Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Biltmore Wines - A Trip to the Vines

Since I live in Asheville, North Carolina,  I am frequently reminded that one of our neighbors is the largest home in the United States.  Some one million visitors per year tour Biltmore House and visit its 8,000 acre estate.  One of the key attractions on the Estate is the winery, which garners its own superlative, "most visited winery in the United States".
 

Biltmore Winery

 The winery, housed in a former dairy, has been open to the public since 1985 and produces 1.2-1.4 million bottles of wine per year, sold there at the winery, and at restaurants and retailers throughout the United States like Ingles Markets.
Sharon Fenchak (winemaker) and Bernard Delille (wine master) of Biltmore Wines

 About seven years ago I interviewed Sharon Fenchak, Biltmore's winemaker, on the "Ingles Information Aisle" radio show (Saturday mornings on WWNC 570am at 8:05amET) and we subsequently became good friends. Sharon and I both have a nutrition education background, but while I went into dietetics and human nutrition; she pursued food science.  Sharon started her wine making career at wineries in Georgia and has been a wine maker at Biltmore since 1999.  Sharon's boss is wine master of  Biltmore Winery, Bernard Delille.

 In the past I'd  visited the winery tasting room to sample wines and even been shown around the production areas by Sharon. Walk from the winery up the steep sloping path to the Inn on the Biltmore Estate and you can see  a few rows of grape vines but I had heard about more acreage of vines on another part of the Estate. 
Each time I drive onto the Biltmore Estate it feels like I am going back in time, a century and hundreds of miles from downtown Asheville. The speed limit and winding roads forces me to slow down and I find myself taking a deep breath and relaxing to notice bright green fields and slight changes in the color of the vegetation, signaling that fall is coming to Western North Carolina.   I parked in the parking lots adjacent to Antler Hill Village and the winery.  In the distance, across the fields, I can almost see a bridge that crosses the French Broad River.
Bridge at Biltmore Estate

 If you were to walk along the walking and biking trail that runs alongside the French Broad River you'd see that bridge is protected by high locked gates at either ends.  A prominently displayed sign warns "No Guest Beyond This Point". It reminds  me a bit of the movie "Jurassic Park". What little you can see of the other side of the river, across the bridge,  looks to be dark, heavily wooded and slightly forbidding. This,  I learned was the way to the vineyards.
 The  "Vine to Wine"  tour provided me with access to this part of the Estate, lots of great information about the process of producing Biltmore wines, a behind the scenes tour of the winery, and generous wine sampling at each stop and at the conclusion of the winery tour.   After boarding the small van at the winery, our group is driven down a gravel road.  We stopped at the bridge while the gate is unlocked and then firmly closed behind us.  Once across the bridge we took a left on a gravel road to parallel the river.   We are now surrounded by woods and then slowly the van climbed a hill, until we began to see fields of grape vines, but no Jurassic Park dinosaurs.   This is the more agricultural part of the Estate, some 4000 acres, where most of the grape vines are located.  Our tour guide, Laura Morgan, explained that the sandy loam characteristics of the soil (terroir) of this part of the estate is very reminiscent of soil quality in the Bordeaux region of France so often they can grow the same types of grapes.    
Chardonnay grape vines at Biltmore Estate vineyard - lake helps moderate temperatures and protect vines from freezing temperatures. 


The first stop is at a rise overlooking 40 acres of Chardonnay vines that slope down to a lake.  Our guide explained that if the air drops to freezing in early Spring when the new buds on the grapes wines are especially vulnerable, wind blowing across the warmer water in the lake can act to moderate the temperatures and protect new buds."...even 1 or 2 degrees can make a difference." The Chardonnay grapes have all been harvested but Laura found some bunches on the ground and passed them around for us to sample.
Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes at Biltmore Estate vineyards
Back on the van we drove a short distance up the hill. Here the vines were heavy with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Laura told us that the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes love the wet Western North Carolina weather.We learned that optimal vines will have 50 clusters of grapes per vine, that on the Estate they prefer to use minimal spraying and all spraying is stopped well before harvest.    On the hillsides  there are several turbines, that can move the air and prevent freezing of the budding grapes during an early Spring frost.   Like all crops, grapes need specific weather and soil conditions.  While, as Laura said, "... grape vines are hard to kill..." the Biltmore vineyards have had their struggles with flooding.  Last year they lost the majority of their viognier grapes. 
In order to supply their customers and the many visitors to the winery and as insurance against weather and disease, the Cecil family and the wine master decided in the 1980's to have partner vineyards where they could purchase grapes or the pressed juice of the grapes suitable for making wine.  Those relationships continue to this day and Bernard and Sharon regularly visit their partner vineyards in North Carolina, Washington, Oregon and California to check on harvests and purchase additional grapes or varieties that they cannot grow on the Estate. These grapes or the juice of the grapes are transported to the Biltmore winery for bottling under the carefully and expertly trained eyes and palate of Sharon and Bernard.  It's a relatively small staff that cares for the vineyard, harvests the wine and operates the winery and bottles the wide selection of Biltmore wines including the Reserve and Antler Hill wines that you can buy at Ingles Markets. 
(Note:  A special thanks to Biltmore Company/Biltmore Wines for complimentary tickets to the "Vine to Wine" tour for the purpose of writing this blog.)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Highland Brewing: Finding the Balance in Beer

Front doors to Highland Brewing of Asheville - "just a wee bit different"


John Lyda, Vice President and  head brewer for Highland Brewing, is a thoughtful guy and if you read his bio on the Highland Brewing website (www.highlandbrewing.com)  he claims that he wants to be "sagacious" when he grows up, if that's the case  I would say that John has made it to adulthood.   John is certainly wise and knowledgeable when it comes to beers.   Since John's  a "low talker", I found myself leaning  in as I sat down to talk with him and Leah Wong  Ashburn, Vice President of Highland Brewing, to make sure I didn't miss anything important.  Highland Brewing got it's start in 1994 when Highland's President and founder, Oscar Wong, brewed  beer in the basement of Barley's on Biltmore Avenue in downtown Asheville and John Lyda has been a part of the company since those early years.    Ingles Markets was the first supermarket to sell  Highland's beers and is still a major retail account for them.
Highland Brewing has come a long way in the past twenty years and now their beers can be found in nine states throughout the  southeast as well as southern Ohio.  I asked if they aspire to expand more and Leah replied that their plan is "...to go deeper in the Southeast"  to have more accounts, not to increase their distribution distance from Asheville.  John agreed  and added, "If you grow too big it's a strain on the equipment and the people.  When Oscar started this company it was about the lifestyle, not about the money,  and that's still the case."   Highland Brewing seems to have been successful in finding that balance of work and play.  Seven years ago they moved into a building in East Asheville.  Currently the  facility is undergoing an expansion that will give them a total of about 90,000 square feet and also double their production capacity.  Their complex houses some of their 53 employees who work in the brewery and operations offices.

Outdoor seating area at Highland Brewing
 The space also offers a large  event and tasting room with a bar and gift area and an outdoor deck and seating area as well as a lawn area outside. Leah credits the employees for wanting the event space which also gives Highland the ability to host bands and musicians for events that benefit different charities and causes.
Leah Wong Ashburn, Oscar's daughter, has only been working in her father's beer company for the past three years, having come from a career in sales with the publishing industry.  She is still learning the ins and outs of the beer business and one of the things that suprises her when she talks to people about brewing beer and Highland Brewing is  "...that people in Asheville don't know where we are and when they do come out here they expect it to be a small business, all about the creative aspects and the romance of brewing.  Many people don't know how much science is involved in brewing beer."  John concurred , "You can make good beer without it being all about the science -  but if you want to consistently make good beer you have to be regimented and keep records."  This is the key to beer making success, the balance between creativity and science.
 I asked John about his background and he told me that he started out as a genetic engineering major at Elon University, "...but I got tired of being in the flatlands ....and then I had to take Organic Chemistry." We commiserated for a few minutes about the rigors of Organic Chemistry and then he continued, "...so I transferred to UNCA and got a degree in business and finance."  Leah mentioned  that  "John attended Siebel in Chicago".   An internet search after our interview revealed that Siebel Institute of Technology is basically the Harvard University of brewing schools.

The world of brewing beer revolves around ingredients and the chief ingredient in beer  is hops, specifically the flower of the hop plant.  With some 3000 breweries in the United States, competition for hops can be fierce and the supply can be limited by crop yields affected by weather and also by farmers who choose to plant other crops that can generate more income.
Highland produces five "flagship" beers:  St. Terese's Pale Ale, Gaelic Ale, Black Mocha Stout, Kashmir English-style IPA and Oatmeal Porter.  They also have one seasonal beer that is always in production.  Perhaps the most famous of their seasonals is Cold Mountain Ale.  I remarked on the fact that there is such a rabid enthusiasm for Cold Mountain when it arrives in stores in the winter.  Leah finds it amazing  that there's even a twitter handle (@ColdMtnTracker) to quickly alert fans to available supplies of the ale. 

Small batch brewing tanks at Highland Brewing
I'm always fascinated by flavors of beer and John gestured to the nearby small batch tanks that they use for training, to experiment with new seasonal blends and also to make up custom blends for clients.  John recalled that a recently brewed batch was Habanero Brownie which he claimed was delicious. I asked if there was a flavor that a customer suggested that just wouldn't work and John laughed and said, "That would have to be butter beer".  My thoughts instantly turn to Harry Potter and John told me that a buttery flavor is not usually a positive characteristic in beer and often indicates a problem with the brewing process.  
As we wrap up our chat I  questioned Leah and John about their favorite Highland beers.  John is quick to say, "Mocha Stout and the Thunderstruck". (The Thunderstruck Coffee Porter is one of the small batch beers.)  Leah paused for a moment and then asked if it's okay if she just says that her beer choice is based on her mood.  The two move behind the bar so I can snap a quick photo and each pour themselves a beer from the tap.  John picked the  Black Mocha Stout and Leah hesitated for a moment and then poured herself a Gaelic Ale, the very first Highland's beer that gave Highland its start, a beer described on their website as " ...exceptionally balanced between malty sweetness and delicate hop bitterness."
John Lyda and Leah Wong Ashburn of Highland Brewing

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Roots: Doing the Right Thing

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Matt Parris (L) and Lowell Parris (R) of Roots Hummus

In talking with brothers Matt and Lowell Parris of Roots Hummus the words and theme of "doing the right thing" just kept coming up.  Matt Parris is the founder and CEO and Lowell, Matt's older brother, the Chief Brand Officer(CBO), or as he laughingly said, the Chief Bean Officer.
Roots sign in River Arts District Asheville

Since 2007 Roots  has been housed in a former art studio, an easy to find 2-story brick building in the River Arts District of Asheville with additional warehouse space nearby. It's only a short walk from their parking lot, across a set of railroad tracks to White Duck Taco, however, discovering how Roots Hummus came into being is a much more circuitous tale. Roots hummus was born after previous ventures and companies that including a café, wholesale food and catering companies and much trial and error of food production of  everything from salsa to salads.   "Finally," Matt said, "a few years ago we looked at what was selling, and the majority was the hummus, so we decided to just focus on that."


Madison Maxwell, Brand and Media Mgr at Roots with Roots "swag"
Roots has 20 full-time workers and Lowell remarked proudly that they are all paid a certified living wage and get a week of paid vacation every quarter, "...because it's the right thing to do."
Matt Parris cites his involvement on the board of the Asheville non-profit FEAST (Fast, Easy, Affordable, Sustainable and Tasty) as especially important to him personally and as a business owner. "Because they're  teaching kids  how to cook and work together and hopefully this teaches them the economics of food and will ultimately help fix our food supply."

Roots currently sources their garbanzo beans (chickpeas) from a farmer in Walla Walla ,Washington, Matt qualified this by saying , "He's not an organic farmer but he uses many organic practices and we feel really good about the quality of the product."  I asked about why not an organic farm and Matt responded that this is often a question he gets, "...people often don't understand that food and farming isn't a black and white issue, it's much more nuanced..." Lowell agreed and explained that trying to source organic can be very expensive because then you have to compete with the "big guys".  Matt elaborated,"We could have started buying organic garbanzo beans from Turkey but we just weren't happy with the quality so it didn't seem like the right thing to do.

Currently Roots produces 14,000-15,000 pounds of hummus a week and ships it to Ingles markets and retailers throughout the U.S. It was about three years ago when Roots hummus started being sold at Ingles. You can currently find it in the Deli section near gourmet cheeses in about 50 Ingles Markets.  It took a lot of persistence on Matt's part and his conviction that being in Ingles Markets was the right place for Roots Hummus, "Ingles is THE original Asheville grocery store."   Lowell spoke with excitement about the fact that soon their hummus will be at Dean and DeLuca (a gourmet grocer) in New York City.

Production room with Garbanzo beans (Chickpeas)
 
We walked downstairs into the production facility and stop at a room with two workers and an enormous pile of garbanzo beans.  Matt apologized that there wasn't more to see, "Most of our production is done Mondays through Thursdays."  
Roots newest flavor - Mango Sriracha
We sat down to talk in their break room and the brothers ask if I had tried their newest flavor, Mango Sriracha (should be in Ingles stores soon!). When I told them I hadn't,  Matt immediately jumped up to get a container and a wooden spoon.  It's a delicious hummus, a little sweet and tropical but with a subtle kick of the sriracha.  Developing the flavor was no easy feat.  They found a local source for the dried mango, organically grown in Costa Rica,  but the sriracha proved more problematic.  Many of the commercial srirachas contained sugar or just didn't produce the flavor profile they were looking for.  "So we decided to make our own sriracha and let the dried mango become the sweet component.". 
Roots is already getting "love letters", that's what Matt calls them, from customers happy with this new flavor. 

 

 

On each and every container of Roots hummus there's a quote, "Every batch is sacred".   Both Matt and Lowell have a passion to supply a pure product, "...one that's simple, fresh....like you might make at home" because caring about the ingredients and the finished product is the right thing to do. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Gambling with Galas - a Visit with Allan Henderson

 
Talking to Allan Henderson, president of C.L. Henderson Produce, is a bit like a history lesson about the produce and grocery business in Western North Carolina.  The Henderson family were early pioneers to the region in the 1700's.  Allan's great-grandfather farmed land in the Green River Cove area near Saluda, almost at the South Carolina border. Allan's grandfather, Nun, delivered wagon loads of produce to markets in Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina, "It took him two days to get to Greenville, South Carolina." (A trip now that might take 45 minutes at the most.)   The business grew and Cecil, Allan's father, used a truck to deliver Henderson County apples and produce. Now C.L Henderson owns their own trucking line.  As Allan detailed the growth of C.L. Henderson Produce he also mentioned how the grocery business has changed.  "It used to be just independent grocers, small stores, now it's chains." C.L. Henderson has been selling North Carolina grown apples and produce to Ingles Markets since the 1960's.
Allan Henderson knows his apples.  He talks about them a bit like they are children, each with distinct characteristics, growing needs and preferences, "Honey Crisps were developed in Nova Scotia so they like cold weather to develop that sweetness. We can grow them here but they don't do well."   He is keenly aware of the effect of the weather on his apples, "...if it's too hot it takes the sugar out....cold nights put the color on....too much rain and you grow big apples but they will have lower sugar."
Sugar, or sweetness is a big concern for apple growers.  The measure of sugar in fruit is called brix and this dictates when fruit is harvested and sent to market.  Allan likes to ship his fruit at a brix of 11%.  "We just checked and the Gala apples are at 9% and I had to tell your buyer at Ingles they just aren't ready yet.  I don't want to send you apples that your customers won't like because they're our customers as well and we want the repeat business."

C.L. Henderson Produce occupies several buildings near Hendersonville, North Carolina.  The Henderson family still owns about 300 acres where they grow apples and other produce. A number of other North Carolina farmers supply them which  brings their total acreage to around 2000 acres.  Allan recalls that it used to be closer to 4500 acres but they have seen many of their farming families leave the business and sell the land to developers.

 
(Apples being cleaned)

During apple season farmers pick their apples, and deliver them to C.L. Henderson. In the "Summer House"  they are cleaned, graded, sorted and boxed up for delivery. These apples bear the "Appalachian Grown" label, part of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) marketing program.


(Wooden storage bins of apples)

We walked from the Summer House into one of the cool storage buildings where there are towering stacks of wooden bins full of apples and I am immediately aware of an incredible sweet smell.  "That smell," Allan explained, "is ethylene, the apples produce that gas naturally and it causes them to continue ripening once we pick them. It's the same gas you use in the Ingles warehouse when you bring in green bananas to get them to ripen."
 C.L. Henderson employs 120-150 full-time workers this time of year.  He is proud of the fact that all attend 2-day safety training and that their facility is rated through the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) which facilitates being able to export apples to countries like England and Puerto Rico. 
Allan is also proud of his cut fruit and packaged fruit and vegetable program housed in a separate modern and high tech facility adjacent to the packing house.


 For the past ten years every school district in North Carolina has served North Carolina cut apples that have been packed at C.L Henderson Produce. 


("Fruiting wall" of apples)

We take a short drive out to some new fields where Allan has planted a "fruiting wall" of apples. Right now the young trees look a  bit like a vineyard, a spindly line of trees with large fruit.  Allan is very excited about the possibilities of the fruiting wall that will provide high density tree planting,  enable semi-mechanical picking and easier access to the apples.

I asked Allan about questions he gets from consumers.  "Consumers don't often understand what's involved with farming....they ask me why our farmers use pesticides and I tell them that if they want apples from North Carolina we have to treat our trees.  There is too much pressure - that's a term that refers to insects and diseases caused by rain.  Those apple farmers in the high desert areas where it's dry like Washington State don't have the same problems we have.  The bottom line is that I'm a businessman and pesticides cost money.  I'm not going to treat trees and our farmers aren't going to treat trees any more than is absolutely necessary.  We monitor fields using a system called IPM or integrated pest management ( http://extension.entm.purdue.edu/radicalbugs/default.php?page=what_is_pest_management ) and only treat when we see there is a problem with a specific pest or a disease. "

One of the things that impressed me most during my conversation with Allan Henderson was his interest in attracting a new generation of shoppers.  He understands for younger shoppers it's "...all about taste...their parents might have gone shopping once a week and bought two pounds of Goldens but these shoppers go 3 or 4 times per week and one day they'll buy a Fuji and a Jazz and the next time they'll try a Pink Lady and a Gala...".  We discussed the fact that the millennial shopper often buys ingredients in smaller quantities or prepared meals so Allan is looking ahead to adapting his business and products to fit that demand.

Allan smiled as he told me, "What I often say to people is if you want to gamble become a farmer.  Farmers gamble with every season and every crop." Allan may very well be a gambler but he's also a shrewd businessman, carefully studying trends and anticipating changes in the marketplace.
Allan's son Christopher is already involved with the business and Allan's young grandsons have already told their grandfather they want to be in the apple business.  C.L. Henderson and Henderson's Best Produce will continue on to future generations and supply Ingles, North Carolina schools  and  markets throughout the United States with North Carolina grown apples.
(Allan Henderson)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, August 25, 2014

FoodPorn - Clean Up Your Act


I don't really remember the first time I saw the term "food porn". It's quite possible it was actually #FoodPorn on twitter.  I'll admit that I  was curious....Would the photo be obscene in some way? Titillating? Was something unsavory being done with the food?  I held my breath and clicked on the photo and it was....well, it was just a plate of food....and not an especially good or appealing photo of food.
  So what was the big deal? Why did the person taking the photo and posting it have to call it "food porn"?  To me, and I suspect many others, using the word pornography or "porn" in conjunction with food is not a positive association.  In my opinion using the term "food porn" trivializes the word pornography.  Pornography at the very least objectifies the person photographed and at the worst is a criminal offense. 
Over the years I've seen some amazing photographs of food in cookbooks and magazines and more recently on social media.   Photos that made me want to try and cook it myself or seek out the restaurant where it was served or the chef who prepared it and want to applaud the food stylist involved.   I wouldn't call those 'food pornography" or "food porn" like something to be ashamed of or disguised in a brown wrapper and hidden away.  Beautiful food photos should be celebrated and the people who made the food and styled the dishes should be congratulated. 
So that's my opinion. Stop calling it "food porn" and start calling those photos #FoodFun or #PrettyFood - if you have a better term let me know. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Meeting the Bread Goddess

It makes me smile every time I e-mail Debi Thomas, owner of Wildflour Bakery because her e-mail address is "breadgoddess".  I met up with Debi inside her café and bakery in the small town of Saluda NC.

                                     (interior of Wildflour Bakery & Café in Saluda,NC)

 Debi came out of the kitchen in a black shirt and dark slacks with a fine dusting of flour, very appropriate for baker. When I asked if it was alright to take some photos she insisted on putting on a chef's jacket to look "a bit more presentable." 

(Debi Thomas, owner and baker Wildflour Bakery)

Since it was later in the afternoon there were only a few people in the café so as we talked I ate the day's special,  a hearty bowl of beans and rice.    Several customers walked by and greeted Debi by name and she knew all of their names as well.  An elderly gentleman approached the register and gruffly demanded to see the baker and then seemed surprised when Debi volunteered that she was the baker.  It turned out that he liked baking and had some technical questions about ingredients in one of her rolls. Debi graciously answered,  giving him her full attention. 

We resumed our conversation and I lamented the fact that her breads were no longer in "my" Ingles store.  Debi explained that they have gotten so busy at their shop and restaurant that the strain of supplying so many Ingles stores was beginning to wear on her employees so she decided to scale back.  Currently you can find Wildflour Bread in three Ingles Markets in Hendersonville and our Landrum SC store. 
Debi has spent the last 34 years as a professional baker.  She taught herself to bake as a way of financing college at Indiana University where she studied to be a Special Education teacher.  She would take orders during the day, bake at night and deliver the bread the next morning.  When she and her husband moved to North Carolina,  a summertime gig of baking bread and making sandwiches for the Mother Earth News compound, then near Hendersonville NC,  resulted in a connection with the Orchard Inn Bed and Breakfast.  The Inn invited her to bake in their facility and supply the inn  with bread.  About 30 years ago Debi moved her operation to downtown Saluda and has been there ever since, but still supplies the Inn with bread.   Wildflour Bakery is very definitely a family business.  Debi's daughter Molly appeared in the kitchen doorway and reached down to scoop up her young son, Debi's grandson, as ran into the cafe breathless and excited from an outing to a nearby creek. Molly bakes, manages Wildflour Bakery and handles social media.

One of the things that was clear to me was that Debi loves the little town of Saluda.  As she talked about her "community" she smiled and her face glowed.  "If one of the other restaurants needs something they call me or stop by and I do the same. I love the fact that this restaurant sees all sorts of customers... tree huggers and hippies like me, athletes , families with kids and seniors so it's important to make the food affordable and available to all."
Debi, like many artisan bakers, has had to ride out food and diet fads like the Atkins Diet, "low-carb" and now Paleo and the anti-wheat and gluten-free sentiment.  I asked her what she thought of these fads and she replied carefully "I'm always amazed when people jump on extremes when it all comes back to balance".  She takes pride in the craft of bread making, grinds her own flours and firmly believes that "good ingredients will give you a good product".
 
There is something very quietly graceful and peaceful about Debi Thomas, maybe it's because of her background as a Special Education teacher, maybe it's she's a baker and because bread, or at least good bread, like many things in life, can't be rushed. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Path to Picking the Perfect Pepper

When you're in Ingles looking for those perfect green bell peppers for your stuffed pepper recipe do you ever stop and wonder how they got there?  What was the path that finally ended up with our produce associates placing those peppers on the shelf so you could pick a pepper? 

I wanted to understand that process so Jay Johnson of JGL Produce and Johnson Produce invited me out to their packing and distribution facility in Haywood County.  Jay's grandfather started JGL Produce 60 years ago in Florida and then opened the Haywood County facility near Canton 42 years ago. During the summer months, July til early October, the Johnson family relocates from Florida to Western NC so their company can pack and distribute produce for about 16 Western NC farmers. These farmers transport their crops to the packing facility where they are cleaned, sorted, packed and then sent out to retailers, directly to stores, to food service or institutions. 

R to L - Johnny Johnson, Glenn Johnson, John Leatherwood, Jay Johnson

One of the farmers that delivers to Johnson Produce is John Leatherwood who stopped by the packing facility during my visit.  Mr. Leatherwood owns 500 acres in Haywood County and his farm is part of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) Appalachian Grown program.   I remarked that this seems like a lot of land for Western North Carolina but he waved his hand dismissively and explained that though he grows vegetables like tomatoes and peppers on some land near the East Fork River, most of those 500 acres is tree covered mountain sides and the other is used for grazing beef cattle, greenhouses, and some is leased to other farmers.  Jay, John and I and John's son Steven drove down to part of Leatherwood farm, barely 5 minutes from JGL produce to walk around the field growing Mountain Fresh and Mountain Majesty tomatoes.



  John is enthusiastic about both varieties of tomatoes and credits Randy Gardner, former professor of Horticultural Science at NC State, for developing these particular breeds of tomatoes with improved disease resistance that can thrive in our mountain climate.  

John Leatherwood holding Aristotle peppers, Jay Johnson

A short walk down a muddy road and I see fields  full of pepper plants. John identifies them as "Aristotle peppers".  Jay shows me a large bright green pepper that he says is perfect because it is "4 globes and blocked". I asked him to explain.  He turns the pepper over, "We want 4 globes on the bottom and they need to be rounded or blocked - not pointed."  That makes sense to me as that would work much better for those stuffed peppers! I asked if they let some of the peppers go to red and John shakes his head, "No, once they start turning they start to get soft and they damage too easily so we need to pick them when they are green."
As we walked back to his truck I  asked Jay about his core farmers and he told me that most are 50-60 years old. Some, like John Leatherwood, have sons interested in farming but overall Jay is worried about what the next ten years might bring.  "We are seeing an increase in people farming on 1-2 acre farms but this is a tough life, it's not like they're going to make a lot of money. Farming is essentially like gambling.  How will the crop do? What will happen with the prices?  Sometimes we forget we are dealing with food!"
 
In the parking lot of the  processing plant  Jay pointed out stacks of bins.
The wooden ones are "old school" and have now been replaced by white heavy duty plastic bins.  Jay explained that the plastic bins are easier to clean and don't harbor insects which could bore into the wood and then be transported to the vegetables. 
 

Peppers before being washed, sorted, packed

Once the vegetables are unloaded at the packing facility the process starts with the vegetables getting a rinse and a brush to remove dirt.  It looks a bit like a car wash.  This also cools them down, takes the "field heat" out of them.   If vegetables are too hot when they are packed they can split or become soft. 
Then the sorter separates the vegetables based on size,  for example "1's" are for retailers and food service  and "2's" for institutions.   The  conveyor belt is busy with workers efficiently sorting the peppers and then packing them into boxes. According to Jay, packing peppers is very labor intensive.  Each retailer might have a different specification for how they like vegetables packed.  During the summer season here in Haywood County,  Johnson Produce employees 40-45 workers full-time.
There seem to be vegetables everywhere in the packing facility. This  has been a good summer for crops.  Just the right amount of rain and sun so there have been lots of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. But this, Jay says, is not the best situation for farmers.  "If everyone is producing then the prices go down, Someone has to to lose for someone else to win."

Peppers being packed into boxes

 Soon those "4 globe and blocked peppers" will be on the shelf at your Ingles...ready and waiting for you to choose them to make stuffed peppers.