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WNC AgOptions year-end dinner presentation

To wrap up each AgOptions grant cycle and growing season, the recipients join together at a mountain farm to hear the results of each other's projects and share a dinner, spotlighting food produced at the past and present AgOptions recipients' farms. At the November 2009 dinner, Megan started the night with a story and slide show of how the food traveled to everyone's plate. Here's a glimpse...

In coordinating this dinner, all of a sudden I found myself on the buyer's side. I was no longer helping farmers sell produce, but buying it for a 65-person dinner.  Throughout the process, my computer screen became speckled with spreadsheets listing produce, poundages, pick-up times and costs.

You all in the audience know well the biggest part in this process: the production.
I'll skip that chapter in the story since you are so familiar with it. Instead I'll talk about the coordination of it all.

I started talking to many of you three months ago about the produce you would have available in November.  Most of you had the timelines of your harvests down pat and predicted accurately the vegetables that would be available.  That is key to making a buyer's life easy.

Jennifer Thomas, our chef, drafted a few menus, each time incorporating more vegetables that define November, such as turnips, collards and butternut squash.  She calculated the exact quantities of produce that we would need to feed between 50 and 75 people and gave me the list to begin my hunt.

During the process of ordering, I was lucky enough to hear stories about your life:  Stephanie and Scott of Stoney Hollow Farms, who made the kobocho pies and cornbread, were recently married. Somehow they found the time in the midst of building a value-added kitchen to plan a wedding.

A huge advantage to value-added products is that I was able to pick them up well before the dinner:  At Cloud 9 Farm's Demonstration Day in October, I not only left with a full tummy of brownies and grass-fed beef chili, but also with a box of blueberry jam, now the centerpieces on our tables.

The list dictating my hunt for food was complete this past Saturday. I knew what I was picking up from each of you, which times, the quantities, and the costs.  But the distribution — or perhaps I should say the fun — had just begun.

First stop, North Asheville Market to pick up Imladris Farm's assortment of jams.

Second stop, City Market in downtown Asheville to Spinning Spider Creamery, 2008 recipient. They supplied the cheeses.

Third stop, Hickory Nut Gap Farms in Fairview to pick up cider.

Monday was the main distribution day.  I started at Amy Mostwill's Sweetheart Bakery in West Asheville. Amy is a local baker who often supplies baked goods for AgOptions workshops. She happened to be holding a meeting for the organizers of the downtown Asheville Christmas market.  That's where I caught up with Anne Grier, who supplied our onions and beets.

Next on to Spruce Pine, where I met up with Barbara Aycock of Avery County in the Ingles parking lot.  She handed me a bag of greens, garlic and frozen green beans while we chatted. She reminded me that her tomato crop got the blight. Despite that, the farm managed to end the year ahead of expenses, in large part thanks to the grant. In the midst of the blight, she learned how to make a delicious green tomato chutney with the fruits she was able to rescue.

Barbara was dressed up and smelling good — on the way to a party hosted by an owner of a business next door to her local farmer's market.  After she left, I took a peek in the produce bag and realized the glitch of the day:  the bag contained kale instead of collards, of which my cook had ordered a large quantity.  "I'm sure something will work out," I thought to myself.

Next, I drove north to Bakersville, past the Roan Mountain tanning salon and several small vegetable stands and to the Cooperative Extension office.  I parked my car in the used car lot, which doubles as public parking.  Apparently, you can leave your keys in your car without worrying about it, just as Cynthia Sharpe of OakMoon Creamery can sell her gourmet goat cheeses on the honor system. Bakersville is that quaint and trusting.

I lugged potatoes, sweet sorghum syrup and beef across the busy street. Well, okay, there was just one car.  But the potato bag was still attracting attention from onlookers. The Mitchell County Cooperative Extension worked with several farmers to purchase uniform potato bags through a N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission cost-share grant through Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.

The potatoes – from Brandon Birchfield.  The molasses and grass-fed beef — from Harrell Hill Farms.

Now back on down to Yancey County, through the road construction on 19E. It's too bad many out-of-towners think of 19E — and the road engineers moving mountains — when they think of Yancey County. Like the Extension Agents repeatedly remind me, Yancey is a special place: home to the tallest and lowest points in the region, as well as the only place where two rivers start and end in the same county. It's here, at the Yancey Cooperative Extension, that I picked up Ryan Wiebe's butternut squash.

On to Marshall and Madison Farms.  Now that driver's fatigue was starting to set in, Madison Farms was a beacon of light on the horizon. The big walk-in freezer and cooler, the cleanliness, and the convenient and efficient systems there all welcomed me. The manager Catherine handed me boxes from four different farms spread out over three counties — and I only had to go to one place to pick them up! Not only that, but she gave me a clean, neat copy of the invoice straight from the printer and promised another in the mail to our fiscal agent. Ah, a buyer's dream.  To top it off – she happened to have a full box of collards, but was low on kale, perfectly offsetting the change of order with the Aycocks. Here I picked up Shannon Roberts' poultry and Fred Treadway's turnips.  Fred had tracked me down on my cell phone earlier in the day. He wanted to tell me personally that his donated turnips were waiting for me.

By this time, my little Honda Civic Hybrid was packed to the peak and smelling nicely of turnip greens.

To avoid the rockslide traffic that has quadrupled the population of Madison County in the past month, I chose a scenic detour next to the French Broad River, and through the Grove Arcade area in Asheville. I followed a couple cars with "Local Foods" bumper stickers as I passed restaurants that buy from AgOptions recipients such as Laughing Seed.  I sat at a traffic light behind another car with a "Keep the Earth Clean – It's Not Uranus!"  And then on to Buncombe County Cooperative Extension, where I parked next to a truck with a "No Farms, No Food" Farmland Trust bumper sticker.

This was my final stop of the day. I picked up the fresh parsley and thyme from Blue Heron Farm that was waiting for me in the Extension refrigerator.

All of this was just Monday.  On Tuesday, I braved the hurricane-influenced weather for sweet potatoes and carrots in Old Fort from Meredith McKissick of Crooked Creek Farms, then to Arden in the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center for more poultry from Robin Singleton of Reeves Homeplace. And finally on to Wilson Farms for poinsettias from Raynelle Ritchie.

I had no idea then that the fun had really just begun. On Wednesday I joined the cooks in prepping the produce. I basked in hearing the chefs exclaim how they enjoyed cooking with "real food," commenting on the beauty of the mushrooms, carrots, huge chickens and high quality beef.

It's funny — I have been touting direct marketing for several years now — "Avoid the middle-man so that more of the money goes in the deserving pockets of the farmer."  But I have to admit halfway through the day on Monday in the traffic of 19E and on the curving roads of Madison County, I couldn't help but dream of "market managers" – businesses who make the ordering and delivery easy for both the farmers and the chefs.

My experiences reminded me of the lesson of this year's grant cycle: the importance of ease in distribution if we're going to establish new markets. It hit home when Skipper Russell was able to establish a relationship with Ingles in part because of his new refrigerated box truck. Simply delivering the lettuce to the store before it wilts is the key to that relationship. It also hit home while watching a presentation across the street at the Haywood Cooperative Extension. Ingles representatives encouraged local growers to sell to them through distribution centers such as Appalachian Sustainable Development's for-profit venture in Virginia. It's not entirely up to the buyer to get local foods in big box stores. It's also up to us to figure out ways to make the buyer's life easy. The challenge we in the agricultural industry still struggle with is how to make the details of the middle man work so that food remains affordable and farmers receive a fair price for their hard work.

Another lesson that hit home during my experience is how much relationships fuel the local food system. That is why this region — where these relationships are not only intact but growing  — is experiencing a growth in its local food systems by leaps in bounds.

I had a blast this week, even with the days in the car. This meal is like Thanksgiving, and we get to share with each other our labors of love.

I'm just the lucky one in the middle of it all.