses, such as selling at farmers’ markets and local restaurants, Amy Ager said.
Agritourism provides more opportunities for farms to connect and increase income, and farms in the Asheville area are “ahead of the curve,” Ager said. Farms respond to what people want.
“I think because of the nature and size of farms in western North Carolina, the diversification and breeding of agricultural products has been helpful for people to bring new sources of income to their farms,” Ager said. “A lot of farms have taken agritourism to do overnight stays and Airbnbs…and are trying to leverage this fabulous land and farm asset to connect people and bring them in and give them that experience. .”
In 1999, Spinning Spider Creamery started with dairy goats and began selling produce at farmers markets. The company expanded and began attracting high-end restaurant customers, but reverted to hatchback models before the pandemic hit. Spinning Spider has ended its farm visits amid the COVID-19 pandemic for the safety of worker families.
“If we get sick, there’s no one here to step in and run this farm,” Owen said.
Short supply chain
The COVID-19 pandemic may have helped to show the importance of local agriculture, given supply chain issues. Local farms provide more opportunities for direct sales to consumers.
“When COVID happened and shipping got tricky, having a local economy, a local food system, became more important on its own,” Perkinson said.
Many farms reported that their CSA programs increased membership as residents sought out contactless food purchasing options.
“We continue to grow this business as on the farm the pandemic has changed our business model. We closed for a while and pivoted to grow our CSA – community supported agriculture,” Ager said. “We were making 10 and 15 pounds of meat a month for our customers. This model has been amazing. We are up to 327 CSA members a month now and our store is open again for people to come and buy individual cuts. of our butcher.
The future of farming
What comes next is unknown, but ASAP and the farmers have noticed an ongoing interest in access to local food and education. Consumers’ ability to speak directly to farmers and learn and see where their food comes from has driven more people to buy local, Nicholie said.
“That transparency and the ability to get to know and meet that person growing that food on your plate is pretty unique,” Nicholie said. “You don’t have to depend on a label to tell you about this farm or how it was raised.”
People are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and the hidden costs of food and other details that may not be available in the produce of a grocery store.
“People really care where their food comes from, how it was raised and how the animals are treated,” Ager said. “I think people are starting to recognize that food is more than just the act of eating, but also a sense of food and connection to the world that goes beyond their personal experience.”
Farmers’ markets and tours are avenues to continue educating consumers. Still, industry and consumer trends are unpredictable, Creasman said.
“This year it could go that way, and next year it could totally change to something else. Ag is an ever changing animal,” Creasman said. “What might work this year and next year , we may need to adjust or change You are constantly trying to improve yourself to understand what your consumer wants what you are able to do to provide that because some things are prohibitively expensive especially for a small We try to listen to our customers to see what they want and try to move in that direction, within reason.
The persistence and ability of farmers to make these foods accessible could lead to an even stronger regional agricultural industry.
“The future is bright for agriculture, and it’s a built skill set,” Ager said. “It takes time and you go through a lot of trials and tribulations before you figure out how to make it work. I feel hope.
Tiana Kennell is a food and restaurant reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter/Instagram @PrincessOfPage. Help support this kind of journalism by subscribing to the Citizen Times.