Harvesting Sunshine, Locally
By: Erika Schneider
Ninety-three million miles away hardly seems local, yet it is a wondrous paradox that our natural systems are sustained by the sun. The stories of Darci DeWulf, Annie Ritota, and Chris Owen, women who have been at the forefront of the local food movement, tell of their experiences in bringing solar energy to their work.
You know that behind the name LoafChild Bakery there must be a woman with a great sense of humor. Darci DeWulf is not only witty, but resourceful and hard-working, starting each day well before the sun rises. Humbly, she credits “good luck and just staying open to possibilities” for enabling her family to enjoy a simple, yet very rewarding lifestyle, running a home-based business in Marshall, NC.
Darci is grateful to have her roots set deep in these mountains, having moved frequently as a child. She came to the area years ago to work as a rafting guide on the French Broad River, and knew that she would be making it home. The region’s natural beauty and rich musical culture were major attractions for both her and husband, Dimitri. However, she says “You can’t beat the local food community,” and it is within the increasingly popular tailgate market culture that she created opportunities for herself and others.
I have to credit Darci for one of the best responses I’ve heard yet, when I asked what motivated her to go solar on her farm. “Solar is a lot more exciting than siding!” she said with a great laugh, and then went on to tell of the homestead that she and Dimitri have built together over the past 16 years. Carved into a rambling hillside, their place is an organic maze of raised beds filled with fresh vegetables and cutting flowers, geodesic and production-scale greenhouses, and goats. In the middle of this haven sits their home, sporting a solar hot water system, one of their first priorities (yes, even over siding) for upgrading the old house after settling in. In 2008, a third collector was added to support a retrofitted, built-up, radiant floor-heating system. “Solar hot water is amazing,” said Dimitri. “We’ve saved a ton of propane.”
Now, thanks to a Tobacco Trust Fund Commission Alternative Energy Grant, they are also producing solar electricity. The 4.23 kW photovoltaic system produces almost twice the eight kilowatt hours a day of electricity that the DeWulfs use in their growing operations and home-based business. A buy-all, sell-all system, grid connected with French Broad EMC, and a generating partner with NC GreenPower, the system produces an income stream for the farm, while contributing significantly to the off-set of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
The design of the ground-mounted racking system (which Dimitri built himself to save costs and to participate in the installation) is one of the most interesting around. It fits incredibly well on the site, taking advantage of a kudzu-covered clearing for full southern-exposure. Dimitri also ran the trenching for the underground wiring, integrating it under clay-packed tire steps that reclaimed erosion channels forming on the land.
Innate resourcefulness yields a land-based livelihood for Darci and Dimitri and their homeschooled children, Cade and Marijka. In addition to their baked goods, they grow a variety of plant-starts, cut flowers, and vegetables. “We try to be as low-impact as possible and keep it low- key. We know what we need to get by and like keeping it simple, and especially enjoyable,” Darci said.
Interestingly enough, Darci started doing market several years ago as a way to get some “time away” during a period when she was home all the time with young children. Over the next five years, she established a thriving business . In fact, Dimitri recently left his job in construction to work along with her. The market business is a means to keep the family home and together. Home-schooling the kids has worked really well as they learn from being part of the operations. “Baking time is motherhood!” she says. Open time allows for free play and Darci marvels at the extent of their imagination. “There’s magic about it. It’s chaotic, strange, and energetic. That’s our house, our family.”
These are the folks that hide Spiderman at the Mars Hill Tailgate Market, and create limerick contests for fun. After eight years of helping to establish that market, “We are on people’s grocery list.” Darci loves the flexibility this offers; it allows her to produce “on a whim.” The baked goods vary according to the seasonal availability of fruits and berries, but one ingredient is always savorable; easy-going joy.
You can find LoafChild goodies at the following markets: Mars Hill on Saturdays, Marshall on Sundays, West Asheville on Tuesdays, and Weaverville on Wednesdays.
Annie Ritota credits her gift for delicious food to her mother, who “took cooking to a different level,” creating meals that nourished the family and evidently got into their genetic makeup—all seven children turned out to be fabulous family cooks. However, for Annie, preparing and serving food became her passion and profession.
After repeatedly hearing from friends that she should open a restaurant, Annie started catering in Colorado and then ran a very successful restaurant in Greenville, SC. “Annie’s” became known for its healthy, vegetarian food and as a community gathering place. Then, nine years later, her path crossed with Joe’s, a fourth-generation Italian baker, and they moved to Sylva in WNC. Together, they operated a bakery out of their home for three years until it became apparent that it was time for another go at running a restaurant.
Annie’s passion for all-natural ingredients and her propensity for making people feel “at home” fused delightfully with Joe’s incredible connection to bread and his business sense gleaned from growing up in a family bakery. This led to a partnership in which they have room to be creative and to play off each other’s complementary skills. Annie’s Naturally Bakery became the heart of the small mountain community, and their artisan-baked goods known throughout the region. Then several large grocers (including Ingles, Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and Fresh Market) contracted for their products. The need for a centralized baking facility to serve this market became evident.
An exhaustive search with their business partner, John Fisher, led to a large space in the revived Blue Ridge Business Center in Asheville. Formerly the vacated Square-D manufacturing facility, its renovation included extensive efficiency improvements. After more than a year of planning and making the big move—with only one day’s downtime—Annie’s Naturally Bakery has been baking in their new facility since March. In doing so, they are playing a significant role in the local economy and are leading the way in sustainability efforts.
Working in the bakery are about thirty new employees, and a team of eleven continues to run the Sylva cafe where Annie still makes her favorite soups every Monday. Job creation is partly what made their business plan an ideal fit for the Natural Capital Investment Fund, which provides financing to “small and emerging natural-resource-based businesses that will advance sustainable economic development and have a positive impact on human health and the natural environment.” Annie’s undisputedly does all that!
It could be favorably said that Annie plays the role of Mother to the fortunate staff at the bakery and café. One employee, Ryan Anderson, told how she made sandwiches for everyone the first day he began in the office, and that she’s always taking care of everyone. Annie herself said that helping new employees grow and mature is an extremely gratifying part of her work. Annie is a great business woman with a very concentrated and focused vision, Ryan added.
Indeed, holding that vision has led to great ventures for Annie. She attributes her success to the people that she serves, saying that Asheville is an incredibly supportive community, and to teamwork. “It takes loving what you do, believing in it, and having supportive people around you, for it all to work at the end of the day. Everyone has to come together in support of the goal.”
As for their sustainability initiatives, Annie and Joe are excited about their increased efficiency in their new location; distribution from a central location, efficient lighting, natural-gas-fired ovens, and low-VOC materials make their operations much greener. The six-collector solar thermal system installed on the roof of the building has the greatest impact on their carbon footprint, cranking out up to 240,000 BTUs on a sunny day, heating water to wash the equipment in their bakery. They plan to install a solar electric system in the future to offset their electrical usage as well.
Participating in the Organic Bread Flour Project (an initiative to make locally-sourced organic wheat more available) also means that their operations will leave less of an impact on the Earth. Annie says the consortium of bakers, including LoafChild, is coming together to create what they need to be more sustainable in this region.
Fittingly, a powerful staff adorned with preserved loaves, cell phones, and other remarkable objects, rests near Annie’s working space. A totem of her work and partnership with Joe, it is a reminder that she indeed carries the Staff of Life into the world, and it is a better place for it.
Since her children were allergic to cow’s milk, Chris Owen turned to mothers of kids of a different kind— goats! Now, her eldest son, Cullen, has grown into a young adult and the family has established one of the region’s most reputable goat-cheese dairies, Spinning Spider Creamery. At the head of a quiet valley in Madison County, the family starts the day milking about 85 does and ends the day the same way. And in between, they produce some of the best goat cheese around.
“Stackhouse,” named the number one goat cheese in the South , embodies Chris’ dedication to the art and science of cheese-making. A bloomy rind with a layer of organic apple-wood-ash, it is the result of diligent “reverse-engineering.” Knowing what she wanted the cheese to be, Chris worked the process and chemistry backwards, adjusting and troubleshooting until she achieved the results she wanted. The creative challenge keeps Chris intrigued as a cheese-maker, while a strong work ethic and keen business sense have led to her success.
Major credit is also due to her family, as they all serve an integral part in keeping things going. Homeschooling and a strong involvement with 4-H, has enabled the three sons to be engaged in everything from milking to birthing; they’ve developed their own areas of specialty. During the Spring’s farm tour, Silas masterfully demonstrated herding with the border collie he has worked to train. Recently, at the American Dairy Goat Association’s National Show, 13-year-old Morgan was recognized as the Overall Junior Youth Exhibitor, while Cullen served as a Judge. Testimony to the whole family, Cassandra, one of their goats of seven years, won the show’s Reserve National Champion for Saanens. This prestigious award was a ten-year-goal, according to Chris, and it was very rewarding. “We knew we had good goats” she said proudly.
The pedigree of Spinning Spider’s herd is the result of careful breeding and management. This aspect of the business is a job in itself, and Chris sees that offspring from the farm can be sold for a higher premium as the goats prove themselves. That all of this started when Cullen was given a baby goat at age ten, is hard to imagine.
While Chris describes the growth of the Creamery as “organic” it is undoubtedly due to being proactive and strategic as well. Their first chevre was sold for the 4-H Goat Club, but realizing there was a market in Asheville, they became licensed and wrote a business plan with the help of Mountain Microenterprise, now Mountain Bizworks. Jeff, Chris’s husband, who works as a Christmas Tree Specialist with the Extension Service, built the milking parlor and kitchen. A grant from WNC Ag Options allowed for an aging-cooler to be built, and the kitchen expanded. Another grant supported an equipment upgrade to a 200-gallon pasteurizing tank from the Netherlands. “It is so well-engineered,” says Chris and forms the heart of their commercial cheese-making.
Pasteurization requires hot water, and lots of it. When it was determined that the boiler would need to be upgraded as well, the opportunity to bring in solar presented itself. A six-collector solar hot-water system was designed to pre-heat water for the tank, and it efficiently brings the water up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the process requires 185-degree water, the back-up boiler then makes up the difference. Solar heating will save a tremendous amount of propane, reducing fuel-related environmental damage, as well as operating costs. Funding from Farm Bureau’s Farm Energy Efficiency Project Grant helped Jeff and Chris to go solar. A unique feature in the system was designed to save water. In the previous set-up, the hot water following pasteurization was lost down the drain, but the new design sends the water to a 120-gallon storage tank where it can be used in the kitchen for washing equipment. If the water still holds more heat than can be used, it is circulated through a buried dump load to shed the heat. As milk is pasteurized every three days, the savings in energy and water from this system will be huge.
Operating with the least impact on their environment is of great importance at Spinning Spider. “We do the best we can,” says Chris. From purchasing their goat feed from the Tennessee Farmer’s Co-op, to keeping the herd in balance with the pasture, decisions are made with the goal of being efficient. Ultimately, producing the highest quality product in accountability to the people who purchase their cheese is the measure of their efforts.
Spinning Spider cheeses are available at five different tailgate markets in the Asheville area and in Greenville, SC, as well as through several stores and in finer restaurants in the region. Chris says they consciously made the decision to stay local, and gratefully acknowledges the work of ASAP, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, in creating the dynamic local food movement that WNC is renown for.
Working as the Outreach Coordinator for Sundance Power Systems, Erika Schneider enjoys celebrating the stories of those who create community and a better world. A mother of two teenage girls, her hope is to educate and inspire people to live more lightly and joyously on this amazing planet.