What if the driveway to the county’s administration building were lined with blueberries?
It was January, and Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin and Heather Stevens were on a walk, dreaming about how green Jackson County could be. They had read an article on a little town in West Yorkshire, England, called Todmorden, which transformed the way it produces food in two years.
“I read the article, and I just thought, ‘Wow,’” Stevens said. “This would be great. We could do this here.”
Cabanis-Brewin and Stevens, long-time organic gardeners from opposite ends of the county, didn’t want the idea to die. Last week, Cabanis-Brewin asked the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to consider taking on the challenge of making the county the greenest in North Carolina. She’ll go back next month with a more formal proposal to be considered on the board’s agenda.
“We would need to formally declare that Sylva and Jackson County have a strategy for economic development and environmental preservation that involves trying to be the greenest county in the state,” Cabanis-Brewin said.
So far, their greenward movement has been based on food. Todmorden revitalized its food economy through a grow-your-own initiative that used publicly owned space for raising vegetables. Today the town’s three schools serve only locally grown vegetables and locally raised meats during meals, and its restaurants draw tourists from all over Great Britain.
Cabanis-Brewin said the Todmorden example — coupled with the knowledge that a Manna Foodbank report showed that more than 100,000 people in Western North Carolina seek emergency food assistance each year — made growing food the perfect place to start.
“You could focus on transportation or energy, but you have to start somewhere,” said Cabanis-Brewin. “And because it’s easy and because it’s spring, we wanted to start with food.”
Stevens called seed companies that have nonprofit initiatives and managed to get her hands on more than 500 seed packets from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and the Seed Savers Exchange. She is working with community partners to find people who are willing to plant the seeds in unexpected places. So far both the Sylva and Dillsboro community gardens have stepped up to the plate.
St. John’s Episcopal Church and the First United Methodist Church in Sylva have taken seeds to plant. Soul Infusion Café, Spring Street Café, and Café Guadalupe have also agreed to plant seeds and look for ways to use more locally grown food wherever possible.
Stevens argues that rainbow chard, purple basil, sunflowers, and scarlet runner beans can be as beautiful as any flowerbeds while still producing food for the table. Cabanis-Brewin told the Jackson County Board of Commissioners that their Buncombe County counterparts authorized a study that showed growing and eating local would bring $452 million into the local economy in Western North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Gov. Perdue recently named the Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council to study how to increase the amount of local and sustainable foods served to public school students.
“It’s a smart thing for business and it’s a smart thing for the environment. The two things don’t have to be in contention,” Cabanis-Brewin said.
Besides, she argued, with Sylva’s historic watershed in trust, the county’s thriving community gardens, and a board of commissioners who were the first to pass building regulations focused on land preservation, Jackson County already has a head start on becoming the greenest in the state.
“We can preserve the time-honored mountain tradition of self-sufficiency, and give our county a bright economic and environmental future at the same time,” Cabanis-Brewin said.
County Commissioner William Shelton, a local farmer who has focused on land preservation issues, said he liked the idea, but he wanted to learn more about the specifics.
“We should never close our minds to these types of ideas, and if there are models out there, then let’s look at them,” Shelton said.
Shelton fears that while the dream of producing food in public places is attractive, the work ethic it would require may be more than people can handle.
“We would have to figure out a way to adapt it to what’s here and what’s practical. It’s the type of idea the whole community would have to be behind,” Shelton said.