ARC Co-Chair: “Promise of Local Food Economy”

A few hundred Appalachian local food advocates (myself included) are in Asheville, NC right now for the Appalachian Regional Commission's (ARC) "Growing the Appalachian Food Economy" conference. We're discussing the challenges of distribution, the importance of "agri-preneurs," farm-to-school programs and a host of other important topics, while also meeting fellow Appalachians working in the local food economy. Just in time for this conference, the ARC federal co-chair, Earl Gohl, wrote an op-ed in the Asheville Citizen-Times, where he touts the opportunities of Appalachia's local food economy:

Promise of Local Food Economy

Written by Earl F. Gohl

Today marks the first day of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s “Growing the Appalachian Food Economy” forum here in Asheville. As global demand grows for specialty foods, over 300 community leaders, farmers, and public and private partners from across Appalachia are joining us to develop strategies that will help realize the economic potential of its rich agricultural and food assets.

Appalachian residents have long seen their local food systems as intrinsic to their culture of self-reliance. Appalachia’s high elevation, fertile fields, and plentiful water have traditionally yielded income-producing foods that are distinct to the region, such as ramps, chestnuts, and a variety of mushrooms as well as its prized free-range poultry and eggs.
 
Food systems are one of the Appalachian region’s most diverse assets, and they are sustainable when protected and nurtured by sound conservation practices such as keeping water sources clean and maintaining agrarian landscapes.
The economic potential of these food systems is vast. According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2008 alone the marketing of local foods grossed $4.8 billion in sales across the country. The number of jobs they create is just as impressive. Further research conducted by USDA found that produce growers selling into local and regional markets supported 61,000 jobs in that same year. We can expect these numbers to substantially increase throughout this decade.
 
The bottom line is that the economic activity generated by the local foods sector helps communities build and sustain prosperity. That’s why ARC has been and continues to be strongly supportive of the entire food value chain, from the farmers and growers right to the wholesale and retail markets. In the past twelve years, ARC has invested $8.8 million in close to 100 projects strengthening the local food economy. This investment in turn has leveraged an additional $14.9 million in other investments for a total investment of $23.7 million.
 
You don’t have to go far to see the results. ARC’s funding for the Western North Carolina Livestock Center helped create the only local livestock market for 3,000 local farmers. The market will generate 125 new farm-based jobs while boosting farm income and serving as an alternative for tobacco producers.
 
The challenge before us now is to ensure Appalachian communities have forward-looking strategies in place to meet the growing demand for their local food products, whether it is in accessing capital and credit or creating new business models. This is a challenge I am confident Appalachian residents can well meet.
 
Earl F. Gohl is Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.