Diversifying farmers in western North Carolina are receiving support to offset the risk of expanding and trying new ventures. WNC Agricultural Options awarded 33 farm businesses a total of $177,000 in $3,000 and $6,000 grants on Thursday at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River. Farm projects include a poultry house conversion to an aquaponics greenhouse, cold storage for a multi-plot urban farm, and improved Fraser Fir seedling production to deter root disease.
Seven of the farm business received $3,000, and 26 received $6,000. The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is the exclusive financial supporter of WNC AgOptions, which aims to build sustainable farming communities in the mountain region by providing resources directly to farmers.
“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.”
After raising broiler chickens for 13 years, Paula and Dale Boles of JB Farms in Caldwell County are ending their contract with poultry companies and converting their chicken houses to greenhouses to grow tilapia and a variety of vegetables. Using an aquaponics system, fish and plants grow in symbiosis since fish provide fertilizer through their waste and the plants’ nutrient uptake cleans the water for the fish.
“We realize this first house will involve a lot of trial and error, and it may take several growing seasons to learn this new business before we are operating as efficiently as possible,” Paula Doles said. In the meantime, income from 25 acres of soybeans helps pay for the new venture’s expenses.
Sunil Patel of Patchwork Urban Farms in Asheville is adding cold storage space to his multi-plot urban farm to improve the efficiency and marketability of his Community Supported Agriculture venture. He is renovating a root cellar to be a walk-in cooler for produce storage using CoolBot technology, which can transform a room cooled with an air conditioning unit into a cold storage facility.
“Being a multi-plot farm, the logistics of harvesting from multiple sites all in one day become difficult with a limited labor supply,” Patel said. “With centralized cold storage, we will be able to harvest things while doing general farm work at sites rather than having to make special trips for harvest. Cold storage will also allow us to lengthen the available storage time between sales.”
The walk-in cooler is at Pearson Garden, owned by Bountiful Cities Project, a non-profit organization that is incubating Patchwork. Patel farms a total of one acre, spread over 10 sites within Asheville. He aims to integrate growers, landowners, workers and neighborhoods into a viable food system.
Rodney Buchanan of Buck’s Tree Farm in Mitchell County is trying a container method of producing Fraser Fir transplants for his Christmas tree farm since the traditional line-out bed method, in which seedlings grow in a bed until they are large enough to be transplanted to the field, has caused root disease issues. Ever since the heavy hurricane rains of 2004, many Christmas tree farmers in the region have had trouble with root disease in their seedlings.
“The project will overcome that problem by allowing us to grow the seedling in a disease-free soilless media,” Buchanan said. “The project will allow the farm to have a dependable transplant source for years into the future.”
Since 2004, WNC AgOptions has awarded $2.1 million to 456 farm projects. “The primary objective of this program is to help ease the financial risk farmers face as they try something new for their farm,” said Ross Young, Madison County Extension Director and WNC AgOptions steering committee leader. “Not all of the projects have been successful over the past 11 years, but many have been. Those successes inspire other farmers, fostering exponential growth and benefit from the investment.
“A $3,000 or $6,000 grant to one farmer has the potential of impacting several other farmers in that community by demonstrating an idea that works. That’s one of the benefits of this program that is difficult to measure but makes a significant impact in the overall agricultural industry.”
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 and to enhance the agricultural economy.
“WNC Communities is extremely pleased to partner with the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and the N.C. General Assembly in bringing this assistance to emerging farmers in the western district,” said L.T. Ward, Vice President of WNC Communities. “This program demonstrates the commitment of our legislators to the agricultural community and the Commission. For that, we are indeed grateful.”
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.
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