The Stecoah Entrepreneurship and Agri-Tourism project is ongoing and was successful during the grant period as it met the goals of providing entrepreneurs with facilities and training for value-added food production and provided tourists with educational opportunties through classes and special events.
The overall effect was to help sustain the agricultural community by providing awareness of and demand for farm-fresh products whether used used for value-added products, retail sale or in a dining experience.
The purpose of this project is to improve local and regional economic opportunities while simultaneously preserving our Appalachian cultural heritage through food-based entrepreneurship and agri-tourism opportunities.
Historically, many Western North Carolinians relied on small family farms for their livelihood and more recently, as a source of supplemental income. The decline of tobacco production, loss of manufacturing jobs and lack of business support services has degraded the quality of life for our area residents. Many of these families are looking for ways to increase returns on their farm-based operations, often with the desire to develop their own businesses in production and marketing of food products. However, many farmers and/or food entrepreneurs lack the necessary skills to even begin the process.
Stecoah Valley Food Ventures addresses these needs and offers solutions for the tree major barriers to entry into a value-added agricultural businehss by providing the facilities, training and specialized services needed to produce value-added and other agricultural products. Technical support provides equipment training, assistance in complying with food and drug regulations, professional product development and package design. Marketing and business development services include sales/marketing support, business plan development and small business financing support provided by project partners.
Tourism – Food Classes and Special Events:
In addition to the need to support local entrepreneurial endeavors, there exists a need to provide opportunities for those not interested in participating in a value-added food business. Tourism is growing exponentially and offers many opportunities for local residents. Cultural heritage tourists are often looking for educational opportunities, yet such opportunities are sorely lacking in the local area. The project will address this need by providing classes and other events in a variety of food and food-related subjects and settings. All of these events will help preserve Appalachian foods and foodways while supporting the local agricultural community.
The project includes three major objectives to help improve local economic conditions.
1. To provide farmers, growers and food entrepreneurs the tools necessary to profitably engage in a food-based small business, i.e. to produce and sell value-added agricultural products or nature-based products.
2. To provide cultural/heritage and agri-tourists food and nature based educational opportunities through kitchen cooking, typical classroom and outdoor classroom experiences.
3. To provide cultural/heritage and agri-tourists other opportunities to experience food-based or agriculture related activities through special events such as the Appalachian Dinner Series, Harvest Festival, Country Fair and other special events.
Objective #1 – To provide farmers, growers and food entrepreneurs the tools necessary to profitably engage in a food-based small business, i.e. to produce and sell value-added agricultural or nature-based products.
The Center has as a part of its facility a state-of-the-art shared use commercial kitchen facility to meet the needs of the local agricultural community. Originally conceived and designed primarily to assist farmers affected by the loss of tobacco crops, the Stecoah Kitchen has grown and learned more about its users since opening. It is now clear to us that some farmers prefer only to work the land, leaving the production of value-added products to others. Here the emerging food-entrepreneur plays a valuable role by creating new value-added products to meet the demand of many niche markets. Whether produced by the farmer or the food-entrepreneur, this project provides the assistance needed to overcome the most common barriers to beginning a food-based small business. This project has for the past two years and will continue in the future to provide entrepreneurial assistance that includes:
a. Facility: Provide access to a FDA/NCDA inspected and local health department food sanitation-graded kitchen facility with proper equipment and trained staff.
b. Technical Training: Provide access to educational opportunities in proper food preparation, sanitation procedures, equipment use and maintenance and other food-based technical issues.
c. General Business/Marketing Training: Provide access to educational opportunities in general business skills, product development, marketing, business plan development, financial and other educational opportunities through our partners.
d. Meeting Room: Provide meeting space used to establish a network group of entrepreneurs, hold classes and workshops and to be available for other public uses.
Although growth has been slow, kitchen users have produced such diverse products as Sassafras Syrup, Ramp Cornmeal Mix, Jams, Cookies and Candies… all using agricultural products and adding to the regional economic base. Additionally, food, sanitation or business related training and services have been provided to over 400 people in the past four years. It is anticipated that this segment of the project will continue to grow as local community members become comfortable with the concept, new ideas flourish and new products are developed.
Objective #2. To provide cultural/heritage and agri-tourists food and nature based educational opportunities through kitchen cooking, typical classroom and outdoor classroom experiences.
Cultural/heritage and agri-tourists are often looking for educational or experiential learning opportunities, however such opportunities are sorely lacking in the local area. This project objective will address this need by providing classes and other educational opportunities in a variety of food and nature-based subjects and settings. The use of classes and other activities provides the student an active, participatory experience… an experience often more meaningful and satisfying than the passive nature of simply attending a lecture, concert or event.
In 2007 we began offering a Culinary Retreat (4-hour class taught by various local chefs) on a monthly basis. These retreats have grown in popularity and are now often at capacity. Recognizing the growing interest in foods and cooking in general, and further recognizing the heritage tourists’ desire for authenticity, in 2008 we began to build on the success of the culinary retreat series with a new Heritage Foods series. Both the traditional cooking classes and the Heritage Foods series will be continued as a part of this project. They will be taught in our commercial kitchen as well as in other venues, such as over the open campfire and at the hearth in an 1880’s farmhouse. They will include such diverse subjects as proper canning/dehydrating procedures, preparing wild edible plants and dutch-oven cooking techniques. All of these classes are educational, fun and focus on the use and preservation of farm-fresh agricultural products.
In addition to cooking classes, the Heritage Foods series includes classes related to other subjects, such as Vegetable & Herb Gardening and Medicinal Plants. These classes will most likely be taught in an “outdoor classroom” setting. The Center’s nature trail and gardens are typically used for these classes. Other classes, such as Seed Saving Techniques, take place in the traditional classroom setting and still other classes may be held off-site at local trails, farms or potteries.
Class length and duration will vary based on complexity of the subject and level of instruction. All of these events will be planned to attract, educate and entertain the cultural/heritage and agri-tourist community. And, as many events will take place in the “off-season” they should help improve local economic conditions year-round.
Objective #3. To provide cultural/heritage and agri-tourists other opportunities to experience food-based or agriculture related activities through special events such as the Appalachian Dinner Series, Country Fair and other special events.
Special events are yet one more way to attract tourists (become a tourist destination) or to encourage the tourist to stay longer and return more often. This project will include several special events for this purpose.
In summer 2009, over 700 satisfied customers attended the popular Appalachian Dinner series. This full meal, prepared in the traditional mountain style featuring fresh local produce, was served each Saturday evening prior to our summer concert events and offered the visitor a truly unique, authentic Appalachian evening. This series will be continued as a part of this project.
The October Harvest Festival includes the Graham County Country Fair – a celebration of mountain foods and foodways that continues the old-time food preservation skills and competitions. In addition to canned and baked goods, the competitions include special categories for fruits, vegetables, quilting and other hand work as well as woodworking. Other special events, such as the Cherokee Days at Stecoah series which offers authentic Cherokee food and entertainment, may also be included in the project. Again, all of these events are planned to attract, educate and entertain the cultural/heritage and agri-tourist community.
Objective #1: Entrepreneurship
Outcome: Provided kitchen facility to 3 food entrepreneurs, 8 growers and 10 community organizations/members. Exposed facility to over 350 people through entrepreneurship, community events and business organizations thus, increasing participants knowledge of SVFV and its available opportunities. In addition to providing the kitchen facility, SVFV also opened a Tailgate Market in 2010 providing a marketplace for 4 farmers, 1 food entrepreneur and 3 artists. The Tailgate Market provided yet another source of supplemental income, improving local economic conditions.
Objective #2: Educational Opportunities
Outcome: Provided educational opportunities to 90 participants in 8 classes offered. Participants learned various foodways such as canning meats, using lard and curing meats, pickling and other subject such as bread making and shitake mushroom growing.
Objective #3: Special Events
Outcome: Provided a total of 15 dinners, festivals and special events to over 2,804 people. Provided an experiential learning opportunity about Appalachian foods and foodways to cultural/heritage tourists and agri-tourists.
Educational & Outreach Activities
All outreach publications are included in the hardcopy of this final report. Other outreach information is listed on our website. www.stecoahvalleycenter.com.
While successful, many farmers and food entrepreneurs have been slow to embrace this new opportunity. In an effort to set an example that will encourage food entrepreneurship, SVFV has its own line of value-added food products and the new Schoolhouse Cafe opened in June, 2011. Both of these examples continue to attract new entrepreneurs to SVFV. Offering value-added products made on the premesis with locally grown fresh ingredients is also another attraction to cultural/heritage and agri-tourists, thus increasing entrepreneurship, tourism and continued support for the agricultural community. The Tailgate Market has been successful by adding yet another opportunity for farmers and growers to sell their products while preserving our Appalachian cultural heritage.
The Heritage Food Series, Culinary Workshops and other special events have provided educational opportunties to attract more cultural/heritage and agri-tourists. These opportunities will continue in the future to teach Appalachian foodways and heritage thus, preserving our culture.
By continuing to expand our programs and offerings, i.e. the new Tailgate Market and Schoolhouse Cafe, we can reach more participants who may be interested in a wider variety of events, programs and products that will support future operations and continue to improve the local economy.
The SARE funding helped the existing SVFV project by continuing its operations and its ability to reach the goal of improving local and regional economic conditions while simultaneously preserving our Appalachian cultural heritage through food-based entrepreneurship and agri-tourism opportunities.
The funding was also used to leverage and help obtain additional grants for other Center programs.
The largest contribution was not a hand out, but a hand up to farmers, growers and food entrepreneurs seeking to improve their quality of life and preserving their family farming traditions.
Since SVFV opened in 2005, we have learned that sustainability of this project based solely on food entrepreneurs is unlikely. However, it has been proven that by expanding our programs and offerings, we can reach more participants who may be interested in a wider variety of events, programs and products at SVFV.