By Natasha Anderson
Since June 2016 the Rural Food Business Assistance Project (RFBAP) has been helping farmers and other local food businesses grow in North Carolina’s seven westernmost counties. From the start, RFBAP focused on regional strategies to help develop markets and improve demand, but what became more apparent as project partners worked with communities was the importance of highlighting the vibrancy and size of the region’s existing local food scene.
“It’s very easy to buy into a narrative of decline if you don’t see what’s going on,” says Noah Wilson, RFBAP’s western region coordinator and president of Emergent Opportunities Inc. “Farming is not an easy business and it’s definitely changing, but there are a lot of success stories and a lot of excited young people. We need to bridge the disconnect.”
RFBAP is part of a larger statewide project led by the NC Rural Center, with partners including the Southwestern Commission, North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Southwestern NC Resource Conservation & Development Council and three community college Small Business Centers. It has three core goals: connecting agricultural resource providers and small business centers to provide comprehensive and coordinated support for agribusiness entrepreneurs; directly assisting them through scholarships, support and coaching; and developing strategies for agriculture and local food business promotion and assistance.
According to Wilson, sharing what is working in local foods and agriculture is a key part of meeting those goals. “Telling these stories helps market the farms and businesses where the successes are happening, inspires young people to go into food and farming and helps elders who are still recovering from the market shocks of the past 20-30 years see the abundant opportunities that exist today,” he says.
Through a series of meetings covering 14 rural communities, nearly 500 local food and agriculture businesses were identified and several dozen success stories were shared. “In every meeting, participants were surprised by the vibrancy and size of their community’s local food scene,” says Wilson. “People would look at the lists of businesses they’d just created, and admit they’d had no idea there were so many.”
Susan Epps Ward of Hayesville has been steadily growing Brothers on Farms in Clay County since 2010. The farm, which specializes in grass-fed lamb and shiitake mushrooms, has more than doubled its income since 2014 and continues to add more specialty crops and implement strategies such as gravity-fed waterers to cut down on costs. “RFBAP and the Tri-County Community College Small Business Center are great local resources,” says Ward. “They have allowed me to brush up on some computer skills and record-keeping methods in order to better track my spending and stay in touch with my community through social media and website integration.”
Steve and Frances Juhlin of Candy Mountain Farm in Murphy grow a variety of produce, support a bee colony and have a 40-plusmember Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) program. Additionally, they supply seasonal produce to Restaurant Lorene in Young Harris, GA. They used RFBAP’s scholarship funds to increase their knowledge and grow new products for their CSA and restaurant clients. “We chose to attend the Organic Growers School,” says Frances Juhlin. ”We wanted to learn more about mushrooms and my husband was interested in growing hemp. This gave us some answers to our questions and helped us determine what’s viable for our farm.”
As RFBAP continues, partners expect to see many more successes. Even Debra Sloan, agribusiness development and aquaculture specialist for the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who was initially skeptical of the project, is optimistic. “Over the years, we’ve tried a lot of local food projects and not all of them worked,” she says. “But this one has turned out to be a smashing success. And this is just the start of it.”
Learn more at ncruralcenter.org.