The head of the Appalachian Regional Commission bites into local food promotion as an economic development tool. He starts in the foodie capital of Southern Appalachia, Western North Carolina, with a visit to Smoking J’s Fiery Foods in Candler.
Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, has a job that requires him to take the heat.
And we’re talking about more than Washington, D.C., politics.
On Wednesday Gohl was at Smoking J’s Fiery Foods in Candler, N.C., to launch his ARC Foodways tour.
“It was a cold day, but it was hot stuff,” Gohl said.
He sampled hot sauce and peppers at the farm, which is west of Asheville. About 25 other nonprofit, foundation and government leaders joined him on the tour. The visit was organized as part of the fourth annual gathering of the Appalachia Funders Network.
Smoking J’s is part of what Gohl describes as a burgeoning economic sector in Appalachia – local foods production.
The farm is notable in a region that already has a reputation for producing all things local, from food to beer to art. The 10-acre farm is owned and run by Joel and Tara Mowrey. The farm grows about 20 varieties of hot and sweet peppers. Besides the usual jalapenos, there are jolokia ghost, fatilli and the scorching Trinidad scorpion butch T 6, the hottest in the world.
Joel Mowrey said two people work year-round at the farm, in addition to the owners. That number swells to 13 or more seasonally.
To process their spicy ingredients into sauces, rubs and salsa, the Mowreys take advantage of a community commercial kitchen in Candler. The facility is run by Blue Ridge Food Ventures, and it serves as a sort of business incubator. Numerous individuals and small businesses share the kitchen, lowering the cost and hassle of getting into the industry.
The ARC’s Gohl says this kind of community infrastructure is what’s needed to help local food businesses in Appalachia take off.
“We’ve got good soil, a long growing season, and lots of local knowledge,” he said. “The challenge is to develop the ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’ to make local foods a stronger part of the local economy.”
Gohl said he hopes to visit local-food projects like Smoking J’s and the community kitchen in all 13 of the states that have counties in the federally defined Appalachian region, which runs from northeast Mississippi to southern New York.
Since 2001 the ARC has pumped $7.6 million into local-food production projects. That funding has gone to support marketing, training and infrastructure like shared kitchens and markets.
A 2012 ARC report says expanding local food production has the “potential to increase employment opportunities, improve community vitality and quality of life, and become a sustainable and healthy part of Appalachia’s future economic and community development.”
“We don’t have specific numbers” on the potential economic impact of local food production, Gohl said. “But direct sales by farmers to buyers have grown dramatically. That reflects well on the whole system.”