6/20/2011 - Asheville tailgate markets unite family growers, buyers
by Barbara Blake - Asheville Citizen Times
It's harvest time in the mountains of Western North Carolina! So many choices for green and healthy living food here in the Asheville and surrounding areas! Take your pick!
ASHEVILLE -- What are two hip young guys doing sitting under a tent in West Asheville, surrounded by baskets of rainbow carrots, bok choy and green garlic?
Trying to make a living.
Andrew Eastwick and Joe Evans, both 25 and owners of Foster Creek Farm, on leased acreage in Madison County, are among the hundreds of farmers in Western North Carolina who are trying to live off -- and on -- their land by growing produce to sell at area tailgate markets.
After migrating to the mountains from Charleston, S.C., it's their first year as vegetable merchants, and they're just beginning to learn the ins and outs of agriculture as a career as the growing season begins in earnest.
"We're riding the learning curve," Eastwick said, taking a break between customers at the bustling West Asheville Tailgate Market on Haywood Road on Tuesday afternoon.
"Trying to figure out what we're good at," Evans added.
"We've already found out that selling is much harder than growing -- people are picky," Evans said. "It hurts when somebody comes in and picks up a bunch of greens and says, 'This doesn't look too bad.' Kind of like somebody telling you your daughter isn't really all that pretty."
But the two young entrepreneurs are excited about the possibilities their land offers and said their dreams are pretty basic.
"I'd rather not work for anyone else -- and for us, our life is our work," Eastwick said.
"Although our work never ends," Evans said.
"I just like the idea of feeding ourselves and hopefully other people," he said. "We're not trying to get rich, we just want to make a living ... or hopefully at least break even."
Markets become mainstream
Whether these newcomers to commercial agriculture are able to earn their living doing what they love remains to be seen. But they've jumped into a field -- literally and figuratively -- that is ripe with opportunity.
With the official start of the market season coming next week, along with the first day of summer, there are about 60 tailgate markets in Western North Carolina. There are 10 in Buncombe County alone -- to be joined on Wednesday by an 11th, in the parking lot of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce in Montford.
"People are more knowledgeable about where their food comes from these days, and the popularity of local markets is just growing like crazy," said Laura Bower, who owns B&L Organic Farm in Mars Hill with her husband, Barry Rubeinstein, and has sold their produce at several local markets for more than 20 years.
Bower said she is excited about the trend toward supporting local farmers and consumers choosing locally grown produce, and sees nothing but positive in increasing number of local markets.
"I don't have any worries," she said. "I can't see this doing anything but growing."
Pat Bernarding, a member of the French Broad Food Co-op since 1985 and a longtime supporter of its Wednesday afternoon tailgate market, said she's seen patronage at local markets become "more mainstream" over the last 25 years.
"I think more people are trying to eat healthy and support their local farmers, and they're learning that there's something quite nice about going home and making this food and knowing that you've spoken directly to the person who grew it," said Bernarding, who didn't let a rainstorm keep her from her weekly visit to the market on Biltmore Avenue.
"And," she said, "it's good to know that the money we spend is staying in town."
'A street fair every week'
The money being spent at local markets isn't going just for fruits and vegetables. At many of the markets you'll find grass-fed beef, pork, eggs, seafood, cheese, honey, butter and other food products, along with nonedible treats.
"The tagline used by the Mountain Tailgate Market Association in years past has been that markets are 'a street fair every week,' which is true," said Maggie Cramer, communications coordinator with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.
"Most markets offer weekly live music by local acts and have artisan craft vendors selling everything from handcrafted cutting boards to soaps, yarn and fiber products and homemade, eco-friendly cleaning products," Cramer said.
The new market in Montford will highlight local beer brewers and breweries each week, and the North Asheville Tailgate Market on the UNC Asheville campus will hold special events all summer, including a summer solstice celebration.
The Asheville City Market on South Charlotte Street has Kids Corner activities 9 a.m.-noon every Saturday in June, July and August, with the goal of "connecting families with local food and farms, and giving children positive experiences with healthy foods," Cramer said.
It's already working for one Madison County family, said Nicole Johnson, who came to the French Broad Co-op market Wednesday afternoon with her husband, Bruce, and young son Samuel, who examined an assortment of produce with a sharp eye.
"When you come here, you get to see all the food, and you can tell it hasn't gone bad," Samuel said. "And look -- it's not wrapped up in plastic."
Nicole Johnson said her family grows a good amount of produce but makes the trek to the Asheville markets to supplement with foods they don't have the space to grow.
"I like knowing where the food comes from, and it's better-quality food," she said. "And I know exactly what I'm feeding my family."
Good food for all ages
At the West Asheville market Tuesday, Hezzy and Sharon Miller, married 48 years, were delighted to have stumbled upon the rows of tents in a parking lot on Haywood Road. Regular patrons of th e North Asheville and Asheville City Markets, they had never been to the West Asheville market.
"We just happened by here on our way home, just as we were discussing what we should have for dinner," Sharon Miller said, as she and her husband hauled an armload and a shopping bag filled with fresh foods.
"Everything we're having for dinner is right here," she said, looking over their bounty. "Carrots, beets, squash, tomatoes, crackers and pork chops -- oh, my!"
At the other end of the row of tents, 20-something roommates Lani Lisha and Jessica Lied, newcomers to West Asheville, said they were thrilled to have a weekly market in their own neighborhood after years of patronizing the Weaverville and North Asheville markets.
"We're really picky -- we like to know whose hands have touched our food, and we actually get to meet the person who's touched it," Lisha said, her eyes caressing the quart of plump, shiny blackberries she had just purchased from a local farmer. "It's really important to me to support local farmers doing sustainable farming, and to cut out the middleman," Lied said. "It's the easy, delicious way to do your part."