Just a month ago, no one here would believe that the President and First Lady of the United States would one day be savoring smoked trout from Sunburst Farm in Canton while on vacation. Or munching on fresh lettuce directly delivered from Jolley Farms, also in Canton.

The small Western North Carolina town has officially connected with the White House, and in more ways than one.

Denny Trantham served Barack and Michelle Obama at The Grove Park Inn, where he works as executive chef. Trantham, too, hails from Canton. It’s where he grew up, and where he held his first job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant in the late ‘80s.

Trantham is the reason those local products showed up on the menu in the first place. As the visionary responsible for crafting Grove Park’s menus months in advance, he has always placed a special focus on utilizing local products no matter what changes are made to restaurant offerings.

It’s the relationships he’s built with farmers over the years that has made the resort’s local farm-to-table program a hit.

“I’ve known these people a long time,” said Trantham. “If I need trout, I know where to go. If I need peppers, I know where to go.”

Grove Park consistently incorporates farm offerings produced within a 100-mile radius in the menus of its multiple restaurants, using bacon from Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview or goat cheese from Three Graces Dairy in Madison County, for example.

When the program began three years ago, only a handful of farms participated. It was a trial-and-error process, and some were overwhelmed with the quantity Grove Park demanded every day.

Trantham must be selective about how much local produce is offered at each of the inn’s restaurants since it is not available on a large scale.

“If I’m feeding 1,200 and I gotta have salad greens, that’s a challenge,” said Trantham.

But local farms have adapted over the years, including Jolley Farms in Canton, which built its own greenhouse to use during winter months and continue supplying the resort with produce.

“It’s as close as you can get to year-round,” Trantham said.

Trantham’s enthusiasm for local produce existed long before it became a ubiquitous trend.

He learned all he knows from his mother and grandmother, who kept up gardens with green beans, corn, squash and zucchini. They also made their own jam, jellies, preserves, relishes, and pickled vegetables, making sure to never waste a thing.

“The funny part today is that everyone’s crazy about farm-to-table, but I think it’s something we did all along,” said Trantham, who believes the local food movement is more than a passing fad. “This isn’t a trend by definition. This is going to be a way of life.”

Southern Appalachian culinary traditions have been another mainstay at the Grove Park Inn since Trantham joined the staff nine years ago, and he intends to keep it that way.

That dedication in particular helped bring traditional Southern cooking to the Obamas.

Though President Obama stopped by at the historic inn while on the campaign trail, the latest visit was a whole different ballgame.

As Obama fans watched his every move, Trantham and fellow chefs were simultaneously subject to scrutiny from security each time they prepared the president’s meal.

A few changes to the Sunset Terrace restaurant menu were made, though Trantham is barred from discussing much about the meal, like what was exactly served or even who sat at the table with the Obamas.

Trantham said the hardworking kitchen staff was experiencing an “ounce” more of stress during Obama’s visit. They not only had to prepare an impeccable dinner for the president and first lady, but also a quality dining experience for 300 guests in the other dining room at the same time.

Ten chefs worked busily in the kitchen that night, while usually six suffice.

“We survived,” said Trantham. “I feel like we learned how to once again survive under pressure.”

Trantham introduced the menu to the Obamas, who tried a taste of ramps and were especially interested in learning more about Grove Park’s farm-to-table program.

“They enjoyed everything about their meal, and the president and first lady were gracious enough to meet each and every one of our chefs,” said Trantham, who characterized the Obamas as “down-to-earth” and “hospitable.”

Obama shook each chef’s hand, and announced that it was a perfect photo opportunity. “That was our moment in the spotlight,” said Trantham. “It was a great surprise for all of us, but it’s one that we’ll never forget.”

Since then, Trantham says the resort has received dozens of inquiries from those piqued by Obama’s stay there. Trantham by no means believes he’s reached a peak in his career by working as executive chef at the luxury resort, and now, serving the President.

“A lot of people say you’ve made it,” said Trantham. “In my mind, I’ve not made it. I’m just starting ...You gotta keep moving, you gotta keep growing, you gotta keep inventing, you gotta stay ahead of the curve, all the time.”

Buy local

Haywood


Sunburst Trout Farm

Makes: Smoked Tomato Jam, trout dip, trout cakes, trout jerky, trout sausage, trout caviar, marinated trout.

Find it at: The Nest on Main Street, Waynesville (Smoked Tomato Jam); Ingles (trout dip); or order online at www.sunbursttrout.com.

Bethel Eden Farm

Makes: Corn meal, jam or preserves, soap, cider, honey, salad dressing, tomato sauce, flour, pesto, teas, dried fruits, juice, sorghum molasses.

Find it at: Waynesville Tailgate Market; Haywood County Historic Farmers Market.

Lingering Thymes

Makes: Vinegar, teas, soap, jam, preserves.

Find it at: Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market.

Ten Acre Garden

Makes: Jam, preserves.

Find it at: Waynesville Tailgate Market; Haywood Historic Farmers Market.

Chef Ricardo Fernandez and Wild Cat Ridge Farm

Makes: Tomato sauce.

Find it at: Lomo Grill in Waynesville.


Jackson


Brenda Bumgarner

Makes: Goat’s milk lotion and soap.

Find it at: Jackson County Farmer’s Market or 828.586.9611

Avant Garden

Makes: Pesto, jam or preserves, corn meal, pickles.

Find it at: Jackson County Farmer’s Market.

Dark Cove Farm

Makes: Soap, honey, beeswax, goat cheese, candles.

Find it at: www.darkcove.com.


Swain


Springmont Foods

Makes: Vinaigrette Classique, a traditional French vinaigrette

Find it at: Haywood Historic Farmer’s Market, Waynesville

Millie’s Incredible Edibles

Makes: Jams and jellies from local fruits,

including blackberry, rhubarb, peach and apple butter, as well as exotic jams with purchased fruits

Find it at: Cottage Craftsman, Bryson City

Kathy Calabrese

Makes: Kathy’s Products, a collection of salves, ointments and lip balms

Find it at: The Medicine Man in Cherokee; The Herb Shop in Cherokee; Jackson County Farmers Market in Sylva

Sacred Circle Farm

Makes: Floral wreaths, salves, Christmas Wreaths

Find it at: www.sacredcircle.com.

Balltown Bee Farm

Makes: Beeswax, honey, grits, corn meal

Find it at: Jackson County Farmers Market; Country Home Cooperative in Franklin.

Macon


Spring Ridge Creamery

Makes: butter, milk, buttermilk, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, flavored cheeses, ice cream, eggnog (during holidays only).

Find it at: On site, located on U.S. 441 about 10 miles south of Franklin near the Georgia state line. 828.369.2958

Nantahala Herb Co.

Makes: Teas, soap, salves.

Find it at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deal Family Farm

Makes: Sorghum molasses, jam, preserves, honey, cider, syrup, Christmas wreaths.

Find it at: Fruit stand, 4402 Murphy Road, Franklin.

Otter Creek Trout Farm

Makes: Herbs, salves, soap.

Find it at: On farm. 828.321.9810.

Across Western North Carolina, an increasing number of people are discovering new and creative ways to use the bounty of produce and farm goods raised in the mountains. From jams to sauces to salves, homegrown chefs and artisans are turning a profit with their creations, which are known as value-added products.

“They are called value added because, after the work of raising products, such as fruit, the farmer or an artisan invests more time and effort to create another, more complex product, such as jam,” explains Rose McLarney, marketing and communications coordinator for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.

Because of the time put into creating a value-added product, farmers and producers can reap higher profits from everyday crops. George Ivey, director of the Buy Haywood program, aimed at supporting local farmers, uses the example of a tomato, a common mountain crop.

“If you just sell the raw product, it has the basic value of a tomato,” Ivey says. “But if you can turn that tomato into something else, you get paid for the labor and expertise of providing added value to the product.”

Value-added products provide a boost in business for mountain farmers. The products help create demand for local farm produce. That was one of the theories behind Buy Haywood’s value-added tomato recipe contest. Contestants created innovative products using locally grown tomatoes, giving farmers a new market for selling their produce.

Value-added items also make it possible to enjoy locally grown food throughout the year by preserving seasonal produce, in turn increasing awareness of local food.

The Smoky Mountain News spoke with four people who have found creative uses for locally grown produce through their value-added products.

 

Dairy farm trades in middle man for ice cream

When Jim Moore found his bottom line increasingly squeezed by middle men to the point of bankrupting his small dairy, he realized his farming dream would soon be over unless he took drastic measures.

“We were losing money every month,” said Moore, a dairy farmer in Macon County.

Moore had to find a way to market his milk directly to the consumer and cut out the middlemen stealing his profit. Besides, it didn’t seem fair.

“They pick up the milk, they charge you for picking it up, they sell it, then give you what they think is a reasonable amount,” Moore said. “They have no risk. All they do is market the milk.”

So in the early 1990s, Moore began reshaping his dairy to sell milk directly to the consumer, bringing the pasteurization and bottling in house. While he was at it, he thought “why not make ice cream, too?”

“I thought maybe they would like an ice cream if they came by to get the milk,” Moore said. “It took me a while to realize they would come to buy the ice cream, and might get a little milk while they were here.”

Indeed, on a recent Monday morning in June, customers began streaming in to the Spring Ridge Creamery ice cream counter in Otto as soon as its doors opened at 10:30 a.m. — and not just to stock up on cheese, butter and milk. No one, it seemed, could escape without a cone of ice cream in their hand despite being nowhere near the lunch hour.

It’s been that way since Moore opened the shop in the summer of 1998. His daughter’s hand was swollen by mid-day from gouging her scooper into the frozen buckets over and over. When a friend come through the door at lunch, Moore asked him to cover for his daughter behind the counter so she could venture to town for a wrist-brace.

Today, the dairy sells 500 gallons of ice cream a month on average out the front door of its shop, one scoop at a time. He employees three part-time workers and a part-time farm hand.

Moore makes all the ice cream himself, boasting more flavors than Baskin Robbins. When Moore bought a small dairy farm in Macon County in the 1980s, he never imagined his days would be spent churning butter, pressing cheese and concocting new ice cream flavors.

When Moore was growing up in Macon County, there were 45 dairies. By 1990, there were only seven. Today, he is one of just a handful in the far western region. Moore can see why.

“I don’t know how these other dairies are making it,” Moore said. “Feed costs have gone up through the roof. They are having to sell their milk below cost.”

Other small dairy farms facing similar plights have looked to Moore for inspiration.

“People come in and see this and say, ‘Boy this is the answer for us,’” Moore said. “But you’ve got to really want to do it. You might be getting out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

A dairy farm is a 24-7 occupation. Making cheese and ice cream has to be squeezed in around it.

Moore was lucky he made the leap when he did. He was able to amass the equipment he needed cheaply, watching for used items to come on sale. He had to have equipment to pasteurize, homogenize and bottle the milk. He needed walk-in coolers and walk-in freezers, not to mention the kitchen equipment like a butter churn and ice cream maker. The concept of an on-the-farm ice cream operation was still novel, and there was little demand for used equipment, allowing him to pick it up cheaply.

It was a risk nonetheless to rack up more debt when he still owed on his farm.

“It was one of those things where you had to have a lot of confidence in yourself that what you would be doing would pay for what you were adding,” Moore said.

Moore was lucky on another front: the location of his farm right on U.S. 441, a major tourism corridor into the mountains from Atlanta. During his daydreaming phase, Moore sat by the road doing traffic counts and realized just what a gold mine all those cars could be.

The dairy has become a requisite stop for tourists and second-home owners pouring into the mountains, as well as a final destination to stock up on specialty cheese before heading back home.

Moore got a good offer on his farm several years ago and almost sold it.

“But I’m glad we didn’t,” Moore said. Fans of ice cream no doubt agree.

Moore not only kept the farm, but worked with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee to place it in a conservation easement so that it would always stay a farm, even when he’s gone. Like any true farmer, his love of the land comes first.

“I’ll have to work until I drop pretty much,” Moore said. But he can’t complain.

“Most farmers, if you can put food on the table and roof over their head, that’s all they want,” Moore said. “If you see somebody who is really satisfied, that means more than wealth or income.”

 

Chef turns local approach into recipe for success

As the owner of the Lomo Grill in Waynesville, Chef Ricardo Fernandez has spent 16 years putting his farm-to-table philosophy to practice. Fernandez grows much of the produce for the restaurant on his family-owned Wildcat Ridge farm. So when he got the chance to expand his mission of eating locally and helping community farmers, he jumped at it.

Fernandez entered his restaurant’s famous sauce in a local recipe contest which stipulated the use of Haywood County-grown tomatoes in each entry. Fernandez’s Mediterranean and “Mucho Macho” sauces grabbed second and third place respectively — and since then, demand for the product has skyrocketed.

Fernandez’s three tomato sauces — the Mediterranean, with olives, capers, and roasted garlic; the spicey Mucho Macho, made with 16 varieties of slow-roasted red peppers; and the Tomato and Basil, can now be found in 17 Earthfare locations across the Southeast, as well as a small number of Whole Foods retailers and the Greenlife grocery store in Asheville.

Fernandez is involved in every step of the process, from making the sauces in his Lomo Grill kitchen to hawking the products at tasting booths at various food retailers.

“We crush and blanch the tomatoes, and process the product, at our restaurant,” Fernandez says.

It’s a complicated process, Fernandez says, one that can be both timely and costly when it comes to getting the right certifications. All for-profit canning operations in the state must comply with strict USDA regulations. Canners must attend pickling school, and must monitor things like the acidity and pH levels of the tomatoes.

“There are a lot of health issues to take into consideration,” says Fernandez.

Besides the process of actually canning the sauces, Fernandez had to develop a business plan, a label, and a marketing strategy. That involved him reaching out to food retailers directly by himself. On a recent weekend Fernandez traveled to Greenville, Knoxville and Johnson City, stopping by a different store in each city to give samples of his sauces.

Fernandez’s product has found a niche, which is part of the reason it’s been so successful. It’s one of the only locally-made tomato sauces in the region. Plus, it appeals to an audience looking for healthier, fresher foods. The sauce is low sodium, gluten free, with no fillers or preservatives. It doesn’t use sugar or tomato paste, and it’s 100 percent vegan.

“People are amazed — it’s hard to find flavor so fresh,” Fernandez says.

In January, Fernandez will travel to a San Francisco food trade show to introduce the Haywood-grown sauce to the West coast. As the product’s reach expands, the competition gets tougher — but so far, the sauces have held their own. Since Fernandez started selling the product in October of 2008, he’s sold nearly 8,500 jars.

“The toughest part is who you’re competing with,” Fernandez says. “For us, the possibility of being on the shelves and competing with the best has a lot of merit and rewards.”

But to Fernandez, perhaps the best reward is helping to keep Haywood County tomato growers in business. He hopes his contribution is part of a growing trend.

“Sustainable agriculture needs to stay in business,” says Fernandez. “I’m glad the local community is helping.”

 

Trout farm adds tomato jam to repertoire

Sunburst Trout Farm in Haywood County is the region’s long-standing champion when it comes to value-added products.

The trout farm has rolled out an entire line of specialty gourmet foods based on its fresh rainbow trout, from smoked trout dip and trout cakes to trout sausage and trout jerky. The upper echelons of the food world can’t seem to heap enough praise on Sunburst Trout Farm for its innovative and elegant twists on the simple fish, whether it’s the Food Network or Manhattan’s top chefs.

The family-run farm’s latest addition capitalizes on a different home-grown product, however: the tomato. Sunburst was lured into creating its now-famous Smoked Tomato Jam when it heard about a value-added contest put on by Buy Haywood, a program aimed at creating new markets for Haywood County farmers.

The Smoked Tomato Jam indeed gave a boost to local farmers churning out tomatoes in the fertile river valley just downstream of the trout farm. The trout farm’s chef, Charlie Hudson, bought boxes and boxes of tomatoes from local farmers when they were in season, juiced them and froze the juice, allowing him to make tomato jam all winter.

“I am actually on my last bucket of juice,” Hudson said.

Hudson created the Smoked Tomato Jam recipe himself and won first in the contest. He reduces the juice, adds his secret ingredients and flavorings, and reduces it some more until it reaches a jam texture. Each jar of jam has the equivalent of one giant, homegrown, vine-ripened tomato. It’s a classic example a value-added product. The jam sells for $6 a jar, compared to the price that the original tomato would reap.

Hudson recently took his tomato jam — along with Sunburst’s other trout products — on the road to the International Boston Seafood Show and got a rave review from the “food sensory analyst” judging the entries.

“She said it starts out with the sweet and sour and finishes off with the smoke and that you are still getting tomato flavor throughout and all that is rolled up into one. That is super technical but it was what I was trying to do,” Hudson said.

More simply put, “Most people who taste it love it,” he said.

 

Herbalist finds value in the peskiest of plants

When people ask to see the garden Kathy Calabrese harvests her herbs from to make salves and ointments, she chuckles. It’s not exactly the neatly labeled and organized rows many people envision. Instead, her Whittier garden is something most people wouldn’t take a second glance at.

“People have this image of a lovely little English type garden, and it’s like, ‘you know folks, I’m harvesting weeds,’” she laughs.

From chickweed to plantain to dandelion, Calabrese’s garden is made up of weeds that can be found in any yard.

“The weeds that grow in our yards, the stuff we step on every day, people don’t really know a lot about them,” she says. “It’s amazing what kind of healing properties they have.”

Calabrese turns common weeds with medicinal properties into a line of salves, tinctures and lip balm. She’s been making her products since about 2000, and started out making salves largely by chance. A friend of hers had picked up a big load of beeswax, and accidentally dropped a 10-pound bundle of it as he was pulling out of Calabrese’s driveway. Calabrese decided to use up the bundle by making salve as Christmas presents for her friends and family — and the rest is history.

Calabrese keeps her recipe very simple. To make salve, she harvests a weed, chops it up, and puts it to soak in some olive oil. After a couple of weeks, she strains the herb out of the olive oil and is left with an infused olive oil. She combines it with beeswax to make a salve, or more beeswax to make her top-selling lip balm.

The salves and tinctures (a small amount of herb dropped into water and then drunk) that Calabrese makes are effective for everything from alleviating headaches to calming anxious nerves to aiding sleep. Some of the ointments even combat cancer. Calabrese has also recently forayed into making natural herbal insect repellent and poison ivy spray.

Calabrese is constantly tweaking her products based on the feedback she receives. Often, customers come in praising what a salve has done for them.

“A lot of times, people say it does work,” Calabrese says. However, “one thing that works for other people may not work for you.” Basically, unlike some conventional medicine, herbal remedies aren’t a one-size fits all approach.

Calabrese works with a variety of different herbs — pretty much whatever her garden decides to grow her.

“I see what my garden grows me,” Calabrese says. “It’s a real co-creative process. It’s not just me making the decisions, it’s me working with nature’s bounty.”

For Calabrese, the process of creating her products is a holistic experience.

“It’s this whole body experience of reconnection with the natural world, and reconnection with what’s all around us,” she says. “I’m tapping into something that’s bigger than our everyday life.”

Haywood

Waynesville Tailgate Market

8 a.m. to noon Wednesdays and Saturdays at American Legion parking lot near downtown Waynesville. Haywood County grown vegetables, fruits, cut flowers, honey and nursery stock.

Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market

8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays in HART parking lot off U.S. 276 in Waynesville. Produce, plants, baked goods, cheese, meat, fish and more.

Haywood Fairgrounds Farmers Market

7 a.m. to 2 p.m. first Saturday of the month at the Haywood County Fairgrounds (second Saturday in July). Fresh veggies, fruits, plants and more. In conjunction with monthly flea market.

 

Jackson

Jackson County Farmers Market

9 a.m. to noon Saturdays in the municipal parking lot next to Bridge Park in downtown Sylva. Home-grown vegetable seedlings, native plants, flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruits, honey, jams, jellies, soaps, lotions, baskets, crafts and art.

 

Swain

Swain County Tailgate Market

9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays starting June 6 in front of Swain County Administration Building in Bryson City. Organic and sustainable growers of produce, plants, herbs and honey; art including jewelry, quilts, pottery, photographs and more.

 

Qualla Boundary

Cherokee Friday Farmers Tailgate Market

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays in downtown Cherokee on Acquoni Road one mile from U.S. 19. Fresh produce from local farmers and gardeners; look for organics and heirlooms.

 

Macon

Franklin Tailgate Market

8 a.m. to noon Saturdays starting June 6 in parking lot on Palmer Street (backside of Main Street across from Drake Enterprises). Homegrown fruits, vegetables, herbs, cut flowers, plants, eggs, locally made cheese, trout, and honey.

Rickman Store Market

3 to 7 p.m. Fridays at old T.M. Rickman Store located on Cowee Creek Road next to Cowee Elementary School. Vegetables, plants, flowers, organic eggs, baked goods and more, as well as local arts and crafts.

Walk among the rows and rows of hydroponic butter leaf lettuce growing in William Shelton’s greenhouse, and you’ll notice a distinctive dark green patch that seems out of place. While the butter leaf is destined to be neatly packed in a clamshell case and shipped to a Food Lion or Ingles somewhere, the variety of dark, mixed greens are headed somewhere totally different, a place Shelton’s veggies have typically not gone before — a local family’s dinner plate.

Shelton, who has spent 25 farming years selling his lettuce and a handful of other crops to big-name retailers, is making his initial foray into Community Supported Agriculture. For the first time in his career, Shelton won’t just know what town his produce is destined for — he’ll know the name of the person eating it.

Customers who pay Shelton $500 at the beginning of the growing season — right around now, or earlier in many cases — will receive a box of fresh vegetables each week for six months. They’ll start off with early spring greens; then transition to strawberries, zucchini, and tomatoes; then eggplant and okra; and finally, as the season winds down, root vegetables like acorn squash and pumpkins.

Shelton appears to have his plan down pat, but in reality, he says he has no idea what to expect — whether customers will like the vegetables he’s chosen; whether many people at all will sign up for his CSA test run.

“I feel like I’m looking into the abyss in a way,” Shelton says. “I’m stepping into uncharted territory.”

It may be an abyss, but he’s not alone in taking the plunge. CSA’s have experienced a surge in popularity with the growing local food movement. In 2008, the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program’s Local Food Guide listed 28 CSA’s within 100 miles of Asheville. This season, there are 42.

“It’s relatively new in this region, and it’s something I’ve really seen take off in the last few years,” says Rose McLarney, communications director for ASAP. “A lot of farms are realizing that people are interested in that direct connection.”

 

Loving local

The connection with local consumers is a whole new experience for farmers like Shelton.

“My focus has been on wholesale markets,” Shelton says. “I’ve been resistant to CSA because I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect of direct marketing.”

But the wholesale markets haven’t been kind in recent years.

“The market pressures have gotten worse instead of better,” says Shelton. “We’ve been overproducing a small variety of traditional crops like tomatoes, and it’s just cutthroat supply and demand. For the last couple of years, the markets have just been horrible in the summer.”

Typically, Shelton says, with every spring comes renewed hope that somehow, the next season will be better. Sometimes it is. Lately, it hasn’t been.

At the same time market prices are plummeting, however, the interest in local food is rising. The priorities of consumers are shifting, says McLarney. It’s less about getting any kind of food anytime you want it, even if it means it has to come from thousands of miles away; and more about knowing where food comes from.

“I think people are really interested in different qualities than looking for the exotic,” McLarney says. “I think knowing that the flavor comes from things that haven’t traveled as far is of more interest to people than being able to eat tropical year round.”

Cathy Arps, a Jackson County grower, has seen that trend emerge firsthand. She and her husband Ron have run a CSA for 11 years.

“That freshness is one of the things that has sold people on the idea of local food,” says Cathy. “It’s just so good, and most people think it’s fun to learn how to eat what’s really growing, and to know something about their food.”

The Arps’ were overjoyed to hear a fellow farmer was starting up a CSA. Theirs has been so popular that the coveted 21 spots fill quickly year after year and they’re forced to turn many people away. More CSAs haven’t popped up to meet the growing demand.

“When William called me and said he was starting a CSA, I practically jumped up and down,” Ron says. “We’ve been talking to people for years about getting more CSAs going, because we’ve always had to turn so many people down.”

Julie Mansfield, owner of Mountain Harvest Organics in Madison County, was also happy to hear of Shelton’s plan. She and her husband started a CSA in Haywood County nine years ago when they saw locals were having to drive to Asheville for consistent access to local produce. Today, they’re still one of the few CSA programs west of Asheville, and they deliver to customers each week at the Waynesville tailgate market. Earning one of the Mansfield’s 50 slots is difficult, because customers return year after year.

“We have a really high retention rate, and so we haven’t been able to add new members for a long time,” Mansfield says. “We have a waiting list every year, so I’m very excited that other people are doing it.”

 

For better or worse

Haywood County grower Danny Barrett is another farmer jumping on the CSA bandwagon this year. Like Shelton, Barrett had sold his crops wholesale for nearly his entire career. One day several years ago, his daughter convinced him to put up a produce stand.

“So we threw in some heirloom tomatoes and decided to put up signs on the road and sell them for a quarter a piece,” Barrett remembers. “And it just kinda boomed.”

The response was so great that Barrett switched from growing peppers and tomatoes for wholesale markets to mainly selling from his produce stand. Now, he hopes to have the same success with a CSA.

Barrett, like many CSA farmers, is attracted to the idea of getting paid for his crop at the start of the growing season.

“I gotta look at it from the benefits at my end, which is it gives me some early startup money,” Barrett says. “Instead of going to the bank and having to borrow enough money because it’s so expensive to put a crop in, you have that money to start with, and you won’t have to pay it back at the end of the year.”

Traditionally, farmers have had the burden of getting the money together to start their crop, then hoping they can make that money back as the season progresses.

“Usually if you’re growing a produce, you make all the investments, take it to the market, and hope somebody buys it, and if they don’t, you’ll lose money,” says McLarney.

The CSA model gives farmers a leg up at the start of the growing season.

“The upfront money that people pay, it’s like seed money, because it pays for our seeds and our fertilizers,” Mansfield says. “You don’t get that money up front from the market. If we have a crop failure, we still have income coming in no matter what.”

That’s another reason CSAs are attractive to farmers — they provide assurance that, “customers will stick with them throughout the season,” McLarney says.

The model creates a deeply personal connection between customers of a CSA and the farmer. If the farm has a tough season, the customer feels it directly in the form of smaller boxes of produce each week — and if the season is plentiful, customers reap the rewards.

“They invest in a farm and share in the risk of that farm, but they also get to share in the bounty of the crop,” Shelton says.

 

Lessons learned

The personal connection a CSA forms between a farmer and customer is deepened by the fact that the experience is often a learning curve for both. For instance, to entice customers, farmers tend to plant a much more diverse array of crops than they have in the past.

“It allows farmers to grow a variety of crops, because people like to see different things in their box,” says McLarney. “Whereas farmers in recent years may have been encouraged to specialize in one thing and sell it wholesale.”

That’s the experience Shelton is going through. Last year, he grew strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. This year, “I’m doing a whole lot of different things for CSA, some for the first time,” Shelton says. “It’s kind of reintroduced me to gardening.”

As he walks through his greenhouses and fields, Shelton points out the wide array of things he’s planted this year: mixed greens, okra, cantaloupe, soybeans, broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens, turnips, zucchini, sweet corn, eggplant, blueberries and chard.

“This is the first time I’ve grown shallots in my life,” Shelton laughs, gesturing to a row of small green shoots.

For Cathy Arps, “the category of food that has been a learning experience is greens,” she says. The Arps’ will sift through a seed catalog, picking out as many edible greens as they can find in order to give their customers some variety in early spring.

“We grow all kinds of greens that people can’t even pronounce the names of,” Cathy chuckles.

The wide variety of produce offered through a CSA encourages customers like Larissa Miller, a longtime member of the Arps’ program, to be inventive in the kitchen.

“Lots of times we’d get things I wouldn’t typically grow in the garden,” Miller says. “It forces me out of my normal paradigm of cooking to try some things a little different.”

After a while, customers get good at figuring out what to do with the weekly bounty of produce.

“A lot of members said the first year, it was challenging to eat all the food,” Mansfield says. “You accumulate a repertoire of recipes, so you might have 50 ways to cook kale.”

The Mansfields have created an online collection of member-submitted recipes, which can be accessed at www.mountainharvestorganic.com/recipes.html.

 

Planting a seed

Shelton is working hard to make his CSA succeed. He’s had a crash course in direct marketing to the consumer, creating a new Web site, distributing brochures, setting up a booth at Greening up the Mountains and joining the local Chamber of Commerce. He hopes to snag between 100 and 200 customers this season.

Though Shelton says the learning curve is steep, he’s undoubtedly committed — not just to his CSA, but to the larger idea of eating locally.

“I’ve decided that if the idea is to connect local food to local people, and I have the capacity to grow a good volume of food, it’s a good route to take,” he says. “Ideally, I think I’m going to try to build this community around my farm.”

 

 

How to sign up

Interested in purchasing a CSA share from one of the farmers in this article?

• The Arps are already full for the season.

• William Shelton’s CSA is $500 per share for a 24-week season. The cost can be paid up front, or half now and half Aug. 1. Shelton Family Farm is located in Whittier, but Shelton is considering possible pick-up locations in Sylva, Bryson City, Cullowhee, and Waynesville. To sign up, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit www.sheltonfamilyfarm.com.

• Danny Barrett, owner of Ten-Acre Garden in Haywood County, is offering 21-week shares for $300. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shares in both CSAs are limited, so register as soon as possible. Shares can be split, so if the weekly produce box seems a bit daunting, feel free to invite friends, neighbors, or family to take part.

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