Press release from WNC Communities:
Recipients of 2022 farm grants reflect the strength of the agricultural system in western North Carolina by growing their farm businesses and demonstrating innovative agricultural projects. After two years adapting to accommodate new COVID-19 realities, farm businesses have embraced innovative ideas and are expanding operations in response to increased demand of locally sourced farm products. More than half of the awarded farms are for expansion projects, while innovative ventures demonstrate the creative ways farmers are adapting to meet the needs of their customers.
Forty-one farm businesses in western North Carolina were awarded a total of $320,000 in WNC AgOptions cost-share grants in 2022.
The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission awarded WNC Communities a three-year grant for the WNC AgOptions program to provide nearly three quarters of a million dollars to family farms in WNC through 2024. “The WNC AgOptions program has proven success stories,” said Bill Teague, Chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. “We continue to be amazed at how these producers utilize these funds to ensure their family farms grow and remain profitable, even in the face of a global pandemic.”
As the past two years have challenged farm businesses to rethink their operations, their customers have also discovered the importance of local family farms in supplying farm products. The majority of this year’s grantees have seen incredible growth in demand for their products and will use their grants to upgrade equipment, add infrastructure, expand herds and increase production. “Right now we are being called to expand our operation as we have both an increase in demand and a lot of people reaching out asking for work.” said Rand Gifford of Greenshine Farms in Madison County.
Greenshine Farms plans to increase production of their organic produce operation by tenfold by significantly upgrading production equipment to support regenerative growing practices. “The demand for fresh, local organically grown produce was already very strong and I anticipate it will be even greater in the coming years,” he added, also noting that one of his goals is to hire five new employees to assist with the expansion.
Fourth-generation farmer Darrell Metcalf of Burley Stick Farm in Buncombe County is also challenged with meeting the needs of his beef customers throughout the year. He’ll be adding a walk-in freezer and a packing facility to accommodate additional production capacity and improve operational efficiency. “We have more demand from beef customers than we’re able to meet without additional freezer storage. With our new packing facility, we’ll market and sell our products year-round,” said Metcalf. Burley Stick Farm expects to add about 70 new customers a year with this additional storage and working facility. “This project will allow us to grow and sell to our capacity,” Metcalf said.
The 2022 grant recipients are also demonstrating creative ways to diversify and try unique business ventures. Sam Cartner in Avery County is diversifying his family’s Christmas tree farm by piloting a project to learn and evaluate the production, processing and marketing of the medicinal native plant, ginseng. Tyler Hunsader of family-owned and operated Jeter Mountain Farm in Henderson County will be adding a canned carbonated cider line to their already successful U-pick apple orchard.
And Sarah Lasswell of Moss & Thistle Farm in Rutherford County is using her grant to establish a half-acre stand of basketry willow on her 22-acre farm to supply her business of woven willow caskets used in green burials. “I am one of only four casket weavers in the country and receive inquiries weekly. In 2020, I travelled to Vermont to spend time learning with a willow casket weaver, and began selling willow caskets in 2021,” said Laswell. “There are few commercial willow farms in the US, which means limited supply and high costs. Establishing my own crop of basketry willow is critical in supplying my growing casket business, and allowing me to reach the profit margin I need to support my family.”
“We are excited that N.C. Cooperative Extension is part of a program that is making such impressive impacts in the agricultural community,” said Ross Young, outgoing chair of the WNC AgOptions Steering Committee. “Agriculture is a thriving and ever-changing economic engine in western North Carolina with new enterprises and creative ideas emerging daily. WNC AgOptions plays a crucial role in helping many of these farmers fulfill a dream that may not be attainable otherwise.”
The administrator of WNC AgOptions is WNC Communities, a non-profit organization that has been supporting agriculture in the region since 1947. WNC Communities provides a unique forum for leaders in western North Carolina to carry out innovative programs to improve the quality of life for rural communities, as well as managing programs to enhance the agriculture and forestry sectors.
“WNC Communities is honored to be the administrator of this annual funding opportunity designed to support farmers in their quest to try new techniques or implement innovative farming practices,” said Jennifer Ferre, Executive Director of WNC Communities. “In the past year, we were impressed by our grantees’ ability to adapt and change business models to accommodate the new conditions of the pandemic. The support from the NC TTFC allowed us to assist in their successes. This is evidence that WNC AgOptions strengthens our agricultural community, ultimately benefiting us all.”
Since 2004, WNC AgOptions has awarded over 600 farm projects more than $3.5 million.
Members of the WNC AgOptions steering committee include: representatives from N.C. Cooperative Extension, N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services–Marketing Division, WNC Communities, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and other leaders in agribusiness. For more information, see the following: WNC Agricultural Options: www.wncagoptions.org; N.C. Cooperative Extension Centers: www.ces.ncsu.edu; N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission: www.tobaccotrustfund.org; WNC Communities: www.wnccommunities.org.