12/19/2011 - Local food sales boom in the Asheville area
by John Boyle - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- It's pretty simple: When it comes to local food sales, mountain consumers pony up the cash.
The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project has released estimates that Western North Carolina consumers bought $62 million worth of local food in 2010. That's a four-fold increase since ASAP started its "Appalachian Grown" certification and branding program in 2007.
"We are way ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to supporting local farms," said Charlie Jackson, the sustainable agriculture project's executive director. Nationally, buyers bought $5 billion worth of locally-produced food last year.
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project also released results of a survey on local food buying habits that it conducted this spring in nine counties in the Asheville area. It found:
One-third of area consumers spend more than 20 percent of their overall monthly food bill on locally grown items.
More than 80 percent of respondents choose local food because those purchases help support local farms and contribute to the local economy.
Seventy-seven percent said local food is a "somewhat" or "very important" consideration in choosing a grocery store, and 64 percent viewed it as "somewhat" or "very important" when choosing a restaurant.
More than 55 percent mentioned Ingles as their grocery store of choice for locally grown food.
Having Ingles, with some 200 stores in its chain, headquartered in Black Mountain, and organic supermarket chain Earth Fare based in Asheville, is a huge plus for local farmers like Michael Porterfield.
He and his business partner, Alan Rose, started New Sprout Organic Farms this year, an operation that leases 50 acres of farmland in Buncombe County and another 150 in Henderson and other mountain counties. They sell to Ingles, Earth Fare, Greenlife and several local food co-ops. Sales this year hit the $500,000 mark.
"We would definitely like that to quadruple or more, and I don't see any reason why it couldn't," Porterfield said. "Asheville is really kind of a unique place for the natural foods industry, in part because you've got a lot of natural foods type companies based out of here, and there's a tradition here of small family farms."
Ingles Markets Chief Financial Officer Ron Freeman said the chain strives to get as much local food as possible in its 203 stores and has "substantially increased" such sales in all its stores. "All through our market area we like to work with groups like ASAP and individual growers," Freeman said. "If we can reliably obtain local products at a competitive price, we're going to buy because it's a win-win-win between the grower, customer and Ingles."
The local food market also has boomed because of the mountains' nearly ideal growing climate and a thriving restaurant scene, with many restaurateurs promoting local products as a drawing card.
Throw in a bustling tailgate market -- some 65 in the mountains are operational throughout the growing season -- and it's a perfect environment.
The 23-county mountain region has some 12,000 growers.
"We are also fortunate enough to have an influx of new farmers coming into the region and starting out farming and some who have tran sitioned into new ideas after the tobacco buyout," said Maggie Cramer, communications coordinator at ASAP, which released its estimates last week. "We are just really rich with farmers who are are innovative and trying new things, and offering a great deal of products to consumers."