“Relationship Building Is Key”: Lisa Gonzalez and the EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems Project

— Written By Grace Baucom

Lisa Gonzalez standing next to goat.

Lisa Gonzalez, Regional Area Specialized Agent in Local Foods, serves seven Western NC counties – Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain – and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) Qualla Boundary. She is based in the N.C. Cooperative Extension, EBCI County Center, and her primary responsibilities and work is on the EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems Project (EMFS). This three-year project, funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and created in partnership by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and NC State Extension, “aims to support farm and food businesses by providing educational programs related to business development and [offering] financial services such as grants and support from loans and advanced business consulting services”, explains Gonzalez. A unique element of this project is funding farmer equipment and supplies; these capital infusions can make the difference in helping farmers make the leap to profitability. 

The EMFS program serves a diverse demographic, says Gonzalez, primarily comprised of beginning and/or small farms and food businesses. The project launched in April 2019 and Lisa started her position in September 2019. 

“My role as the Extension Agent involved with this program,” says Gonzalez, “is on the business end – helping farmers connect with our program and other programs that help with navigating the business side of farming…I spend a lot of time communicating with the farms, the farmers, and the food businesses that are taking advantage of the resources of our program…I onboard them onto the program and help them to navigate the process. I promote the program and I coordinate educational opportunities related to the program.”

Her favorite part of her role? “The best part is hearing people’s stories, talking to them, hearing how they got started….not just hearing about the stories of their farms, but of their lives. I get to know them, I get to know how interesting they are, and then I get to help them.” 

Although the funding behind EmPOWER is specific to the Appalachian Mountains, Gonzalez is excited about the possibility of similar programs expanding across the state. She described how agents and even groups outside of Extension have already shown interest in the program, particularly the in-person “Making Money on the Farm” workshops they held in early 2020. “We’d love to see this replicated; that’d be awesome…we’re happy to share any materials!” 

The unique characteristics of the local foods landscape in Western NC also influences Gonzalez’s work, and that of the farmers she works with. First of all, the actual physical landscape plays a significant role in determining local food systems and access: “We have a lot of really tall mountains where there aren’t roads over the mountains…so getting from point A to point B can be a long trip. In Clay and Cherokee Counties, you might have folks raising animals or growing crops on their farms in NC but they’re selling those products in North Georgia – because it’s a shorter ride, it’s right there, there’s not a huge mountain you have to climb over to get there. In other counties, maybe they’re going to Tennessee.” 

The size and unique structure of the region’s population also plays a role. “Small farms are the norm around here. There’s not a lot of people around here; we get tourists, but we’re a low population, a transient population.” A small, rural population means that communication and relationship building is especially critical, Gonzalez notes. “We’re very rural out here; as an agent, it’s really important to put in time to build relationships because that’s how things work around here…If you don’t have those relationships, you haven’t earned that respect, you’re going to have a harder time doing your job…Relationship building is key.”

But Gonzalez says that a small, transient population doesn’t translate into a lack of interest in local food: “there is a local scene – people want to support local around here”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Gonzalez and the EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems Project – and the farmers it serves – to adapt. “We’ve changed in that our clients’ needs have changed”, says Gonzalez. “I think we’ve actually had an uptick in people applying to EmPOWER, just by the nature of who we’re working with: a lot of the farmers work full time, and farming is just what they do on the weekends and at night. We’ve had a couple farmers who lost their day jobs and want to get into farming more…then we have other farmers who got slammed all of a sudden.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Gonzalez says, EMFS served about 40 farms and food businesses. Now they serve 90. “Just like I mentioned, I think a big part of this job is maintaining relationships, so I checked in on everyone…heard how their lives have changed, talked about how Empowering Mountain Foods Systems can step in.” 

When thinking about the future of local Foods in North Carolina, Gonzalez thinks that the shifts caused by COVID-19 have been instructive. “What COVID-19 has taught us is that it’s going to be a lot more direct to consumer sales. Like I said, around here there’s already a culture of people going straight to the farmer…I think direct to consumer marketing and sales are going to rise. It’s already big in the rural counties, but I think a lot of people in other counties are seeing it too right now. In general, the trends we’re seeing are sales straight to the consumer, whether through online sales, through Facebook, through just word of mouth, on-farm stands…I just really hope that this movement of buying straight from the farm continues”. 

For more information on the EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems Project, visit the Center for Environmental Farming Systems website

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Lisa Gonzalez’s Homemade, Locally-Sourced Fruit-On-The-Bottom Yogurt Recipe

“I love fruit on the bottom yogurt; it’s so unhealthy to buy and there aren’t many local makers so I make my own!”

  • Make your own yogurt at home on the stovetop or in an InstantPot or slow cooker. Gonzalez uses Mills River Creamery milk!
  • Gonzalez gets her strawberries from Darnell Farms, a farm in Bryson City that does home delivery, and she cooks the strawberries down into a compote with sugar. 
  • Put both yogurt and strawberry compote into the fridge until ready to use!
  • Layer yogurt and compote in a bowl and top with local honey – Lisa uses Wehrloom honey from Robbinsville NC. 

Make in small batches and enjoy! 

Post reviewed by Laura Lauffer, EmPOWERing Mountain Foods Systems Project Co-PI and Project Director.