Federal and state money is available to help Southwestern North Carolina farmers flourish through a new three-year grant program called Empowering Mountain Food Systems, said Project Director Laura Lauffer.
“Our goal is to improve the regional food system through education, entrepreneurship and infrastructure,” Lauffer said. “Really, to narrow that down even more — increasing farm and food business income.”
Lauffer appeared before the Haywood County Board of Commissioners Dec. 16 to provide an overview of the Empowering Mountain Food Systems program, which is sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission, North Carolina State University, Cherokee Preservation Foundation and Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
“We want to help farmers see their farms as businesses,” Lauffer said. “A lot of farmers go into farming because they don’t want to be crunching numbers, but we’re making the point, ‘let us help you track your costs, and your expenses and figure out what things make sense for you.’”
Ten objectives are guiding the program, which includes an array of services, scholarships, funding opportunities and other support for local farmers in the counties of Haywood, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain, as well as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“We are thrilled to bring this funding to the region,” Lauffer said. “We just finished our regional food assessment, we’re going to be doing regional training.”
Haywood County has the most farms, acres of farmland and market outlets for farm products of any county in the region, according to the program’s final assessment document.
Starting in January, research will be conducted in the area by the N.C. State Extension Tourism program, with the objective of learning how to link agritourism with the growing outdoor and natural product industry, Lauffer said.
“We have a big focus on agritourism in the region, which y’all are doing a really fine job regionwide,” Lauffer said. “Haywood is a stellar example of that.”
There are interest-free loans available to farmers, as well as cost-sharing grants to purchase equipment, Lauffer said. Additionally, up to $3,000 is available to support producers who want to take a product from idea to shelf.
“We’ll take them all the way through in getting that product out there on the market,” Lauffer said. “What are the regulatory issues, what are the nutrition label issues, what are the food safety issues, or the bargaining issues, what are the processing issues?”
The Blue Ridge Food Ventures commercial kitchen is a program partner allowing those products to be developed, as well as local community colleges and their small business centers, including Haywood Community College.
Through the community college, farmers can seek assistance with web and graphic design, to help better advertise their farms and products, with some of those design costs covered by the program, Lauffer said.
Five paid part-time apprenticeship programs are available for college students, including one position at Sustainabillies farm in Canton, where help has been requested with marketing and web design, Lauffer said.
Advanced business services are also available beyond the HCC Small Business Center. Empowering Mountain Food Systems can help with both costs and legal aid associated with becoming an LLC, or hiring an accountant, Lauffer said.
Through Empowering Mountain Food Systems, two Haywood County Schools nutrition directors were funded to attend a farm-to-school conference in Raleigh this September, fitting in with part of the program’s goal to source more local foods in schools, Lauffer said.
Working with the state program called N.C. Farmlink, Lauffer said Empowering Mountain Food Systems hopes to help connect would-be farmers with unused farmland.
“This idea is if a farmer has land that is no longer in production and they don’t want to sell it for another purpose, then there’s another farmer that comes from the other end, who wants to start farming, but he doesn’t have the assets to buy land,” Lauffer said. “We bring those two together to keep that farm in production, and we handle those legal costs.”
Two full-time N.C. Extension specialized agents, Lauffer and Lisa Gonzalez, have moved from Raleigh to the Southwestern corner of North Carolina to see the program through.
“With this project, there’s lots of work we can do in agriculture, but this project is really focusing on increasing farmer income,” Lauffer said. “We’re not looking at anybody’s books, but we want to know what percentage of increase you have because of this participation.”
Empowering Mountain Food Systems is a three-year program, and more information can be found online at https://cefs.ncsu.edu/food-system-initiatives/emfs-empowering-mountain-food-systems/.
“We’re also interested in helping with the bigger picture,” Lauffer said. “The food assessment shows that a food hub probably is not a good idea for the region, but potentially a grower cooperative, if some growers want to get together, pool their resources and supply a hospital, or a university, we’re very interested in helping that process legally, or with equipment.”
Commissioner Tommy Long said farmers often tell him they would like to see a meat processing facility opened nearby, because the locations closest to Haywood County are a decent drive from home, and Chairman Kevin Ensley commended the idea of the grant program.
“I’m thrilled to be here. I moved up here from Raleigh, and it’s wonderful,” Lauffer said. “We’ve got some good work up ahead of us, and so we’re asking you to help share the good news.”