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WNC Business

Building community health and local economies through local food

Aug 02, 2023 09:06AM ● By Randee Brown

Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project is a 501(c)(3) organization with a mission to support local farmers, link farmers to resources, and build healthier communities through connections to local food. 

Before officially starting in 2002, ASAP’s Communications Manager Sarah Hart said a few individuals knew the tobacco buyout was coming to NC, which would seismically affect agriculture in Western North Carolina. They knew many farmers would have to shift, and they knew it was important to keep the agricultural character of the region in place.

As ASAP began and grew, its members spoke with farmers, extension agents, and academic researchers to learn what they liked about the way of life of tobacco farming. Hart said they realized local food could keep farms small, which aligns with the geography of the region which also dictates how large farms can get.

Hart said there is a growing national trend of people that want to know more about where food comes from, and people are starting to identify with the idea of local food. ASAP started a local food campaign, helping to get people interested and understand where they can purchase locally. The list of stands, farms, and markets wasn’t long at first — only 50 listings in WNC — and now there are more than 1400 listings.

In addition to creating a list of places to purchase local food, ASAP also offers a variety of educational and supportive programming for farmers, educators, and the community including a Farm to School program, farmer training programs, workshops, and a Farm Fresh for Health initiative. 

“ASAP offers programming for a variety of connection points,” Hart said. “We work with teachers and nutrition staff at local schools, help create best practices for markets, coordinate an annual farm tour, and look at the ways we can help boost community health as well as economic stability. We also have a research center to survey farmers and look at regional trends to know where programs are working or need adapting to better provide support for these aspects.”

Direct support to local farmers includes a Business of Farming conference which helps farmers develop their businesses and make connections for them, according to Hart. Classes in marketing, planning, risk management, and market planning are offered. 

Through funding from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, ASAP helps farmers who are creating added-value products to develop non-food items including promotional materials, signage, and packaging. Hart said ASAP can help pay farmers to provide food to free-food organizations that typically receive donations including lower-quality canned goods, further connecting community needs to the needs of farmers.

Hart said ASAP helps drive the demand for local farm products in a variety of ways. An Appalachian Grown program not only offers free consulting to around 1,000 farms but also helps consumers easily recognize local produce and farm products. ASAP supports about 100 farmers markets to have the capacity to do promotional work to reach a larger audience, bringing people together to have a more powerful voice. 

“Appalachian Grown has become easily recognizable branding,” Hart said. “We create our own packaging with Appalachian Grown branding and can sell it to farmers at a lower cost because we buy it in bulk. We also offer a farmer toolkit that encapsulates many aspects of farming businesses that can easily be found online. There’s a food guide, and we offer social media marketing and are working with the press to drive awareness of local food. We are constantly looking at what we can do to better get resources to farmers.”

According to Hart, a double Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with the Department of Health and Human Services and a prescription program provides the local community with incentives to shop at farmers markets. 

“We help tap into people’s concerns about health and what they are eating,” Hart said. “We’ve helped farmers to be able to accept SNAP, and now most markets in Asheville and Buncombe County do.”

Survey reports from ASAP are showing that despite many farmers aging out and the region losing farmers and farmland each year, many agricultural businesses in the area are continuing to grow with the help of these efforts.

“There are some new farming businesses in the area, and many want to be more connected to the community,” Hart said. “Many are homesteaders who want to have and enjoy this lifestyle and sell what they are growing to their local communities; there’s a ‘back to the land’ movement coming here. It’s more of a lifestyle than getting rich, and we continue to hear new, different, and collaborative stories from our local farmers.”

Photo courtesy of ASAP