Amid the gentle hills and rolling pastures that surround the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, local farmers left their work behind on Thursday, Feb. 27, to attend the WNC Agricultural Options 2014 Award Ceremony.
The ceremony kicked off with a welcome and introduction by Jennifer Ferre, AgOptions project coordinator. Ferre cited that 2014 marks the 10-year anniversary of grant giving for the organization, which has awarded more than $1.7 million in mini-grants over the last decade. She also welcomed three new counties this year: Burke, Caldwell and Rutherford. Ferre congratulated the 29 recipients for being selected from more than 100 applicants. This year 22 farm businesses received $6,000 and seven received $3,000.
Each of the 29 recipients had the chance to introduce themselves and talk a bit about their grant projects. Projects ranged from portable netting for piglets and a grist mill to grind grits and corn for feed, to funds for starting a truffle orchard on a third-generation farm that used to grow tobacco. The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has been WNC Agricultural Options’ sole funding source since the program’s first grant cycle in 2004 so, according to Ferre, tobacco farms take precedence.
“Every year there is a theme,” Ferre says. “Livestock seems to be the theme this year. There’s a lot of growth opportunity and demand for all that now.”
Neal and Ava Morgan of Shady Place Farms in Leicester plan to construct an on-farm building with their grant money so customers can purchase freezer beef. “We’d like a decent structure to sell from instead of our garage,” Ava says. The recent rain and snow have delayed their plans to start grading the land for the building site.
The Morgans also envision their upcoming store as a resource for customers to find out about other farm products available in the area. They will allow neighboring farmers to set up displays with brochures and information. This type of community support is in the spirit of what AgOptions is all about. They have an alumni database of past recipients that may have expert advice for this year’s recipients.
Grant recipient Bill Hendley of McDowell County is 78 years old. Although he drives a school bus now, he says they won’t let him do it much longer. So he’s going to use his $6,000 grant to expand his beehives from 10 to 40 or 50 hives. “I love bees,” Hendley says. “I’m not ready to retire. I want to start up my own business.” Hendley and his wife have a daughter in graduate school and a son in eighth grade to support. He’s already selling his honey at tailgate markets, but the grant will allow him to expand quickly and that means more profits.
A decade of experience with farmers means Ferre can spot issues before they happen. “Back pockets and dashboards of trucks are not good places to store your receipts,” Ferre says to the group, only half jesting. The organization also understands the nature of granting money to innovative projects. “We don’t expect every project to go perfectly,” Ferre says. “If you try something and it doesn’t work, that’s good information for us. It’s about your experience.”
After about an hour the group dispersed for a break before the day’s events continued. The afternoon included talks by former grant recipients and workshops designed to help with business planning and marketing—not a typical day’s work for most farmers.
“We had a farmer who had never turned on a computer before,” Ferre says. “The benefit they received from going through this process, they still talk about it.”
The 2014 AgOptions grant cycle will fittingly conclude with a year-end family dinner for all recipients at one of the recipient’s farms and using the farmer’s products.