The purpose of this project is to initiate Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy’s (SAHC) Community Farm and Food Project in Buncombe County, North Carolina. SAHC accepted the donation of a 100-acre working farm in 2010, which serves as the site for this new and innovative project. SARE grant funds were utilized to initiate programs at the farm that will serve beginning farmers and members of low-income communities in the surrounding rural area. This includes a farm business incubator program, a post-harvest and value-added processing facility, and an agricultural-based education center and healthy food access site.
The following describes the background of the problems that each element of this project addresses:
1) Agricultural business incubator for new and beginning farmers: There is high interest in sustainable farming among youth and young adults throughout Buncombe County and the western North Carolina area (WNC). Additionally, there are several institutions in the area offering programs or courses of study in sustainable agriculture and horticulture, as well as many sustainable farms hosting a large number of apprentices. The demand for locally and sustainably grown food in WNC continues to grow, even in hard economic times. Buncombe County’s Agricultural Development and Farmland Protection Plan stated in 2007 that the average county farmer is over 58 years of age, and the conversion of farmland to other uses is rapidly expanding. Due to all of these factors, there is an increasing need for a generation of new farmers in Buncombe and WNC. However, out-of-reach land prices in WNC, high-cost of farm equipment and capital, and the lofty risk involved in starting an agricultural business often prevent prospective farmers from embarking new agricultural enterprises. An incubator farm in the region could provide access to land, equipment, and business training at reduced cost to potential farmers who otherwise lack resources necessary to begin farming. This would allow the new farmer to build his/her business in the start-up phase and eventually afford to continue the venture off-site with the skills necessary to sustain it.
2) Post-harvest and value-added processing facility for local producers: Buncombe County’s 2007 Agricultural Development and Farmland Protection Plan recognized that an initiative to preserve farmland against development will only be successful if there is a corresponding effort to sustain farm profitability, and this was made one of the county’s top priorities for agriculture. Because of the topography of the mountainous WNC region, local farms cannot compete on the large commodity markets dominated by larger, flatter farms. Therefore, it is essential for WNC farms to continue to diversify, find innovative ways to remain profitable, and to be able to sell products directly to local markets. Community supported initiatives to find new, profitable agricultural markets for local farmers (such as value-added processing) have proven to be successful in the region. As funding allows, SAHC’s farm project can support infrastructure necessary for such a facility.
3) Educational and healthy food access site for citizens of low income and rural communities: Despite the growing interest in and availability of sustainably and locally grown food in the WNC region, this fresh food is still not reaching certain communities in the area. A recent study by MANNA FoodBank and Feeding America (“Map the Meal Gap: Child Food Insecurity 2011”) revealed that 29.9 percent of children under the age of 18 in WNC and 27.5 percent in Buncombe County were food insecure in 2009. A study released in March of 2011 by the Food Research and Action Center rated the Asheville metropolitan statistical area (comprising Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties of WNC) as the seventh worst in the country in terms of people’s basic ability to put food on the table. According to a 2010 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, U.S. childhood obesity has tripled since 1980 – 16.9% of children ages 2 to 19 are considered to be obese. With childhood obesity a growing national issue, lack of outdoor activity and lack of knowledge about growing and preparing healthy foods among youth today have been attributed to the problem. With our farm project, SAHC aims to partner with organizations and provide its farm site as an agricultural and environmental education center for youth in the region. The overarching goals of SAHC’s Community Farm and Food Project are to utilize strategic partnerships, promote local food production as a catalyst for economic growth in the rural areas of Buncombe County, train developing farmers to be able to fill the gap of those reaching retirement age, keep our valuable farmland productive, and boost the quality of life for rural communities in need through on-farm education and access to healthy food.
SAHC’s Community Farm and Food Project will develop over several years, but SCIG funds for 2013 were focused on implementation of the incubator farm and development of the farm trail for educational purposes. Some planning of the processing facility and access to healthy food aspects of this project took place in 2013. Objectives set for the year 2013 of this project included:
1. Farm Infrastructure Planning and Development – Firming up the farm plan, research of additional funding sources, planning and implementing farm and infrastructure improvements that were necessary, equipment acquisition, and research into construction of the post-harvest and value-added processing facility.
2. Incubator Program Development – This included creation of policies and procedures for the incubator farm and forming an application process for the incubator. It also included collaboration with local agricultural agencies to develop a technical training program for the participating incubator farmers based on sustainable agriculture practices. Lastly, this step included collaborating with other local organizations to create marketing opportunities for the participant farmers.
3. Education and Food Access Site Development – Work with partner organizations to develop an educational farm trail. Collaborate with other organizations already working with low income and rural communities to bring groups out for an on-farm educational experience. Develop partnerships with these organizations to provide food to these communities once it is being produced at the farm.
4. Incubator Pilot Program Development – It was a goal to have the planning and infrastructure ready to provide land and equipment to at least two beginning farm operators by the end of this grant term.
During the term of this grant (January – December 2013), SAHC’s half-time project manager was responsible for performing the following tasks for each objective:
1. Farm Infrastructure Planning and Development
A. Farm Plan – Finalize the farm plan, which will guide all of the ground improvements that are needed on the farm to develop the incubator program. Research additional funding to support operations of the farm.
B. Farm Improvements – Planning and implementing infrastructure improvements needed on the farm to develop the incubator program such as fencing, structures, vegetation management, irrigation system, livestock watering system, and others. This step included bidding and hiring contractors to do the work and will be dependent on funding.
C. Equipment Acquisition – Researching and purchasing all of the equipment necessary to provide to the participant incubator farmers, allowing for the most cost-effective and efficient use of equipment by the farmers. This step was dependent on funding.
D. Processing Facility Development – Researching options for constructing a post-harvest and value-added processing facility that can be made available for incubator farmers as well as off-site farmers of the region. Developing plans and retaining estimates for construction. Researching funding opportunities to support construction of the facility.
2. Incubator Program Development
A. Incubator Farm Policies – Develop operational procedures and guidance policies for the incubator farm based on other existing and successful models. Evaluate staffing needs for the incubator program to determine the funding necessary for continued operation of the incubator.
B. Incubator Application Process – Develop an application process for participant incubator farmers to ensure that those with serious interest in pursuing sustainable operations are accepted onto the farm.
C. Technical Assistance Program Development – Collaborate with partner organizations such as NC Cooperative Extension (NCCE), Buncombe Soil and Water Conservation District (BSWCD), USDA NRCS, and Organic Growers School (OGS) to develop a technical training course for participant farmers.
D. Marketing Resources Development – Collaborate with local area markets and non-profit agencies to create marketing opportunities for the participating incubator farmers. Research other modes of marketing for the farmers such as a collective CSA
3. Education and Food Access Site Development
A. Educational Trail – Hold four work days with partner organizations to construct an interpretive trail and erect at least two interpretive signs. Establish the trail to bring local youth of rural and low-income communities out to the farm for an agricultural education experience. Collaborate with partner Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) to bring these groups out to the farm and utilize the trail.
B. Food Access – Collaborate with partner organizations that can connect food grown at the farm with citizens of rural and low-income communities. Potential avenues for this include through a food pantry, a subsidized CSA program, a local discount food market, or other non-profit entity with markets already established in the communities. The food would come from a portion of the incubator farmers’ bounty, or a plot on the farm designated for this purpose, or a combination of both.
4. Incubator Pilot Program Development
A. Farmer Recruitment – Utilize the established application process to recruit participant incubator farmers for the initial pilot phase. Work with applicants to establish the right combination of agricultural operations and acreages that the farm can support. Collaborate with the farmers on operational procedures and policies for the farm once production begins. Aim to have at least two incubator farmers on the ground at the farm by the beginning of 2014. More farmers may be accepted if infrastructure and funding allows.
Funds from this grant allowed the Project Manager to complete many of the tasks listed in the Methods section above. We were able to finalize the farm plan and apply for additional funding to complete some of the necessary farm infrastructure improvements and equipment purchases in support of the incubator program. We have been able to fund and hire contractors for the fence work, irrigation system, livestock watering system and other farm improvements. This step was crucial in being able to support beginning farmers and have them producing on the farm. The Project Manager also was able to research potential ways to renovate an existing farm building into the value-added processing facility and to get general cost estimates for this element of the project. The Project Manager will be pursuing specific funding opportunities to help pay for this next phase of the project.
In development of the incubator program, funds from this grant gave the staff capacity needed to create an application process and operating procedures for the beginning farmer incubator program. The Project Manager extensively researched other successful incubator programs across the country to create procedures for our incubator. The Project Manager also determined that more staff time would be necessary to fully implement the program. We were able to leverage funds from this grant to raise more money and hire a Community Farm and Food Project Assistant. The Assistant has proven to be crucial in helping to implement the program. The Project Manager was also able to meet with partners Buncombe Cooperative Extension and Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to explore ways to provide continued education and training as well as access to markets for the participant incubator farmers.
Funds from this grant allowed us to establish the application process and procedures, as well as to make farm improvement necessary to implement the beginning farmer incubator program. We are now poised to begin the farmer recruitment process and have our first farmers working the land in 2014.
As a key step in establishing the farm as an educational site for diverse members of the community, we were able to complete the educational trail and signage on the farm with funds from this grant. Through our partner Green Opportunities, we employed a crew of individuals from local low-income communities to construct the trail.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Funds from this grant allowed SAHC to create outreach materials to promote the project to the community. The SAHC website was updated to include a whole new section highlighting the Community Farm and Food Project. An informative brochure and trail map was also created to describe the project and the educational trail. Several articles were included in SAHC’s quarterly newsletter to introduce the project to the general public and organizational members. We were also able to create five educational outreach signs for the farm trail and hold one large public event at the farm to promote the project.
Thanks to the support form this grant, SAHC was able to secure additional funds for 2014 to continue to develop the program, which will include several opportunities for outreach and education. This support will further our work at the site on sustainable agriculture practices and will allow SAHC to impart knowledge about these practices to more people in the future.
As a result of this grant, we have accomplished a great deal in developing the beginning farmer incubator program and establishing the farm as a land-based education and training site for diverse members of the community. The grant allowed us to begin recruiting farmers for the incubator program, and we now have two beginning farmers that have passed through the application process and are poised to begin their operations on the farm in the 2014 growing season.
We were able to hold over seven partnership work and volunteer days to construct the educational trail. We temporarily hired a crew of six folks with barriers to employment from low-income communities and had over 50 youth volunteers participate in the trail construction. As a result of the trail being completed, we were able to host one educational event at the farm in which over 40 farmers, natural resource managers, agency personnel, and local landowners came to learn about sustainable agriculture and community food production. The grant also allowed us to design and construct five educational signs and a map for the trail that highlight sustainable agriculture methods and environmental health.
The farm trail has also attracted other partners that are eager to utilize the site for their outdoor educational purposes. Muddy Sneakers, an organization that provides curriculum-based outdoor education to fifth graders, has plans to utilize the trail for their field days. Over 75 youth from The French Broad River Academy, a school that provides outdoor educational experiences for middle school boys, also came to the farm on several volunteer days to utilize the trail and learn about agriculture and the environment.
The long-term goals for this project include providing an ongoing incubator program for beginning farmers, creating a value-added processing facility to innovate agricultural businesses, and providing agricultural-based skills training for disadvantaged citizens. This project will help strengthen the agriculture industry of Western North Carolina by training our future farmers of the region to take the place of those reaching retirement age – creating new enterprises for the agricultural economy. We estimate new activity created at the farm during the first phase has the potential to add $200,000-$400,000 to the sector over five years. This project is ongoing and is expected to serve additional beginning farm enterprises in future years over the long-term. The value-added processing facility will also provide opportunities for innovation to new and established farmers to keep agricultural businesses viable. Education and training based on sustainable farming practices will also be a large focus of the farm – promoting environmentally compatible farming methods.
Additionally, the $2-billion WNC tourism industry depends heavily on scenic landscapes created by local farms. This project will train new farmers, which will sustain farming as a viable industry and prevent loss of farmland to development – preserving scenic views for the tourism industry. New agricultural businesses and new successful farmers supported by this project will help keep our valuable farmland productive, preserve our scenic rural areas, support the local food economy, and sustain the local farming heritage – all invaluable to Western North Carolina agriculture and rural communities.