By Katie Pate and Kelly Parker
In the unsuspecting lower level of a residential-home-turned-business in Boone, North Carolina, is the headquarters of Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. Overlooking King St., behind the Jones House, the building is perfectly nestled in the bustling downtown district. A large and friendly brown dog named Maple greets visitors upon arrival. The main entrance leads into a humble and sunlit room which contains a conference table, several vintage botanical diagrams and a handful of indoor plants. The office feels calm and welcoming; there is a sense that it is a place for community.
Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture (BRWiA) serves the High Country population in many fashions. The organization provides resources for experienced or beginning farmers, people seeking to buy local food, and lower-income residents in the community. Courtney Baines, the newly appointed Executive Director of BRWiA, is just one of many people in the High Country working to promote the production and consumption of healthy, sustainable, and delicious food. Baines’ perspective on the mission of the organization and the impact of its outreach is hopeful.
“The name Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture isn’t limited just to women,” Baines said, “Our goal is to support women and their families by strengthening the local food system. Our founding mothers were feeling like their voices weren’t heard in larger agricultural conversations and were tired of being told women can’t be farmers, so they created the organization. It has since grown from that original mission of giving women a larger voice in the agriculture system in the region to actually helping to (re)build the regional food economy.”
The organization started in the late 90s when “women would meet together monthly for these potlucks and have discussions about how we can strengthen the local food system and how we can make sure women’s voices are a larger part of the conversation.” By 2005, the group obtained status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and has continued to grow since then.
On the organization’s ambitious and evolving mission, Baines explained that BRWiA helps strengthen our food system in the High Country in three key ways. These areas of focus range from direct farmer support, consumer access and education, to food equity, or as Baines said, “making sure that eating local and healthy is not just for people with deep pockets.”
To fulfill these goals, the organization supports numerous initiatives in Blue Ridge communities. Blue Ridge CRAFT, a chapter of the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training program, is one resource that functions as an agricultural peer sharing network. Experienced farmers mentor apprentices and pass down their knowledge so future generations can continue to successfully produce crops in the region.
The High Country Food Hub, another indispensable outreach program, is an online farmers’ market where people can purchase locally produced food and artisan goods. Located at 252 Poplar Grove Road, the Food Hub functions as a storage facility and distribution center for produce, meat, and other products to enable local farmers and producers to expand their production capacity. Customers place orders online every Thursday through Monday and pick up items every Wednesday.
A successful program in BRWiA’s effort to promote food equity is Double Up Food Bucks. This SNAP/EBT incentive program doubles the value of federal nutritional dollars spent at local farmers’ markets. Low-income consumers are thus able to afford high-quality produce grown by their neighbors, and local farmers gain access to new customers.
“Of course you can go to any grocery store and buy canned green beans for ninety-nine cents, but if you want fresh green beans from your local farmer, it’s going to cost more. This program helps all people have access to the best, freshest produce grown right here in our region,” Baines said.
Baines’s involvement with BRWiA began several years ago. Back in 2012, she started as the farm tour coordinator for the organization, then completed a service year of AmeriCorps, again with BRWiA. Eventually, she decided to pursue a doctorate degree in education, which was when she first got interested in school garden programs. Although her role within the nonprofit has shifted over time, Baines reflected, “I really never stopped being a part of the organization.” When asked about her passion for sustainable practices, Baines said, “To me, this organization really is part of my foundation of activism and feeling like I can make a difference.”
For others hoping to get involved with BRWiA, the Community of Gardens is an excellent program where people can volunteer to help teach young students about the importance of sustainability. People can also make one-time or monthly donations to the organization that will directly fund programs such as the Double Up Food Bucks initiative. “For the price of a coffee each month,” Baines said, donors can “know that [they] are supporting the local food system.” Monthly donors can also gain official membership status within the organization, depending on the donation amount, which includes benefits that help them learn how to become more active members of the local food system.
The organization is also hosting a Homegrown Workshop on April 11 from 5:30-7 p.m. in the Agriculture Conference Center, located at 252 Poplar Grove Road in downtown Boone. Sustainability educator Brooke Kornegay will show those in attendance how to calculate food needs for their families, select appropriate plant varieties, easily order seeds, and prepare soil for planting.
More information about Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture and access to the High Country Food Hub can be found on their website.