By Robert Turner
A chef and a farmer stand together in a field surrounded by colorful produce. This simple act is a connection point that, like a plug in a wall, energizes an entire local economy.
A close connection between chef and farmer strengthens a supply chain that creates jobs and food sovereignty in our community. The recent COVID pandemic and Russian hackers in our oil and beef supplies created food shortages and higher prices and exposed weaknesses in a globalized food system. Locally produced food is like an insurance policy, a buffer, for when things like that happen. And they will continue to happen.
Chef Clinton Betts cares about the ingredients he chooses for his restaurants. But it goes deeper than that. Betts takes the time to go out to farms to inspect the condition of his produce as it’s growing. He wants to work closely with local farmers to ensure delivery of the best product possible, harvested at its peak. That requires extra time and work, but Betts believes it’s worth it. “You can certainly taste the difference,” he says. “And I’d rather not source produce from 1,500 miles away, which is where a lot of it comes from when you use wholesale distributors. I think it’s important to support our local farmers and growers.” Betts oversees food operations for three restaurants owned by Barry Bialik: Thirsty Monk Brewery, Tasty Greens and his newest venture called Holy Water Hard Seltzer Brew Pub.
Farmer Ayrton Webb likes working closely with chefs like Betts. He sees it as a partnership and feels a sense of pride when chefs believe enough in his product to serve it in their restaurants. “Chefs are a very discerning customer,” says Webb, “and when they approve of your product, it says something. When they praise your lettuce greens or get excited about your tomatoes, that means a lot to me. It means all my hard work is appreciated.”
Clinton bends over and breaks off a small piece of broccolini, puts it in his mouth, looks at Webb and says, “Perfect. I’ll take some of that with me today.” It’ll be served up on a plate within hours. One of the restaurants (Tasty Greens) is a short four and a half miles from the farm (Creekside Farm). The food miles (and CO2 emissions) associated with that dish aren’t quite zero, but pretty darn close.
Local food is a thousand miles fresher and grown for taste, not long-distance transportation. Chefs know the difference.
Good for the Local Economy
Asheville promotes itself as a foodtopia. Visitors and tourists want to eat local food, and that injects millions of dollars into our local economy. Local food adds to the experience when you’re traveling because you get a taste of the region, which adds to the sights, smells and overall experience.
According to the Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, Buncombe County, in 2017, attracted more than 11 million visitors who spent $2 billion, generating $3.1 billion in economic impact and supporting 27,000 jobs. An estimated 26 percent of tourism-supported jobs were in the food and beverage industry. And money spent on locally grown food circles around the local economy a few more times—rather than going straight off to some foreign-owned multinational corporation, like the recently hacked JBS.
Good for Food Sovereignty
JBS is the largest meat processor in the world, with six massive facilities in the US. A Brazilian-owned company, it has been mired in legal battles for corruption and bribery in both the US and Brazil.
The meat supply dropped 25 percent when processors shut down briefly during the pandemic, creating shortages and higher prices. Meat prices went up again after the hacking at JBS. Local meat producers like Hickory Nut Gap are not part of that expansive supply chain and create resilience in our local meat supply.
Food shortages and price increases from the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the risks and fragility of a globalized food system that promotes itself as a source of plenty for all, but actually creates monopolies for wealthy corporations and inequalities and food insecurity for the rest of us. Food sovereignty is control over all means of food production, including land, soil, seeds and the knowledge and skills to produce our own food.
Good for our Environment
Making peace with the biosphere and reducing the impacts of climate change will require building these closer relationships between sustainable food sources and local communities—relationships that build and sustain human life and the life of the ecosystem on which we depend. We must not forget that everything comes from nature. Everything.
Most local farmers use the best agricultural practices, including protecting the microbial life and health of the soil and growing a diversity of plants in an organic, regenerative system. Not just because food tastes better but because these methods protect and preserve our food-producing capacity and the healthy soil on which we depend.
Local farms represent biological and cultural assets that we need to preserve. Farming is a big part of our cultural heritage in this region, and we need to protect that. The chef and the farmer are key partners in building food sovereignty in this region. Ask for local food at your favorite restaurants and grocers and you become the critical link in a supply chain that builds a safer, more resilient food economy.
Robert Turner is director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.