Veggie Tales: From Gaining Ground Farm to Asheville restaurant tables
There are multiple ways to enjoy fresh-picked vegetables from Anne and Aaron Grier’s Gaining Ground Farm.
You could purchase from their tent at Saturday’s North Asheville Tailgate Market — say hello to Anne — or on Wednesday afternoons at the River Arts District Farmers Market. You can buy a CSA (community-suppor
ted agriculture) share and receive a box of goodies every week for the season. You could drive out to their farm in Leicester and visit their roadside stand.
Or you can leave the choosing, cleaning, chopping, and cooking to the professionals at one of the many restaurants in Asheville that proudly tout that their onions, potatoes, okra, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and beans are sourced from Gaining Ground Farm. It’s not hard to spot the chefs at Asheville tailgate markets. They’re the ones there early pulling loaded wagons behind them. They’re on a first name basis with the farmers, who save flats of broccolini or bushels of beets for them. That’s how Anne came to know many of the chefs when she began farming on rented land in Asheville in 1996.
“I had a few different aliases before Gaining Ground,” she says with a laugh. “I was Ivy River Farm, then switched to Garden Gaines, then when Aaron and I married, it became Gaining Ground Farm.”
Well before they met, Anne Gaines and Aaron Grier were on parallel paths in different states. A native of southwest Virginia, Anne’s family had a large beef farm when she was quite young and though they sold that, she learned how to grow vegetables. While attending Brevard College, she worked on farms in the Western North Carolina region and learned about organic agriculture, then began growing her own produce to sell at markets and eventually to restaurants.
The first was Rezaz in Biltmore Village (now closed), owned by chef Reza Setayesh. One of his chefs, Jacob Sessoms, went on to open Table restaurant in 2005. “My first delivery to Table was for his soft opening, and he is still a customer,” says Anne.
One of her steadiest buyers was chef Brian Canipelli, who opened Cucina 24 on Wall Street in 2008. “He bought from me at the North Asheville Tailgate Market, and at some point, I went in and had a proper meeting with him,” she remembers. “We established an ordering system and delivery dates, and I started using that framework for them, Table, Zambra, and other restaurants.” The business grew as the number of restaurants in Asheville grew.
Aaron, a Buncombe County native, tapped his love of farming through a job after high school at the Ramsey Dairy Farm in Fairview, t
hen pursued it further at Warren Wilson College where he worked on the campus farm, then later managed a natural meats farm in Madison County.
Anne and Aaron — who married in 2007 — made their first sale to restaurants as Gaining Ground Farm in the spring of 2009. “We knew we’d be moving to this place two years before we did, so we did a lot of cover cropping first to build the soil,” says Anne. “The first products we sold were probably garlic and strawberries because you plant those in the fall, and I knew we’d be actively working this land the next spring.”
“This land” as it exists now, is about 22 acres of bottomland, a majority of it leased from two separate owners; the Griers own about 6 acres. They grow a multitude of organic vegetables, but Anne says she has always particularly loved to grow sweet potatoes and okra. “I’m really focused on heirlooms, lots of heirloom tomatoes. We don’t specialize in any one thing, but we are probably known for our garlic. We sell a lot of garlic.”
She says her interest in exploring new varieties drives the expansion of that crop. “It keeps me excited to try new things and generally, chefs are excited to try new things as well.”
The mutual dependence between farmers and restaurants was never more clear than when COVID-19 shut restaurants in March 2020, and Gaining Ground’s primary revenue source dried up overnight. “That was the biggest challenge we ever faced,” Anne recalls. “We were able to get financial support through the Paycheck Protection Plan so we could pay our employees, and we got a disaster relief loan.”
One of Gaining Grounds biggest restaurant customers had long been Rhubarb chef/owner John Fleer, and he and Aaron teamed with other food activists to create the nonprofit We Give a Share, which purchased produce from local farmers for the Southside Community Kitchen to make healthy meals for financially challenged communities. (WGAS now operates as Equal Plates Project.)
In August 2021, a late summer flood decimated Gaining Ground’s crops; Cucina 24 and Rhubarb stepped up to the plate to raise funds to assist in recovery. The farm had a blessedly uneventful and successful season in 2022. This season, Gaining Ground produce is bountiful at restaurants including Table, Rhubarb, The Market Place, Tall John’s, Cúrate, and ELDR, among many more.
The Griers’ two children — 12-year-old Addiebelle and 10-year-old Cyril — have their own chickens, ducks, and garden. Anne says they’re not picky eaters, though Cyril cannot abide tomatoes in any form. “They’re most excited to eat anything right out of the field as opposed to the dinner table,” she says. “They’ll pull fennel and kohlrabi out of the ground and eat them raw – after they wipe the dirt off on my pants.”
For more on Gaining Ground Farm, visit gaininggroundfarm-nc.com.
Written by Kay West
Photos by Jack Sorokin; courtesy of Gaining Ground Farm