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Fresh produce is just a click away

Mark Williams, executive director of AgHC, describes the Southern Mountain Fresh campaign. Mark Williams, executive director of AgHC, describes the Southern Mountain Fresh campaign.

Need locally grown tomatoes for supper? Want to know which apples are now ripe? Want to buy locally ground sausage or a T-bone steak?

AgHC, the nonprofit organization that promotes farming in Henderson County, has launched a new marketing campaign designed to connect consumers to the vast variety of local fruit, vegetables and other products grown on local farms.
A year in the making and funded by a $64,000 state agriculture grant, the Southern Mountain Fresh campaign will include stickers on local produce and fruit, a website designed to show what's in season (southernmountainfresh.com) and where to buy it and a marketing push through Facebook and paid advertising.
Although it is ranked second in the state in growing fruits and vegetables, Henderson County has been "kind of behind times a little bit" in promoting its fruits and vegetables as a homegrown alternative to the mass-produced grocery store offerings, Mark Williams, the executive director of the AgHC, said last week.
Williams stood behind a table laden with apples, blackberries, wine, fresh sausage, saplings and potted annuals last week to announce the county's new branding effort.
"We're producing as much variety as all but one county in the whole state of North Carolina. Yet we have not had a local brand," he said. "You've got Appalachian Grown but that's a regional program. This is specific to Henderson County."
The county has plenty to sell. It ranks first in apples, second in tomatoes, second in sod and nursery products and third in sweet corn. The marketing campaign is designed to promote fresh fruit, vegetables and meat and "value-added" products like wine, hard cider and cheese.
"And the good thing is all of these areas are growing, they're increasing," Williams said. "That's a lot of what this is about, is to continue that trend. This is just one more tool to do that. There's so much we're producing there's no way Henderson County can consume everything that we produce within the county. But we can certainly consume much more than is being consumed.
"Whenever I go to a store and I see 'local grown' and that means it came from California or it came from Georgia or it came from even the other end of the state, that to me is not local grown. Henderson County, with our Southern Mountain Fresh program, will be a clear indication that that was grown right here in Henderson County."

The website, southernmountainfresh.com, allows consumers to click on a list of commodities, see what's in season and where they can buy it. Members who join the marketing effort get a link on the site to their own website, which they're obligated to keep updated.
"It literally takes them 30 seconds to go in and click 'off' if something's not in season," said Chris Burns, the Summit Marketing owner who helped design the site for AgHC. "The goal of this is that they will keep up with their page, so that you'll know if you see it on here and you'll know that it's in season."
Restaurants, too, have been invited to join Southern Mountain Fresh and serve locally grown products.
Use of the logo, Williams acknowledges, will be self-policing.
"We'll encourage our members to basically keep an eye on your neighbor," he said. "We ask for a commitment (from restaurants) that when it's available they make an effort to support their local farms. Trust me, farmers will know. We'll get feedback pretty quickly on that."
Some misuse of the label, he said, would be obvious.
"If somebody's got a banner out that says Southern Mountain Fresh and they're selling tomatoes in May we're pretty well assured that they're not local," he said.
The marketing strategy makes use of Facebook to send out the message and publicize updates on what's fresh.
"As new crops are coming in, we wanted to have a way to push out to folks a way to see what's coming into season," Burns said. "What we're doing here is any time that somebody posts different varieties or fruits coming into season or if Burntshirt comes out with another variety of wine, this is the way we can post on the Facebook page and we can push that out."
The Facebook site had already attracted 121 "likes" on Tuesday.
"We anticipate that Facebook is going to be as strong a tool as the website if not stronger," Williams said. "We're excited about this. We think it's going to be good for the county, it's going to be helpful in sustaining our smaller farmers, help them to maximize their profit through direct sales and gain advertising that they may not be able to afford individually. ... If they're not part of this we feel like they're missing out. We really encourage farmers especially that have an interest in selling direct" to check it out.
Membership levels range from $250 to $2,500 a year and include benefits such as use of Southern Mountain Fresh stickers, educational workshops, tickets for the annual AgHC dinner and a spot on the website.
A key, the farm supporters said, is the public's buy-in.
"If you're walking down Main Street and you see a restaurant with the logo," Burns said, "go in there."