One of the main reasons I went to the Growing the Local Appalachian Food Economy forum were the tours the forum offered on the second day. One tour offered a tour of Blue Ridge Food Ventures (BRFV). which is a business incubator and shared used facility. Form their website;
Blue Ridge Food Ventures is an 11,000 sq. ft. shared-use kitchen incubator and natural products manufacturing facility that offers support in product development, guidance through the maze of regulations governing safe production of food products and dietary supplements, advice on packaging and label design, and much more.
On the surface, BRFV seemed like it removed a huge barrier, access to commercial equipment and storage, that is necessary to entrepreneurs who want to start a packaged food business. And they do. There are requirements that must be met, another selling point to me, however if you are serious, it's a great facility. The best part though is the staff. I was very impressed with their knowledge and their willingness to find solutions to the challenges that arise.
Once I took the tour, I was very impressed.
As an advocate for keeping threatened varieties from vanishing, one way to ensure their survival is to create minimally processed marketable products from heirloom varieties. Since a common characteristic of heirloom varieties is their delicate skin, which is a detriment to shipping, having access to commercial grade equipment for a start up is a key component in a launch of an heirloom variety product. BRFV fills that void.
One of the key things I heard discussed at this forum was how to frame the success in Appalachia in the local food economy as a model for the rest of the country. My hope is that this happens, and that more facilities like the BRFV fill the void between food entrepreneurs, farmers and the consumer markets.
Keeping with the entrepenurial theme, I attended an session called Models of Sustainability; The Role of the "Agripeneur." One of the speakers was Dale Hawkins, of Fish Hawk Acres. He told his story of of growing up in West Virginia, leaving to become a classically trained chef, and realizing that what he left was exactly what he was looking for.
He started a Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) co-op, where he works with a group of local farmers and growers. He realized that if he became a food broker for the group, than the farmer and growers could concentrate on their farming and growing, and he would have product to sell, or for use in a catering business. Through the use of a community kitchen, the catering business became possible. He was a very passionate about what he's doing, and is another example of the can do, make it work energy I found at this forum.
This is another example of possibilities for not only the chef/farmer, but for an entrepreneur who wanted to get a heirloom variety food product up an running. A food broker with access to a co-op of small farms and growers who could possibly grow the crop needed for said food product is a definite asset.
These are two of many examples of local food as an economic development tool in Appalachia. This forum presented the results of a comprehensive two years study of the consistent and innovative work in Appalachia to build local food economies. This bodes well for the future, and for the awareness of threatened varieties.