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Flavor 6: Berry Jam

June 23, 2014

"Over and over and over I find that we just keep circling back to the way things were done," says Walter Harrill of Imladris Farm in Fairview, N.C. He'll have a great new idea for his raspberries, his blueberries or his rabbits, and his great aunt Kay will say, "That's the way we used to do it back in the 40s."

Imladris Farm produces jam -- raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, mixed "Berry Best," and apple butter. Walter and his wife Wendy also sell rabbits (who double as great manure producers) to Jack of the Wood in Asheville.

Imladris is a family farm, passed down to Walter from his great-grandparents. His 16 acres of mostly steep and forested land is surrounded by great aunts and uncles -- just one of the ways that Walter feels part of community here.

The Harrills contract with other growers for all of their fruit, which Walter says not only yields a great flavor profile for his jams, but also creates a community of growers with whom they are fiscally tied. "With our model," Walter explains, "not only are we supporting one farm family, and allowing this farm to continue to farm, but we're also supporting four others." Such affiliation also helps him reduce his risk if, like his current raspberries, one year's crop doesn't do well.

Clearly there have been changes since the 40s: Walter's great-grandparents, for instance, didn't have the luxury of such fiscal ties. Aiming for self-sufficiency rather than business, they cut their risk by diversifying.

And while the farm's jam recipes were passed down through the generations, their production method has been greatly upscaled. Instead of Walter's grandmother making six jars at a time over a range top, now two hired A-B Tech culinary grads produce 900 to 1,800 jars a week in a rented professional kitchen. Walter could make the jam himself, he says, chuckling, but he'd have to wash the ceiling afterwards.

Walter prefers fruit with some "twang" to it. The raspberries he grows are Carolines, which have a tart, pungent flavor great for jam. Walter explains that while adding sugar to a tart fruit enhances the flavor, making it crisper and more discernible, doing the same to an already sweet fruit only washes the flavor out, yielding a jam that is just so-so.

Walter and Wendy's bestselling "Berry Best" jam was what originally drew me to Imladris Farm. Walter describes Berry Best as a jam with a wide flavor profile and sweetness that especially appeals to their younger clientele. "What berries are in there?" I ask. Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, Walter responds -- all the berries they grow.

I sample the other Imladris Farms jams, and find the apple butter especially arresting, with a depth and complexity that might have something to do with Walter's contracting with cider makers. There's lots of flavor left in the apple pulp, Walter explains, and cider producers look for the same flavor profiles he does.

Walter and Wendy are actually thinking about branching out into ketchup. "The system is so vibrant," Walter explains. "Not only in what farms produce, but also in what people are interested in buying." The chefs and foodies of the Asheville area provide another circle of community for the Harrills. Walter attributes the success of the local food scene to a handful of people: John Swann, an original owner of Greenlife who most recently opened Katuah Market in Asheville, John Stehling of Early Girl Eatery, and Mark Rosenstein, the original owner of The Market Place restaurant. For their ketchup, the Harrills plan to contract with local tomato growers to make a unique smoked variety.

While Walter and Wendy did not enter farming guided by an interest in sustainability, they are now staunch supporters of natural, healthy ways of growing. For one thing, to avoid using chemicals, as farm policy they only grow things that thrive in their microenvironment.

"If it needs spraying, let's grow something different," Walter says. When their farm was abandoned 20 years ago, the strawberries that his great-grandparents used to grow disappeared, but the raspberries kept on. Result: the Harrills don't grow strawberries, and focus on raspberries instead. They grow blueberries on land owned by Walter's father in a different microenvironment a few miles away.

Walter eagerly shows me biochar, which, along with drip irrigation, is one of the farm's eco- and sustainability-friendly features. Instead of cutting and burning their raspberry canes to prevent spreading of virus from the canes after the growing season as most farmers do, the Harrills burn the canes in the absence of oxygen, producing charcoal instead of ash. The resulting biochar can be stable in the soil for up to 3,000 years, acting as a sponge for nutrients and holding them through the winter. This greatly reduces the need for fertilizers come springtime and lessens nitrogen pollution into waterways.

"Our problems in conventional agriculture are that we reach for short-term solutions," Walter says. In the past, when his great-grandparents were farming for survival with no crop insurance or backup plan, making it through one season wasn't enough. The emphasis was on long-term sustainability rather than turning a profit.

"For us it's all about reversing a trend," he explains. Responding to the alarming loss of area family farms in recent decades, folks like Wendy and Walter (both medical technologists before moving here and starting making jam some 15 years ago) are venturing back to the earth.

Land that hasn't been farmed in 60 years is now being put back into production, says Walter -- exactly what he and his communities of relatives, farmers, chefs, and local food supporters like to see.

Find Imladris Farm jams at the North Asheville Tailgate Market, online, or at many area groceries including Katuah Market, Earthfare, Greenlife, West Village Market, Trout Lily Market, and the French Broad Food Co-op.