Report Explores Valuable & Viable Local Foods

Story by Leah Shapiro | Photos courtesy of AdvantageWest

Anyone who has ever bitten into an apple handpicked from a nearby farm knows that the fresh taste of local fruit is unrivaled. “And yet the average meal travels something like 2,000 miles,” says Matthew Raker. He is with AdvantageWest who partnered with Land-of-Sky Regional Council (LOSRC) to examine the realities of our local food movement.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, GroWNC is a three-year planning project facilitated by LOSRC that looks at several interrelated issues such as land use, natural resources, and energy in a five-county region. Last December, collaborators of the GroWNC project released a report entitled “An Assessment of Market Potential of Select Value-Added Food Products for Western North Carolina.” It focuses on eight of the most viable processed products in today’s regional market.

Local, however, doesn’t always mean easily accessible or readily available for consumers to purchase. Higher retail costs and seasonality are also factors.

Other challenges to a thriving, regionally focused, agricultural economy involve the growers. Many aspiring entrepreneurs and seasoned farmers alike are perplexed as to which regional crops are the most financially advantageous from a business standpoint.

The GroWNC report compiled data from individuals and businesses, highlighting hops, goat cheese, shiitakes, season-extending greens, elderberries, smokehouse services, apple brandy, and sourwood honey mead.

“We are examining how we can work together as a community to create a vision for the future and work toward that,” explains Carrie Runser-Turner, GroWNC program manager and senior planner at LOSRC.

“You might get $1 for a tomato raw,” Matthew explains, describing the value-added concept. “But you may be able to get $3 if that same tomato were processed.”

Compiled from data and interviews with individual businesses, this 68-page report is a dialogue about previous and ongoing research and feasibility for growth. The information is also helpful to the average consumer by raising awareness of health benefits, Carrie says.

Elderberry syrup, for instance, is great for your health. “I’ve actually talked with elderly people who feel like without elderberries, they would have been much more susceptible to life-threatening colds and flus in their mid- to late 70s and 80s,” says Chuck Marsh, cofounder of Earthaven Ecovillage near Black Mountain. As a result, growers are looking at increasing their elderberry production.

“Why aren’t we doing more with our apples?” asks Jeanine Davis, an associate professor in N.C. State’s Department of Horticultural Science. Our state ranks seventh in apple production nationally. This report suggests that apple brandy production might also be in the future.

But no one said it would be easy. “There are a lot of hoops you’ve got to jump through,” explains Henderson County extension agent Marvin Owings. “But if you’re dedicated enough to do it, it can be done, and you can make money at it.”

This business feasibility study takes some of the guesswork out of entrepreneurs’ initial planning steps. “It looks at underutilized, underdeveloped business opportunities in the region based on agribusiness,” Scott Hamilton, president & CEO of AdvantageWest, explains. If someone is harvesting elderberries, he argues, then perhaps they can diversify their income by producing jam as well as a syrup.

“There are entities throughout WNC that are set up and can help small businesses get started,” explains Matthew. One such entity is Blue Ridge Food Ventures, for instance, AdvantageWest’s 11,000-square-foot shared-use kitchen incubator.
“This study is just one component of a larger project,” explains Carrie. “We just completed the public input process on some scenarios we’ve developed.”

GroWNC welcomes outside contributions as planners develop goals and objectives that really reflect the needs of our region.

For more information including the full report, visit gro-wnc.org.

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