Monthly Archives: July 2012

Down on the farm sure looks like Up to me.

Doreen Jankowski didn’t start out to be a local food impresario. 18 years ago, she and her husband Pete moved from Massachusetts to Florida, then back up to her granddaddy’s land in Appalachia (making them “halfbacks” in the local parlance) where she started a big garden on her two acres. Pete was always complaining that he couldn’t find any hot sauce he liked, so Doreen started fooling around with applewood-smoked recipes packed with serranos and habanero peppers. She produced such good hot sauce, her friends started asking her for bottles of it, then their friends started asking for it, then Early Girl restaurant in Asheville fell in love with it, and Doreen figured she might have a business on her hands.

Now Fire from the Mountain is selling from between 500 to 2,000 bottles of hot sauce and salsa a month, and Doreen is up to her elbows in habaneros and cash.

Goat milk mama, Carol Coulter.

Carol & Lon Coulter got lured into local food production a bit differently. 18 years ago they fell in love with a big piece of land in Watauga County that was covered in prickly multiflora roses. Naturally, they bought 3 goats that love to eat those pesky bushes (accidentally, one turned out to be male), and before you could say reproduction, Lon & Carol had baby goats on their hands. So they started making goat ice cream, then goat yogurt, then goat cheese–and that turned out to be so damn good, they created a whole line of Heritage Homestead products. Today, they’re selling 150 pounds of gorgeous chevre, camenbert, blue and gouda cheeses a week –not to mention some phenomenally delicious dark chocolate goat cheese fudge.

Heritage Homestead’s beautiful blue.

Charles Church, one of the most influential farmers in the five-county area, began organic farming after the tobacco farm subsidies flamed out in 2004. He saw the potential for organic produce: “…where for the first time I could grow whatever I wanted, name my price, and get it.” He began to grow all kinds of vegetables on his farm and started a cooperative called East Coast Organics, and last  year, that group made $2.75 million in gorgeous organic sales. Despite the difficulties of farming – and as Charles can tell you, farming is a 100-hour a week, physically tough, demanding job that will teach you something new every day – Church and his wife Betty are skilled and successful; and as a true Farmer of Farmers, he spends hours reaching out to all the farmers around him to help them succeed, too.

Charles’s organic greenhouse where he raises seedlings to share with other farmers.

It’s these kind of folks that Heifer is investing in – and hoping to replicate – in its Seeds of Change initiative, concentrating on the agricultural part of producing local food as well as the enterprise side, helping local entrepreneurs with business plans and loans, production, marketing and distribution.

It starts with people like Doreen, Charles and Carol and continues with young kids in the Future Farmers of America at Johnson County High School who are raising 25,000 tilapia in their school science lab — and envisioning a future when they can make a living on their land. The local food movement in Appalachia is a beauty to behold (and eat!) but to Jeffrey Scott of Heifer, it also has the potential to save the health and jump-start the economy of this traditional farming area.

One sign of the times…

As Jeffrey would say, “Good food is good work.”

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Seeds of Change/Sprouts of Hope

When Chad Roberts lost his job two years ago, he never dreamed he’d be unemployed this long. He was a machinist, forklift operator, and could drive just about anything. But living in Ashe County, North Carolina where unemployment has hovered between 12%- 15% and three major manufacturers have been shuttered, Chad’s job opportunities were few and far between. Nobody called him back on his job applications, and nobody seemed to be hiring.

Chad started to get depressed, had trouble sleeping, and began to pack on the pounds, despite the fact his family was existing on food stamps and meals from the food pantry. Then this spring, he filled out a survey at the pantry about gardening and the next thing he knew, Travis Birdsell and Pastor Rob Brooks of Outgrow Hunger were offering to come over, till his land out back, and help him start a garden.

And boy howdy, is Chad growing things now! His tomatoes are reaching up the twisted steel poles to the sun, his cabbages, melons and squash are swelling into ripeness, and his greens are so abundant, he is giving them away (to the food pantry). With a used freezer donated by Outgrow Hunger, he and his wife Angela (who is diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has trouble walking) and their two children plan to process and freeze a lot of the food to eat through the winter, and donate the rest to other needy families in the community.

Already, Chad’s attitude has changed, he’s got some pride back, his whole family is eating healthier food, and the garden gets him outside moving and sweating every day, with his excited kids beside him. And that’s happening on 43 family gardens all across Ashe County.

Travis Birdsell taking gardens with Christy & Lowell Penley.

OutGrow Hunger is a movement sponsored by the churches of Ashe County that has partnered with Heifer in the Seeds of Change program in Appalachia– and believe me, these folks are on fire! This year, they aim to source Ashe County food pantries with 90,000 pounds of fresh produce from regional gardeners (“A Community of 100 Gardeners”) as well as from commercial growers. So instead of just getting 20 boxes of mac & cheese, people living on food assistance will also get fresh squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons. Travis, a local deacon and landscape horticulturist, routinely travels to new gardening families to share his knowledge and experience, and Rob, a UMC pastor and director of Ashe Outreach Ministries, oversees a food pantry that provides food to about 800 people a month, a community kitchen that feeds 65 folks daily, a meals-on-wheels program, and backpack buddies for 300 local school children. And this is just their FIRST year of operation!

Outgrow Hunger also has plans to put in a greenhouse so they can start seedlings for all their gardeners; plant orchards in every elementary school in Ashe county so every child will be able to pick a piece of fruit to eat; put in educational gardens on donated land so low-income people can learn to garden more effectively (Chad could teach this course!) and use money from Heifer to buy a flash freezer so they can make those pounds of produce into healthy soups & stews for the pantry.

Austin Penley, a good young gardener of Ashe County.

Outgrow Hunger is just one of the programs that Heifer is aligned with in Appalachia, but it’s among the most impressive – mostly due to the energy, commitment and non-stop vision of Travis and Rob, and Heifer’s own spark-plug, Jeffrey Scott. It’s a perfect example of the “Collective Impact” model that Heifer is using to bring 60 leaders in the community to the table to address the critical challenge of how to improve nutrition and economic growth in these traditional farming regions that have fallen on hard, hungry times. That requires the skills of many groups: nonprofits and advocacy, schools and universities, business people, corporations, health organizations, government and churches, working together to change things.

Travis & Jeffrey delivering a freezer: some days require brain power, some just plain brawn.

But what it’s all about in the end is seeing Chelsea Roberts, pulling me over excitedly to offer a snow pea, picked fresh off the vine. It is divine. She helped grow it, and she loves the taste of it.

“You cain’t get no fresher than that!” she says proudly. I gotta agree.

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Good news/Bad news

BIG news, y’all — in the good and (only tiny bit) bad department!

First the good news: I’ve been selected as a Top 5 Finalist for Volunteer of the Year, Southern (Sweet Tea) Division in the 4th Annual CLASSY Awards, from a pool of 2,400 nominations for my work on this blog. The CLASSY Awards is the largest philanthropic awards ceremony in the country, celebrating the greatest charitable achievements by nonprofit organizations, socially conscious businesses, and individuals worldwide. (And yes, you are right: “Stay Classy, San Diego!” was Will Ferrell/Ron Burgundy’s snappy sign-off in Anchorman.) In 2011, nearly 2,000 organizations and volunteers were nominated for a CLASSY Award, and their collective efforts impacted the lives of more than 200,000,000 people in 71 countries worldwide. So that means I’m in very good/intimidating company!

The bad news? I’m obviously going to badger you to vote for me (hence this post) … but the GOOD news is, you only have to vote ONCE. If I’ve already badgered you on facebook, twitter, etc. I apologize profusely .. but this is a really big deal for Heifer and therefore, for all my beautiful Heifer peeps … so I gotta beg you to vote for me by July 26 (that’s this Thursday).

One of my beautiful Heifer peeps.

Click here to get to the site and follow the big, wonking (but actually simple) explanation below of how to vote (most important step is the FINAL one to log in to Facebook):

Thank you a million times over … I really appreciate your vote!!
*If you don’t have a Facebook account, click on the option to open a StayClassy account and use that!

Categories: Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 24 Comments

A hard rain’s gonna fall.

Bill has been unemployed for 2 years, sold his house in Florida at a loss, and now lives in tents with 5 family members.

I just got back from spending six rain-soaked days in Appalachia and the Arkansas Delta, viewing some of Heifer’s newest projects to reduce hunger and poverty here in America.It was a damp and eye-opening trip in which I got to meet some remarkable people, experience despair at the entrenched poverty I saw, and feel beams of hope in the creativity and passion of farmers, cheese-makers, biker pastors, entrepreneurs and dreamers in both regions.

Charles Church, organic farmer.

American poverty is the great silent shame of our time. At $15 trillion dollars a year, the American economy is the largest in the world, producing ¼ of the planet’s entire gross domestic product. Yet one in seven people in America live below the poverty line of $22, 113 for a family of four. A person working full-time at the minimum wage earns about $14,500 a year – and 80% of single mothers heading a household work at least one job and still can’t provide the basic necessities for their children.

The largest demographic of poor people are children – with 44% of American children living in low-income working families. About half of all American children will receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps) before the age of 20; for African-American children, that number is 90%. And the majority of all Americans will live in poverty at some point before reaching the age of 65.

Now that you’re in a coma of statistics and depression … let me tell you how beautiful Appalachia is. (I’ll get to the beautiful Delta later..)

I spent my first four days in Boone, North Carolina and the surrounding towns in far western North Carolina. Even in the relentless rain, the green of the fields and mountains, the tidy gardens of the small households, and the sweeping vistas you knew were huddled behind the dark clouds were glorious. But you can’t eat beauty. In Appalachia, the problem is not a lack of land but the lack of production of local food, organic produce, and provisions that are sought after and becoming ever more valuable in these tourist-driven communities. In the Delta, amidst huge agribusiness farms on endless swaths of land, the people have no acres to call their own, their local economy has dried up like the drought-stricken earth, and they are literally stranded in towns buffeted by crop dusters and blown past by anyone with wheels.

Poison raining down from above.

Somehow the land’s beauty in both places makes the hardscrabble lives of so many residents even harder to accept– along with the mining and manufacturing jobs that won’t be coming back, and the traditional ways of life evaporating like fog on the mountain. But Heifer and a bunch of other folks in these mountain and Delta communities are determined to draw a line in the sand and simply not allow that to happen.

Mast General provisions .. yummm!

I’ll be telling you their stories over the next two weeks. In the meantime, here’s Bob Dylan to take you back to those days when we swore we’d never let something like this happen here.

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

La Revedere, Romania!

Because I’m linguistically challenged, I managed to mangle quite a few Romanian words during my visit  there with Heifer. La revedere (or goodbye) was one of the worst, because invariably, I’d think I had a firm grasp on the word, only to lose my courage midway through and simply garble out something like “Lareverrrrrraaah.” So when I saw this sign as I was leaving the adorable town of Belin outside Brasov, I leapt at the chance to finally get the word right.

As this is my last post on Romania (I leave for Appalachia tomorrow), I’m feeling kind of sad — so I figured I’d bid you La Revedere with some of my favorite shots from this beautiful country.

The astonishing Turda Salt Mine, in operation since Roman times.

A Roma (or gypsy) family in a horse-drawn wagon.

Somewhat over-enthusiastic nursing.

Sheep’s wool in the barn.

A handmade greenhouse from cast-off glass panels that reminded me of Frank Gehry’s buildings.

Sweet Belin family, waiting for their new heifer from Danone, a partner with Heifer.

Aschileu pastoral.

Inside the salt mine.

Getting to know you …

Making hay while the sun shines.

The roofs of Cluj-Napoca.

Laura Voisinet, my great travel companion, in the orchard.

Green walnuts (used in a favorite jam)

To all my friends in Romania, la revedere .. and Appalachia, here I come!

Categories: Heifer International, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: