Farm to Fork With April Vigardt
Catawba County is a rural county located just northwest of Charlotte and is about an hour from Charlotte, Asheville, and Winston-Salem. The County is having to balance maintaining its rural character which is attracting a growing number of people and providing housing. Currently, an increasing number of farms are being sold off to developers to address a housing shortage. There has been an effort to slow this trend with the development of the Catawba County’s Farm and Food Sustainability Plan, which includes tax incentives and a focus on support for small farms in order to help foster a local foods scene which will hopefully attract young families.
Although the competition for land has increased, young couples who moved to the area specifically to farm over the past few years have started successful farm businesses, including market gardens. Many of these new farmers have been successful due to the proximity to multiple urban markets. There are also many cattle farmers who started in dairy many years ago and moved to cattle when dairy was not profitable. Now they are trying to sell locally in an effort to increase profits. Overall, there is diversity in the types of farms and the experience level of farmers.
While many farmers travel to Charlotte and the Piedmont Farmers Markets for higher traffic and prices, there are several local farmers markets. The Hickory Farmers Market is the largest and operates now year round. There are also several farm stands and agritourism venues within the County, such as pumpkin patches, corn mazes, blueberry and strawberry picking, and several farm stores that sell local produce, meat, and value-added products.
There is a successful effort to attract people from Charlotte and other urban areas to agritourism venues and businesses. As a result, several new wineries and breweries are hanging in there despite COVID-19. To continue this growth, there is also a lot of money going into revamping downtowns and putting in greenways with walking and biking trails. There are many new restaurants, with some buying some local.
This landscape provides challenges and assets for Extension to address. April Vigardt is the Small Farms and Local Foods Associate Agent at the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Catawba County Center. She has the opportunity to work with a wide variety of farmers all with different histories, needs, and goals. “I really like getting to know farmers in the area and helping them to promote their farms. I’ve enjoyed watching several new farms grow over the years and that is exciting. I’m constantly amazed at their ingenuity and resilience, especially during the pandemic. Basically, there is always something new to learn.”
To connect consumers with food produced in their county, April started two programs in 2018 and 2019 called the Local Foods Cooking Class, which ran monthly April to October on Wednesday evenings, and the Wellbusiness Lunch and Learn Cooking Class, which ran over the lunch hour at local businesses. For each program, participants pay $10 to participate. April uses the registration fees to buy enough local produce to make the three to four recipes that are demonstrated in the one-hour class. This helps local farmers sell their produce and provides enough for each participant to learn about local farms and taste their produce. “We focused on lesser loved vegetables that could be money makers for farmers because they are easy to grow, such as eggplant, chard, Asian greens, and winter squash. This helped people to learn how to utilize these vegetables while boosting farmer income. For ten classes we were able to spend a total of $3,236.32 in produce which went directly to local farmers.” The classes have become popular and were capped at 45 participants.
COVID-19 suspended the in-person classes, but April has continued to offer them via Zoom. This season she hopes to offer participants produce bags they can pick up before the class. She has used this opportunity to work with public health groups to produce videos and recipes utilizing food pantry items that are difficult to move and demonstrating basic cooking techniques.
COVID-19 altered April’s other programs and suspended a monthly small farmer potluck. April moved this over to Zoom to maintain contact to help farmers manage the stress of changing marketing and production plans and to navigate CFAP and other grant and loan opportunities. She utilizes an email group to share important information and checks in with producers weekly at the farmers markets. Zoom was difficult because of faulty internet connections so a hiatus was taken during the fall and winter and she communicated more with them on an individual basis. “It was difficult because we did not really know what the length of the lockdown would be. We just tried to keep our programs with modifications.”
When asked about the future of local food in North Carolina, April said, “I think with COVID-19 we saw a big move to online sales for pick up at market or on farm. I think this may expand and I see several farmers banding together more to offer products from several different farms on one farms website. I don’t know if this would grow to bigger food hubs, which I’m not sure would be a good idea, but I think there is a possibility that these smaller networks would work. I’m not sure what is going to happen with restaurants, that has dried up pretty good except for a few. I think there will be more value-added foods and better utilization of produce that may not sell at market, I hope.”
April On Buying & Cooking Local
I go to the farmers markets weekly. Sometimes I get to the farm stands during the summer and I do U-pick for fruit to stock my freezer for the year. I also am expanding my garden a little more each year.
It’s really hard to pick a favorite recipe, but I think one of the popular ones was skillet tomato sauce with either summer squash or eggplant. It’s basically tomatoes, eggplant or summer squash, lots of garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, salt, and fresh basil which is cooked in a skillet until the summer squash or eggplant melts into the tomatoes and the water from the tomatoes cooks off. It’s a really nice sauce which cooks fast and hides these other vegetables from finicky eaters. My most common dishes at home are stir-fries with whatever I have on hand.