The Appalachian State Food Summit: Seeding Community Resilience

Monday, April 4, 2016

On Saturday, April 2, the Goodnight Family Sustainable Development Department hosted the Food Summit in partnership with Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. In an effort to bring the community together around issues within our food system both locally and globally, the Summit featured local farmers, students, gardeners and faculty through speeches, breakout sessions and panel discussions.

At the start of the summit, the Chair of the Sustainable Development Department Dr. Sandra Lubarsky discusses the importance of such an event. She explains, “About 100 years ago, everyone was a locavore.” Now, she says our food system frames food as a commodity rather than a tool for survival. Appreciation of good, local products has been lost in the accelerated production and consumption that now drive our food system.

Judith Phoenix, Co-Board Chair of Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, also gave an introduction, explaining the importance of farming. She says, “Farmers should be able to be full-time farmers,” for which the current system is not conducive. She reminds us, “She who controls food controls the world,” and right now, this control is in the wrong hands.

Following initial introductions, Lecturer in the Goodnight Family Sustainable Development Department and Food Summit Coordinator Dr. Jacqui Ignatova introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. James Veteto. As an Assistant Professor at Western Carolina University, Veteto focuses his research on agricultural biodiversity and climate change in Southern Appalachia, the Ozarks and Northwest Mexico. Along with his research, Veteto serves as Executive Director of the Appalachian Institute for Mountain studies.

His presentation, “Resilient Cultures, Resilient Seeds: Biocultural Diversity in Southern Appalachia,” focused on ecosystem balance and the need for community, ecological and cultural resilience to change in order to maintain balance.

Veteto main training is in Anthropology and focuses on the culture of agriculture. Focusing on historical context of each farmer’s story, he studies how to complement biological conservation with cultural conservation.

During this discussion, Veteto points out the tendency to study the Global South as they relate to biological and agricultural diversity because agricultural production remains prominent. Though he understands the importance, he reminds us that there are things to study in the US, particularly in this region. Through discussions with local farmers in Appalachia, the Ozarks and Northwest Mexico, Veteto wanted to understand agricultural and biodiversity from those closest to the issues. Most importantly, he wanted to understand why farmers want to continue to save seeds rather than go to Lowe’s Home Improvement where commercial seeds are readily available.

Comparing the Appalachian region to the Ozarks, Veteto found that there are 352 heirloom varieties just in Western North Carolina, compared to 192 in the Ozarks. In fact, Appalachia is the second most biologically diverse region in the country. Because of this, Veteto explains there is a cultural difference in food preference and thus, seed saving remains an important aspect of agriculture.

Veteto insists that taste is also critical to farmer decision-making. And again, it goes back to history and culture. Most often, farmers say taste reminded them of old family recipes like “Leather Britches” and “Cherokee Bean Bread.”

Veteto says, “We are more cultural creatures than biological creatures,” and we should use this to create a culture around “food ways.” Doing so, he says, will make farming and eating more exciting and farmers more resilient.

After Veteto’s informative and equally entertaining presentation, Dr. Ignatova invited the other members of the first panel, “Seeding Intergenerational Knowledge Exchange,” up to the stage. The panelists included farmers John Fannon, Ron and Suzanne Joyner, Susan Owen and Holly Whitesides.

The panel focused on how each farmer got started in the business, the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve used each other when in need. As Ron Joyner of Big Horse Creek Farmer in Lansing, NC put it, “Farming has a lot to do with surviving. Diversifying is a criteria of surviving.” Such diversification can often come through advice and assistance from other local farmers in the area. This collaboration has been successful for the Joyners as they now sell their apples in every state other than North Dakota and Hawaii.

Growing up, Holly Whitesides said her grandmother always reminded her, “Anytime it’s a hard time in your life, just go to the mountains.” Now owner of Against the Grain Farm in Ashe County, Whitesides and her family are here to stay. Against the Grain is a diversified vegetable and animal farm “growing food people can eat rather than commodity crops” according to Holly.

This is not to say starting your own farm is easy. All panelists agreed. Suzanne Joyner even addressed the learning process as the “School of Hard Knocks” and the “University of Mistakes.” But through their discussion, it was clear they were all in it for the long haul because they all truly believe in what they do. As Susan Owen describes it, “You Just get started, work on your passion and meet people in your tribe and you go from there.”

Another topic of the panel discussion was the challenges farmers face with changing climate patterns, particularly in this region. As explained by Veteto, weather patterns were fairly predictable up until about 30 years ago. Now, precipitation patterns are changing, causing big rain events to occur in August and September rather than July.

Though it has caused some setbacks for each farmer in the last few years, Owen says it quite simply: “Mother Nature is our ally. We go with her, not against her. We have to change what we are doing to remain in harmony with her.”

Overall, the panel was not only informative but displayed a distinct farming culture in the High Country. All of the farmers had clear respect and admiration for each other and all truly loved their craft. Organizer Ignatova says this panel was one of her favorite parts of the Food Summit. She says, “I think we are often told we can’t do things,” that seem out of the ordinary. She says she loved the message of perseverance as it is a great message for students currently facing similar challenges.

After the panel was dismissed, everyone at the Summit was invited to attend the student poster session and lunch breakout sessions with students and experts from the community. Assistant Professor in the Physics Department Dr. Carla Ramsdell focused her discussion on “Know Watts Cooking: The Science of Energy Efficiency.”

Ramsdell teaches General Education Physics courses because she hopes to “bridge the gap” between those who are naturally science-minded and the general public. In addition, she is a self-proclaimed “solar oven geek.”

During lunch, Ramsdell discussed her research in solar ovens and passive cooking. After testing out varying metal pots, she concluded that cast iron skillets are the most efficient option. She attributes their efficiency to the “beefy” structure and a very high specific heat.

Ramsdell also taught her lunch guests how to cook pasta with as little energy as possible. After many trials, she discovered pasta can be cooked perfectly after two minutes at a rapid boil followed by 15 minutes off the burner, covered.

Her final piece of advice: the stovetop is always more efficient than the oven.

The second panel of the day, Food Access and Food Justice, included Renee Boughman of F.A.R.M. Café, Jennifer Green of Appalachian District Health Department, Allison Jennings of Hospitality House and Ben Loomis of Hunger and Health Coalition with moderator, Dr. Lanae Ball.

Much of the discussion focused on food security in the area, most directly related to Appalachian State students. Ball discussed a research study among Appalachian State upperclassman regarding food availability and security on a day-to-day basis. Underclassmen were not surveyed due to Appalachian’s meal plan program.

From the study, Ball found that 46 percent of Appalachian students worry about where their next meal will come from. This figure is not only astounding but also well above the national average.

Though the second panel included some discouraging statistics, its inclusion in the summit was both necessary and relevant. Closing out the summit, it generated motivation to continue educating about food security, local food and cultural and biological diversity in the Appalachian region.

With over 100 attendees, the 2016 Food Summit was incredibly successful. Ignatova continues to have high hopes for future summits and for the Appalachia food culture. She says, “I’d like to see it become an annual event.” She also hopes that future Summits will included a service component explaining, “It’d be nice to actually be doing something rather than just talking about it.”

After just two semesters at Appalachian, Ignatova is a prime example of an active contributor to local food knowledge and appreciation. In a short time, she successfully brought together a community around growing food issues in the High Country. Needless to say, the future of the Food Summit at Appalachian is in good hands.