Asheville, North Carolina, has gained a national reputation as a hub of local and artisanal foods. In fact, the local foods movement in this Southern Appalachian city has become so embedded in the community consciousness that the city has dubbed itself “the world’s first Foodtopian Society.” There are hundreds of unique restaurants, dozens of bakeries, breweries and cafés, and over a dozen tailgate farmers markets in this city of about 85,000 people. And according to Maggie Cramer, communications manager for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), there’s been a five-fold increase in the number of restaurants sourcing local foods in the Asheville region over the last decade.
“You can’t open a restaurant in the Asheville area without making a commitment to support local farmers,” says Cramer. “It’s what consumers want and what chefs know they can get.” ASAP, a nonprofit based in Asheville, supports farmers in western North Carolina in a variety of ways, including publishing a popular local foods guide that helps connect consumers to farmers. The number of farmers in that guide has increased by over 800 percent since it was first published 10 years ago. And those farmers are always trying to grow or raise new foods for this demanding market.
What may not be as obvious is the care and innovation that’s occurring with the stream of organic by-products, residuals and wastes that inevitably follow from the more celebrated farm-to-table segment of the food cycle. What happens to spent malting grains from the craft breweries, used coffee grounds from cafés, leftovers in the award-winning kitchens, and the old frying oils from food trucks and diners? It turns out that there’s been just as much creativity in this less visible sector of the local food system. And the experiences of Asheville in capturing and using food wastes and by-products — the successes as well as ongoing challenges — can serve as useful examples to communities in the Appalachian region and beyond for what’s possible.
North Carolina has one of the most diversified agricultural economies of any state. It’s a leading producer of such varied products as hogs, trout, turkeys, sweet potatoes and cucumbers. According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, farming plays a major role in the state’s economy, accounting for nearly a fifth of the state’s jobs and income. But it’s generally not considered a major player when it comes to grain production and processing. When wheat prices hit historically high levels in 2008, Jennifer Lapidus, Asheville artisanal baker, became concerned about the future availability of flour and what it might cost. “The cost of the baker’s most essential ingredient rose as much as 130 percent,” she recalls.
Like all bakers in the Asheville area, Lapidus was dependent on distant sources of grain and at the mercy of commodity prices that seemed less predictable. Her answer to the simple question, “why don’t we grow bread wheat in North Carolina?,” drove her to establish Carolina Ground, a stone-milling L3C dedicated to serving as a link between regional farmers and bakers. (An L3C is a low-profit liability company, essentially a social enterprise that bridges the gap between nonprofit and for profit investing.) To Lapidus, this was a tangible way to improve security and sustainability. By finding willing farmers, seed cleaners and bakers, she created a mechanism and assembled the infrastructure for local grain farmers to find a regional market for their products and for bakers to gain access to regionally-produced grains and locally-milled flours. The wheat and rye flours that Carolina Ground produces are used by over a dozen bakeries and restaurants in Asheville.
Lapidus found allies in her quest for local grain in Brent Manning and Bryan Simpson, cofounders of Riverbend Malt House. Established in 2011, Riverbend produces malted wheat, barley and rye for the vibrant craft brewing industry. Before it opened, the only local ingredient in Asheville’s craft beers was the water. Now, a handful of craft breweries in Asheville are using some regionally-grown grains malted by Riverbend.
Both processes, milling and malting, generate organic residuals. In the case of milling, grain middlings result from the bolting or sifting process that separates out larger particles from the whole stone-milled grain, leaving a finer final product that bakers prefer for some applications, such as lighter pastries and breads. Carolina Ground’s middlings end up as livestock feed, just as they have throughout the millennia of grain milling. This year, Carolina Ground will be getting a whole hog, in the form of custom-processed pork, raised on its own middlings.
Malting — the process by which grains are prepared for brewing — involves three stages: steeping, germination and kilning. Riverbend adapted a building originally built as a grocery warehouse, and uses the climate-controlled room designed for ripening bananas, for the steeping and germination stages. Once steeped, the wet grain is spread out on a concrete floor and allowed to germinate. In the last stage, the grain is transferred to a hot-air kiln to stop the germination process without destroying enzymes necessary for brewing. Following kilning, the grain is “debearded” to remove the rootlets before bagging for the breweries or packing into home-brewing kits. These dried rootlets, along with broken or undersized kernels, end up as a by-product that has several uses. Some goes to small-scale egg producers as an absorbent bedding for the laying hens. But another local emerging market for this by-product is specialty gourmet mushroom production.
Chris Parker and Joe Allawos, opened their store, Mushroom Central, in West Asheville in 2012 as an extension of their business Asheville Fungi. Their partnership formed out of a mutual passion for hunting and raising mushrooms and their shared belief that mushroom farming can be done successfully in an urban setting. The store sells mushrooms, fungal (mycelium) cultures to other producers, and the equipment needed for small-scale home production. The basement serves at their growing room, where a variety of organic materials captured from the waste stream are used as substrates for producing about a dozen different gourmet mushrooms, such as elm oysters, king oysters and lion’s mane, for area restaurants and retail customers.
The main substrate ingredients include wood shavings from a nearby wood-worker, coffee grounds from the Clingman Café (about a mile away) and malted barley by-product from Riverbend. These residuals are pasteurized, packed into sterile bags and inoculated with fungal spawn. Mushroom Central taps into another organic waste stream as well — the top branches of healthy oaks and poplars cut down by tree maintenance services — and inoculate them for mushroom production in log culture.
Culturing and cultivating fungi in Asheville doesn’t end with gourmet mushrooms. Sarah and Chad Olipant started Smiling Hara Tempeh in 2009 and supply grocery stores and restaurants in North Carolina and adjacent states with their vegan products. Tempeh is produced by culturing cooked soybeans. During processing, the soybeans are dehulled and broken into pieces using a commercial coffee grinder prior to soaking and inoculating with a Rhizopus fungal culture. “We’re growing a tropical fungus and it’s similar to indoor mushroom farming,” explains Chad Olipant. The only wastes generated during the process are the hulls and dust from dehulling process, which are sent to Asheville Fungi to be mixed in with their mushroom substrates.
Fermentation in tempeh production may be unfamiliar to many, but the same process is also fundamental to brewing beer —a lot of that is happening in Asheville. Since 2009 Asheville has held or tied for the title of the Beer City, USA, an annual online poll. Over a dozen craft breweries operate in and around Asheville and plans for more are in the works. The process of brewing beer involves subjecting malted barley, and sometimes other grains, to yeasts that consume the available carbohydrates and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Other flavorings, typically including hops, are also added. In order for yeasts to access the energy source, the malted grain is mixed with water and heated in a process called “mashing.” Enzymes in the malted grain break down starches into simple sugars that are dissolved into the liquid or wort.