Each week I visit farmers markets in Western North Carolina. I admit I am not nearly as well traveled through the region as I would like. Regardless, the one thing I notice at the markets in the city is the proliferation of “designer heirlooms.”
Designer heirlooms are classified as heirloom varieties which have gained popularity and are wildly available in the consumer market. That’s not to say that it isn’t important to preserve and grow these delicious foods, more so it’s a question of “Why do we limit the diversity of foods we eat?”
The Appalachian region hosts the greatest biodiversity of agricultural varieties in North America. The history of local flavor and crop adaptation spans the decades since Europeans first arrived in these mountains, in fact it precedes Europeans by well over a thousand years with the original settlers of this region. As an example; the Cherokee had a multitude of squash, bean, and corn varieties which they cared for and improved over time accounting for personal preference and growing conditions.
Our farmers in Appalachia are doing incredible work; consistently the produce is of the highest quality, flavor, and freshness. The disconnect between the Farmers Market and the local terrior comes down to customer demand and the absence of connection to the incredible old time varieties Appalachia is known for.
I often hear that the WNC Farmers Market is for tourists. I disagree, although it may have crops grown out of state, it also hosts many small farmers from WNC who bring in the good stuff. One stand, which holds true to it’s roots is Coates Brothers. The Coates opened their stand in 1977 and have worked with small farmers in the community to preserve the legacy of good eatin’ and home cooking. When visiting their stall you can find cut short, greasy, and half runner beans which have been grown by the same families for generations. Along with the beans they often have heirloom apple varieties which have been favorites in these mountains such as the Lodi and the Wolf River.
Other notable folks I want to give a shout out to are Wade McCourry of Troys Greenhouse in Burnsville, NC and Chris and Wanda Arrowood of Owl Country Market in Canton, NC.
Wade McCourry is wealth of traditional Appalachian seed knowledge. His small operation hosts a huge variety of heirloom, open pollinated, and GMO free seeds, plant starts, and produce. The real secret is in his passion for local flavor and local seed. Wades family has been living in this area since the 18oo’s and he is the most knowledgeable Appalachian seedsman we know. Be sure to visit Troys Greenhouse if you are in the area.
Chris and Wanda Arrowood have the sweetest little country store on Asheville Hwy in Canton. The family had one of the first restaurants in the area back before the big interstate came in and continues the tradition of offering up the best Appalachia has to offer at the Owl Country Store. When you walk into the shop on a fine summers day you are immediately greeted by bushel baskets full of heirloom tomatoes. Wanda Arrowood tends vegetable patches around the shop and in their neighboring fields. Much of the produce is produced by the family itself as well as close friends whose agricultural lineage dates back multiple generations. When asked about the empty basket marked Greasy Beans I was told that they “can’t keep them on the shelves, they get swooped up the minute the store opens in the morning.” These greasies are special and are only available at Owl, coming from a variety that dates back over a hundred years in the farmers family.
The bounty of Appalachian crops are immeasurable, but only if you know where to find them. Our farmers markets are a vital link in ensuing that this bounty continues and isn’t wiped away by the fast moving machine of our modern food system. The farmers themselves and the communities they provide for have the greatest strength in preserving the culture and biodiversity of Appalachian terrior. The farmers need access to the seeds, they need customers who will request the produce, and they need a community that is built on local foodways and local agriculture.
When you are at the farmers market and see a local variety, buy it, thank the farmer for preserving the culture of the mountains, then invite all your friends over for supper and share the flavor of Appalachia.