By Lauren Stepp
Everyone knows that Asheville is a foodie paradise. It is one of few places where you can order chilled buttermilk soup, oysters with rhubarb mignonette and rosemary sea salt almonds all at the same restaurant (read: Rhubarb in Pack Square). But Polk County—an agriculture community just south of Buncombe—might soon give Asheville a run for its artisanal pickles.
“It’s an evolving area for good food,” says Jennifer Perkins. She is the owner of Looking Glass Creamery, a Fairview-based business known for its handmade cheeses and caramel. In early May, Perkins and her husband, Andy, announced that they would be expanding operations to include an additional site on Harmon Dairy in Polk County.
Owned by brothers Doug and Alan Harmon, the second-generation farm spans 226 acres in Columbus. Though much of the parcel is pastureland, ten acres have been set aside for crops. “The Harmons grow all their own feed on 250 nearby acres. They roast and grind it onsite,” says Perkins. Dairy farming also requires milking twice a day, seven days per week. Which is why, after decades of rising at dawn to round up 60 bovines, Doug and Alan have set their sights on retirement.
But they did not want to sell their parcel to a developer, says Dawn Jordan, Polk County’s agricultural economic development director. “Polk has a deep and rich agricultural heritage,” she says. “Preserving working land preserves our rural character, which is paramount to the desires and personality of the area.”
And so, the Harmon Brothers placed the land under an agricultural conservation easement in 2013. They then proposed that Perkins (who had been using them as a milk supplier) buy the farm. Her response was not exactly a hard “yes.”
“I said, ‘No way. I’m not going to Polk County,’” she recalls. “‘People don’t take on dairy farms every day for a reason.’” Her hesitation is understandable. With just over 20,000 residents, Polk County is rural to say the least. The dairy industry has also experienced lessened returns since the 1970s. With plant-based alternatives, folks now substitute skim with almond, soy and coconut. But from a creamery’s perspective, buying several hundred acres and some cows makes sense. It allows the producer to control quality. It also opens a slew of outreach opportunities.
When the Harmon brothers first approached Perkins, she had been chewing over an agritourism concept of her own. She wanted to start an urban creamery—a trendy hub in downtown Asheville that would bring agriculture to the streets. But considering Asheville’s steep rent, purchasing land farther afield seemed ideal. And so, after eight months of negotiating, and some donations from friends and family, Perkins and her husband bought themselves a farm.
Construction of the cheese-making facility, including the development of underground aging caves, will start as soon as permitting allows. The project is supported by the Natural Capital Investment Fund and should take six to nine months to complete. Once production is relocated, the company’s original Fairview location will be renovated to include an enlarged retail area, additional seating, light food service and a small classroom space. A Polk County farm store is also slated for later down the road.
Though there is still a good amount of work to be done—the Perkinses plan to shadow Doug and Alan to learn basic dairy farm know-how—Jordan sees the Looking Glass expansion as a complement to Polk’s growing food and agriculture scene. Since the county is an easy drive from Asheville, Charlotte or Greenville, tourists can make an easy day trip to Overmountain Vineyards for Chardonnay, Standing Stone Breads for fresh sourdough and, now, Looking Glass for a sharp blue cheese.
“Looking Glass will bring preservation to an iconic small-scale dairy operation that embodies much of the agricultural character of Polk County,” says Jordan. She goes on to note that the expansion nods to Polk’s commitment to agricultural heritage, local jobs and, of course, good food. Perkins could not agree more. “Polk reminds me of Asheville’s evolving food community maybe 15 years ago,” she says. “The area is rural, but it’s getting on the map.”
Looking Glass Creamery’s Asheville site is located at 57 Noble Road in Fairview. For more information regarding their Polk County expansion, call 828.458.0088 or visit ashevillecheese.com.