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National awards recognize valley's 'Good Food'

Four Jackson County artisan food or drink companies — two in Ashland and two from Jacksonville — were among 71 Good Food Awards winners announced last weekend in San Francisco.

Gary West Smoked Meats and Lillie Belle Farms of Jacksonville joined Noble Coffee Roasting and Cascade Peak Spirits of Ashland in capturing awards in the national competition. Lillie Belle, Noble Coffee and Cascade Peak earned exclusive Gold Seal awards, recognizing them as pioneers in the push toward certified organic status, as well as for taste and social responsibility.

Some 144 finalists assembled for awards in artisan beer, charcuterie (cured meats), cheese, chocolate, coffee, pickles, preserves and spirits. The awards recognize makers of food that is delicious, respectful of the environment and rooted in communities and cultural traditions.

"Artisan values and craftsmanship are alive and well in Southern Oregon," said Diane Paulson, owner of Cascade Peak Spirits.

"What are you going to do for a living when you move here?" she said. "I'm not a doctor, I'm not a lawyer, but this area attracts creative and entrepreneurial people looking for something creative to do. We've figured a way to stay here by creating our own businesses. The natural environment that brings us here sets the tone for creativity and people that appreciate beauty."

In all, Oregon companies earned awards in seven of eight categories, scoring 11 total wins.

"You tend to forget it doesn't happen this way around the country, where we have this kind of artisan (community)," said Lillie Belle Farms founder Jeff Shepherd. "It's highly unusual, but it's kind of cool."

Shepherd said he doesn't enter every competition every year and usually tries a new product.

"We were a finalist last year, using a different bar and beans," Shepherd said. "I just keep trying new things all the time. This was something new for us — an heirloom varietal from an ancient strain of cacao from Peru. It was a really nice strain of beans.

"I knew they existed, but hadn't got to use them until one of my contacts in South America said, 'I have some of beans, would you like to try them?' and sent a sample."

It was the second straight award for Noble, which won with its Kenyan Kiaora in 2011. Competition heightened this time around, however, when categories were reduced to seven from 10.

"Industry giants are submitting products, but all the names are taken off so it doesn't really matter who you are," said Noble Coffee spokesperson Ashley Nunes. "It's a testament to the quality of the product we submitted."

Gary West Smoked Meats has been making elk strip jerky for three decades.

"We've had quite a few awards in the past," said Michael Davis of Gary West Smoked Meats. "This is pretty amazing stuff for an artisan smoked meats shop in Jacksonville. We've been called the Rolls Royce of jerky, but this is something we can put on the labeling."

In essence, the Good Food Awards played to the local companies' strengths, Paulson said.

"I've been in other competitions, but this was our group," Paulson said. "We didn't have to explain organics because that's what the people who started the competition do — local and organic."

For the companies, the award brings national recognition, a profile on the Good Food Awards website and product marketing assistance. The Good Food Awards came out of a collaboration among food producers, farmers, food journalists and independent grocers organized by Seedling Projects, a leader in the sustainable food movement.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

The view from Gary West's Locavore Pub & Grill suggests a country store.