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Features Venture Local series explores homegrown products

From fresh vegetables to homespun yarn offered at local markets

As part of the Venture Local Franklin (VLF) initiative, Macon County News is teaming up with VLF to highlight local businesses throughout Franklin. Each week, MCN will select locally owned and operated businesses in a different industry ranging from retail to tourism, to manufacturing. It is our goal at MCN to work with VLF to encourage residents to shop locally and utilize the resources Franklin has to offer. To learn more about VLF, visit the VLF facebook page or join the group for their next community hang out at Livingston's Bar and Grill on June 28 at 5:30 p.m.

With the “Go Green” movement making waves throughout the country, it is becoming more and more popular to make a shift to more natural, healthy ways of living. One easy way to do that has been to explore options of buying locally grown products that are fresher than retail store items, and because they are not mass produced, are not treated with chemicals and pesticides. Farming has been a staple to Macon County's identity. Farmers have had roadside stands like Bateman's Produce, Jan's Produce, or Tallent's Produce along the highways in Macon County for decades and have been providing residents with fresh, local produce for years.

Agriculture makes up a bulk of the economy in North Carolina. Greenhouse and nursery products lead the way in crop agriculture but, tobacco is the state's leading field crop followed by cotton. Soybeans and corn for grain are also important crops. North Carolina is a leading peanut and sweet potato production state. Apples are the biggest fruit crop but blueberries, peaches and strawberries are also important.

With the number of local farmers steadily increasing and consumers turning to local markets for fresh, homegrown produce, the need for education and public awareness has also increased. Cooperative Extension is a part of a nationwide educational system which involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state land-grant university system and county government. Extension programs often enhance the work of other government and nonprofit agencies which join together to improve the quality of life for county residents.

Country Home Co-op, set up tents every Wednesday in the parking lot of the Whistle Stop Mall to sell locally grown plants and produce.NC Cooperative Extension is a partnership between N.C. State University, USDA and county government. In 1862 the federal Morrill Act provided funds from the sale of public lands to establish colleges for teaching agriculture and mechanical arts. In North Carolina, the funds helped finance what is now known as North Carolina State University, founded in 1887

From the start, administrators at N.C. State realized the importance of extension work in bringing research-based knowledge to bear on the lives of farmers, families and others. The 1887 Hatch Act allowed for the creation of agricultural experiment stations to conduct agricultural research and discover scientific knowledge to be shared with students and farmers. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 strengthened the concept of service to the community by creating a cooperative system through which land-grant college administrators could join with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct demonstration work. It was this act that formally established what was then called the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service.

The federal and state cooperation inspired by the Smith- Lever Act is enhanced by the added partnership of county governments. Since the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service's inception, county boards of commissioners have provided support to ensure that their citizenry benefit from its work.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension provides a broad range of educational programs that are of benefit to farmers, rural and urban residents, community leaders, homemakers, parents, and youth. Extension programs focus on traditional and changing needs in the areas of agriculture, home economics, community and rural development, and 4-H and youth.

The Franklin Tailgate Market is open every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. until noon. Local farmers sell produce, flowers, herbs, wool, and other locally grown products.In North Carolina, extension's educational programs are delivered locally by field faculty who are housed in offices in all 100 counties and the Cherokee Reservation. “Cooperative Extension provides educational information to NC citizens in the areas of Agriculture, Family and Consumer Science, Community Development and 4-H, our youth program,” said Alan Durden Macon County Cooperative Extension Director. “We provide education through a variety of subject matter classes, one on one consultations and education literature. We assist, facilitate and host non profit educational groups and organizations.”

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension is working across the state to encourage consumers to shop locally. “The Cooperative Extension is the face of Macon County's local foods initiative, helping to promote North Carolina’s10% Campaign and to guide efforts to develop a local food economy,” explained Durden. “The 10% Campaign encourages consumers to commit 10 percent of their existing food dollars to support local food producers, related businesses and communities.”

The Cooperative Extension is constantly working with community leaders, farmers, businesses, local governments, parents, teachers and students to promote the 10% Campaign, which is funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation. “You can join the 10% campaign by going to our website http://macon.ces.ncsu.edu. and follow the Local Foods link,” said Durden. “Pledge to spend 10 percent of your existing food dollars locally and the campaign will email you a few simple questions each week on your local food purchases. Your progress will be tracked and you’ll see local food purchases made statewide.”

According to Durden, over the last decade, more and more citizens are turning to locally grown products versus those that are mass produced and sold in retail stores. “The trend in the last 10 years has been towards local production/local consumption,” said Durden. “For a variety of economical and cultural reasons, most new agricultural ventures in Macon County have been small local producers focused on local markets. The public's interest in locally produced foods has grown and driven the increase in local production. It has also encouraged people to explore growing their own food.”

The increase in the community's interest in locally grown products has called for an increased need in the extension's services. “The growth of local production has increased the need for Cooperative Extension. We provide unbiased, research based information for all NC citizens,” said Durden. “We assist growers with cultural information on their crops and problem solving. We work with local farmers, the Franklin Tailgate Market and the Macon County Community Garden. The availability of a wide variety of quality locally produced fruits and vegetables, has encouraged consumers to spend their dollars on local production at tailgate markets, farm stands and at grocery stores carrying locally grown produce.”

Several Macon County residents grow their personal gardens in order to be able to share their locally grown fresh products with other residents. In 2001, four local farmers, John Boertjens, Don Martin, Harriet Bingenheimer, and Allan Streiff came together with the common interest of organic gardening and realized that they grew enough produce in their personal gardens to sell to other members of the community.

“I grew kohlrabi and no one else did,” said Harriet Bingenheimer of her reason of wanting to start the market. “I gave out samples because people didn't know what it was. It is one of the vegetables that I continue to grow and sell.”

The strawberry fields at Deal Farms yield baskets full of luscious fruit.Initially, the farmers set up at Spring Valley Nursery to sell their produce, but when other local farmers began to show interest, they moved the operation to the Whistle Stop Mall parking lot. It was there that the Franklin Tailgate Market Association (FTMA) was formed to organize and run the weekly market. Nine years ago it was moved to its current location on Palmer Street in downtown Franklin where it runs every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. until noon from April through October.

According to Joyce Haas, treasurer for FTMA, the market averages 25 vendors throughout the season and has over 42 participants. “The market has seen continuous growth in vendors,” said Haas. “Vendors, other than those selling local fresh produce, include plants, honey, feta cheese, eggs, herbs, soaps, herbal lotions, artisan breads, pastries, preserves, trout, wool yarn, corn stalks, dog treats and freshly cut flowers.”

According to the FTMA's founder John Boertjens, the expansion of the market so far is more than he could have ever imagined, and he hopes to see it continue. “From when we first started, this is way beyond our expectations from our initial vision,” said Boertjens.

In order to participate in the market, you must be a member of the FTMA and follow the guidelines that are established to run everything smoothly. “Members meet twice a year and there is an annual fee to sell each Saturday during the season,” explained Haas. “For interested beginners, the FTMA offers an initial ‘free day’ so vendors can try selling without a fee and from there, they may pay weekly or obtain a year's membership. All money collected is used to advertise and promote the farmers' market.”

Since the market opened in April, Haas noted that vendors have seen steady traffic each weekend. “We have a lot of regular customers who seek out fresh out of the garden produce,” said Haas. “Several customers create a standing order or place orders via email to ensure they will get the desired products.”

In addition to placing a permanent sign downtown to inform people of the FTMA's location, Haas explained that much of the success of the farmer's market can be attributed to people wanting to meet the farmer that grows their food, which is something that chain retailers can not provide. “People enjoy meeting the producer of the products and being able to get answers directly from that source,” said Haas. “There is a wonderful camaraderie among vendors who are quick to help with set up and take down of canopies and booths.”

"The Franklin Market is very well attended with a growing number of vendors each season it seems," said Franklin residents Dan and Kathy Tinsley, who are regular vendors at the market. "We do see people who are willing to take the time, get up early on a Saturday to look for quality, locally grown produce and products. We run into crafters that enjoy ‘collecting’ the novelty of locally grown fiber for gifts or their own use and couples that want simple, country type bouquets at weddings for example. I think attendance and sales are holding steady; some market days are busier than others."

The Tinsleys sell cut flowers, herbs, wool, and some vegetables. "We make an effort to attend every Saturday here in Franklin and have also attended the Highlands Market," said Dan. "We have a business card and people call sometimes for special orders or events."

Butch Deal hand picks flowers from the gardens for customers who visit Deal Farms. Butch co-owns the farm with his son, Joe.Kathy and her family have a tradition of farming that goes back over 100 years. Kathy's father, Siler Slagle, was a dairy farmer and she grew up with experience in farming. She and her stepmother, Clydie, are excellent gardeners growing vegetables, cut flowers and herbs. They decided to pool their resources and started taking their goods to the local market about five years ago. "We also have a small sheep operation and sell both our wool and meat," said Dan. "There has been a long tradition of agriculture in this family and it just seemed a natural thing to go to the market both as a vendor as well as a customer."

“The importance of producing and buying locally grown products is to benefit the local economy,” said Haas. “The financial gains usually stay in the area and support other area businesses. People enjoy being able to buy food that is locally grown because the vendors are knowledgeable of how their food is produced. The advantage for customers is direct distribution whereas foods at the grocery store have traveled for a week or more on trucks, thus compromising freshness.”

According to Dan, shopping locally doesn't just boost the economy, but it helps connect residents with their heritage. "From the consumer viewpoint I think shopping locally makes good economic sense and good food safety sense," said Dan. "I think that growing one’s own food or even a little bit of it connects people to their food source in a way that has been lost. I used to teach and just asking students to think about where all the ingredients on a fast food burger might have come from was an eye opener in terms of their lack of knowledge about what they eat on a daily basis. It's my hope that local farmers markets all over the country will help send the message to everyone of the importance of agriculture in our lives."

On Wednesdays, the private membership, Country Home cooperative, sets up in the Whistle Stop Mall to educate the community on the quality, fresh off the farm products available in Franklin. County Home first began in 2001 in a building in the Cowee-West’s Mill Historic District before moving to its current location between the Whistle Stop and Zaxbys.

The cooperative is a private group of individuals and families who have joined together to help provide one another with nutritious and often organic, quality foods. Country Home founders Denny and Diane Covher believe that wise eating results in better living and hope to provide people with alternatives to fast food, chemical processing and harmful preservatives. The group moved from its original location into town to offer all Macon County citizens the opportunity to have access to fresh, locally grown products.

In addition to the Wednesday meetings in town, members may also make selections from the co-op’s web site, www.countryhomecoop.org. According to the site, the mission of the co-op is to encourage and train neighbors to locally produce quality health foods, to promote the independence of local economy through neighbors trading with neighbors, and to provide quality foods and supplements to help keep the community nutritionally healthy.

By joining the co-op, members may purchase foods and other healthful products provided by local neighbors. Offerings include baked organic breads, goat’s milk and cheese, corn meal, oats, organic beef, rabbit, trout, produce, wine and herbs. Items such as soap, plants, organic potting soil and animal feed are also available.

Bob and Elsie Deal started Deal Farms in 1951. The Deal family has had seven generations work on the farm.Some local farmers have made their entire living on the family farm. According to Joe Deal, the Deal's family history shows seven generations of farmers and in 1951, Deal Farms was started by Bobby and Elsie Deal. After Bobby and Elsie decided to retire, their son, Butch Deal, and his wife, Pats,y took over the operation and currently operate it with their sons, Joe, Bill and Jimmy Deal, and their families who are all working side by side to produce a quality, locally grown produce for people in Macon County. "My dad, Butch, began farming full time in 1976,” said Joe Deal. “I began full time farming in 2007 and we still have three generations actively involved in Deal Farms.”

Joe currently serves as co-owner of the operation with his father, Butch. “I oversee the vegetable production side of the operation and dad oversees the corn and apple production side,” said Joe. “My grandmother, Elsie, operates her fruit-stand on the Highlands Road.”

The family has run a commercial farm in Macon County that has been a main source for local markets and residents for more than 60 years. Since the Deals first opened the farm to offer local residents with fresh, local produce, they have since expanded their market share to Atlanta and Asheville. Locally, Deal Farms supplies Ingles stores with their products, freshly made and supplied — something commercial competitors simply cannot match.

In addition to having 500 acres of farmland with more than 30 different kinds of fruits and vegetables for customers to come and pick their own produce or fresh flowers, the Deals also operate two fruitstands located on Highway 64 east of Franklin just across from the Cullasaja Exxon and one on the Murphy Road just pass the old Cartoogechaye School.

Although the farm's busy season is when the produce begins to bloom in the spring, the family works all year getting everything ready. “Farming is a year round occupation for us. There is always something going on,” said Deal. “Whether it is planting, cultivating, harvesting, or just fixing what was broke the previous season. We operate two fruitstands. The fruitstand on the Murphy Road is open from April through November, Monday thru Saturday from 9 a.m. til 6 p.m. and my grandmother's fruitstand on the Highlands Road is now open Fridays and Saturdays.”

Tomatoes, sweet corn, squash, beans and cucumbers are some of the farm’s best selling products, but a quick peak at their website reveals fields of foods to choose from. A variety of onions, peppers, melons broccoli, pumpkins, blueberries, potatoes, apples, cabbage, greens and even eggplant can be accessed locally because of the Deal family, something their customers wholeheartedly appreciate.

The Deals have been able to triumph despite the staggering economy by expanding their wholesale opportunities. “Since the economic downturn the retail side of the business has been slow,” explained Deal. “Although our wholesale side of the business is growing. Here locally we have the advantage of home gardening and people who still know how to grow a garden. Much of our wholesale business is in Raleigh and Atlanta.”

According to Deal, the farm is still seeing a steady flow of customers visiting the farm and fruitstands, they are just being more selective with the products and amount of products they buy. “We are having a steady flow of customers, but they just are not buying as much as they did in previous years at each stop,” he said. “We are looking for a good summer and fall as our vegetables begin coming in.”

Deal believes that shopping locally is not just an incentive to boost any particular business, but instead, is more of a movement that strengthens the overall local economy of the region. “We are a part of the local economy and supply fresh picked local produce to the community, employ local residents, and give back to the community,” explained Deal.

The natural resources abundant in Franklin are not just designed to grow fruits and vegetables. Macon County's climate makes for the perfect atmosphere to harvest aquatic plants, a market that Perry Slocum broke into in 1980. Perry’s Water Gardens is a Wholesale/Retail Aquatic plant nursery located in Cowee Valley and is known for shipping high quality mature plants. The gardens are named for Perry D. Slocum, an internationally known hybridizer, who received the Water Lily Hall of Fame Award in 1986. Slocum was the President of the International Water Lily Society from 1988-89.

Locally owned Nantahala Meats has been serving Macon County residents since 1948.It started out as a quiet place for Slocum to retire and do some hybridizing. As Slocum’s enthusiasm grew, so did the bloomin’ business. It is now owned and operated by Ben R. Gibson, Slocum's stepson. Gibson bought the gardens in 1986 and worked along side Slocum until his death in 2004. Not only was his death a great loss for the family but also a great loss to Water Garden enthusiasts around the world. With his guided hand, outstanding wisdom and an eye for detail, he leaves behind a legacy of beauty scattered throughout water gardens all over the world.

The gardens, which are open Memorial Day to Labor Day, specialize in providing customers with wholesale and retail aquatic plants for ornamental ponds, show ponds, and even farm ponds throughout Western North Carolina. The garden is also equipped with a specially trained staff able to help customers construct natural sage habits for ponds and other water structures.

The gardens also serve as an aquatic plant museum with free admission and the owners invite the public to stop in and see the natural habitat for the plants. The best time of day to view the garden's nymphaea (water lily varieties) is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., whereas many varieties don’t begin to open until between 9 and 10 a.m. and begin to close slowly after 2 p.m. The nymphaea begin to bloom in early April and began to decrease blooming in early September.

The height of the garden's blooming season is the month of July. Along with water lilies and lotus, many of their bog and pool-side plants are in full bloom. The Water Garden is a natural habitat for wildlife with beautiful black walnuts, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and persimmons growing wild to feed the wildlife roaming the grounds and surrounding areas.

With people's tightening budgets and cutting out extra spending, over the years, business has slowly began dwindling for the gardens, as aquatic plant life is generally not considered a necessity. "We have had a drastic change in the past four years," said Nikki Gibson. "It’s been really tough but people do still appreciate the garden’s history and the hard work that goes into it."

According to Gibson, the Water Garden, like so many other locally owned businesses is not just important to the local economy, but is also important to the identity of the region. "Shopping locally lets people appreciate their town a little more," said Gibson. "Most people who live around here still don’t know we are out here. Why spend all that money traveling, when you can get it in your hometown and the friendliness of our service. I love the people in Franklin and want to serve my community."

Countless numbers of Macon County residents enjoy hunting various game animals throughout the year and locally owned Nantahala Meats in downtown Franklin has been providing meat processing services to hunters for more than 60 years. The local meat company also sells special ordered meats and is most famous for their sausage.

Nantahala Meats originated in 1948 under the name Franklin Frozen Foods Company. It was founded by the late Oscar Ledford and E.J. Whitmire. Whitmire left in the early 1950s. Ledford operated the company with the help of a group of very dedicated employees. They have several of their original employees still working today, now for more than 50 years.

In the mid 1950s it was decided the sausage needed a “little change.” Max Breedlove began blending different spices to come up with the current recipe they are using today. He originally mixed it in a wooden box with a typical garden hoe, later the recipe was sent to a spice company who blends it today exclusively for Nantahala Meats. Breedlove still works at Nantahala Meats.

In 1985 Ledford retired and sold the business to John Tippett also of Franklin. Tippett and his family ran the business for 10 years. Tippett implemented more new ideas and methods before he retired and sold the business in 1995 to the current owners Bud and Lynn Talley.

“We offer a nice variety of processing for your hunting adventures. We routinely process deer, elk, caribou, wild hog, etc.,” reads Nantahala meat's website. “We have the ability to customize cuts to your order, such as roasts, steaks, chops, stew, cube steaks and tenderloin along with grinding for burgers or sausage. We can add fat if you desire or leave it as is. We use our ‘Nantahala Seasoning’ in all of the sausage. We use the same high quality of freezer paper as we do with our beef. We can create the size packs that work for you, such as size of roasts, amount of steaks, etc. per pack and the amount of burger or sausage in each.”

In addition to processing the meat that hunters bring in, Nantahala Meats also provides residents with locally, natural raised beef. “We have a Natural Beef Program where we take calves from their mother in the pasture into the barn,” reads their website. “There they have access to a corn-based feed and free choice top quality hay 24 hours a day along with clean fresh water. They have no antibiotics, wormers, hormones or any other medicines.”

These beef are available at different times depending upon their calving seasons. They are available as whole beef, ½ beef, or ¼ beef packages. The whole and ½ beef can be cut and packaged to the customers specifications. Nantahala Meats allows the customer to decide thickness of steaks, roasts, etc. and how it should best packaged according to the customer's needs. “Most of the time we have a list of customers waiting for these packages so feel free to call us to discuss your needs and our availability.”

Whether it is meat, flowers, wool, or fruits and vegetables, buying locally not only benefits the consumer by providing a fresh, healthy, natural alternative to retail store products, the money stays in the community and goes to support other local business.

See next week’s issue for the continuation of the Venture Local series


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