By Robert Turner
Farmer Jason Davis from North River Farms in Mills River says that last year was the worst he has had in more than 20 years of growing food. Last year’s monumental rains hurt a lot of our local farms and farmers, and whether that was all related to climate change or not, the fact that May 2018 was the wettest May on record was devastating to our local food crops, and yields were way down.
Davis probably farms more land than just about anybody in Buncombe and Henderson counties, and he grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, celery, corn and tomatoes. But the weather last year hurt everybody, big and small. We felt it on our farm in Arden, and our farm manager Melissa struggled to provide as much food as she could to our CSA members.
In January, we lost what I consider to be a critical part of the local food infrastructure, Sunburst Chef and Farmer, owned by Sally and Charles Hudson. In addition to growing microgreens and edible flowers, Sunburst acted as a regional aggregator and distributor of produce for other small growers and farmers in the area. Sally and her staff would reach out to other local growers to ask if they had any produce to sell, pick it up at the farm and distribute it to local restaurants looking for that produce. Many growers are so busy at the farm producing food that the distribution service offered by Sunburst was a huge community asset and welcome source of income.
Asheville brands itself as a “foodtopia,” and a big part of that are all the restaurants that support local farmers through their purchases directly from the farm. Chef and owner John Fleer from Rhubarb says that his driving motivation for purchasing local food is helping to support local farmers and the local economy because he knows those dollars he spends at local farms will stay in the community and circle around a few more times. Freshness and quality are of course key, but Fleer is passionate about supporting small local business. He spends a whopping 65 percent of his food budget on local food. That is amazing when you consider that the average American household spends just 2 percent of their food budget on local food. Most of the food Americans consume comes from faraway places, averaging 1,500 miles away.
Chef Jessie Massie and banquet chef Keith Davis from the Taproom and Restaurant at Sierra Nevada Brewery are two more believers in local food and farmers, and they also source more than 60 percent of their ingredients from local growers. Like Fleer from Rhubarb, Massie admits that it’s a little more work to buy local, and both have between 30 and 40 growers and farmers that they reach out to on a regular basis. But these chefs don’t see the extra effort to source locally as a burden or work at all. It’s a labor of love for them to source the freshest, organically grown ingredients they can find. Both build their menus around what’s available and what’s in season, and Fleer says, “It’s like a puzzle every week, and who doesn’t like a good puzzle?”
For Chef Mike Reppert at the downtown Blackbird Restaurant, freshness and taste drive his search for local food. He likes to shop the farmers market to see what’s coming up, and if it was picked this morning, he’s all over it. Chef Josh Chapman at the Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village says that he loves buying from local growers who are passionate about what they do. “It’s magical,” says Chapman. “People, love, support, community and relationships—it’s what we’re all about.”
We’re very fortunate in Asheville to have so many farmers, growers and restaurants supporting the farm-to-table movement. Behind it all are the relationships and the trust between farmers and chefs who freely tie their fates together in a new kind of food web. The chefs support the financial needs of the farmer, and the farmer grows the food to keep us all eating healthy, in good times and in bad.
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.