A Strategy for Sustaining Henderson County Agricultural Communities

Project Overview

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2004: $8,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Lori Sand
Henderson County Planning Department


  • Fruits: apples, general tree fruits
  • Vegetables: beans, cucurbits, peppers, tomatoes
  • Additional Plants: ornamentals, trees
  • Animals: bovine


  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, workshop
  • Sustainable Communities: infrastructure analysis, partnerships, public participation, urban/rural integration, employment opportunities, social capital, social networks, community development

    Proposal abstract:


    Agriculture is important in Henderson County but our farming communities are threatened.
    -Old apple varieties are less popular and processors are leaving.
    -Dairy farms are closing.
    -Agricultural land is facing rapid urbanization.

    -Agriculture is broadly supported in our county.
    -Our agricultural community is well organized.
    -We have a reputation for excellent agricultural products – particularly apples, tomatoes and nursery stock.
    -The Henderson County Comprehensive Plan will allow us to coordinate policies and actions to sustain our agricultural communities.

    -A common understanding of the state of our agriculturally based communities.
    -An integrated plan to sustain our agricultural industry and the rural communities that depend on it.
    -Actions by many organizations and individuals that will make our agricultural industry sustainable – economically, socially, and environmentally.

    -A background document on the state of agriculture in our county.
    -Four “listening” sessions around the county.
    -A draft plan based on broad community input.
    -A final plan for consideration by our Board of County Commissioners.
    -Actions to implement the plan well beyond the project period.

    Henderson County is a network of rural communities built on agriculture but facing change both in agricultural markets and in rapid urban development. Our community is willing to act but we need to coordinate our actions. SARE support will allow us to accommodate growth and to help make our agricultural communities sustainable.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    Henderson County has a long tradition as an agricultural community, being one of the largest apple-producing counties in the country, but our farming communities are threatened. The Rome and Delicious varieties that long sustained our apple industry are falling out of favor with consumers. Major processors like Gerber left the area.

    Hendersonville was named by Places Rated Almanac as the best place in the country to retire. Retirees, in-migration and second home development are competing for land with agricultural enterprises. Our broad river valleys are well suited to agriculture but also for residential development.

    Our community also has significant agricultural assets. The moderate climate of our area is well suited to greenhouse production and woody ornamental production is growing also. Our community is ideally situated on major transportation routes (I-26 and nearby I-40 and I-85) that will allow us to serve the eastern seaboard with our agricultural products. Our elevation places our market window behind other southern growers but allows our season to extend further into the summer for crops like greens and tomatoes.

    The agricultural community in Western North Carolina and in Henderson County is well organized. Apple and tomato growers – two of the larger commodities produced in the region – are represented by active commodity associations. Horticultural producers, dairy products producers, and meat producers are similarly represented by active organizations.

    Other organizations that support agriculture, such as the Farm Bureau, are also active in the region. Governmental organizations such as the Henderson County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Cooperative Extension Service, the NC Department of Agriculture, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service continue to be active in supporting an agricultural economy in transition. Educational institutions support area farms. Warren Wilson College offers a sustainable agriculture curriculum, as does the Asheville-Buncombe Community College just to our north. Blue Ridge Community College in our community of Flat Rock is the site of the Organic Grower School that draws more than 500 attendees from surrounding counties and states.

    Organizations and programs focused specifically upon sustainable agricultural practices are well organized and active in the region also. Carolina Organic Growers, Inc., a farmer-owned produce marketing cooperative is located a few miles north of the county at the WNC Farmers Market. The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) supports local farmers with a “buy local” campaign and an organization that supports tailgate markets across the region. ASAP also provides support to conventional growers that want to convert to organic methods on some or all of their land. The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Mountains Chapter is very active with farm tours and in-school education programs. Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (a land trust operating in our area), in cooperation with numerous partners, is developing an innovative, market-based program intended to permanently protect key farmland acreage, to keep those sites under active agricultural operation, and to free those sites from the development-driven land prices that make farmland inaccessible to new and expanding farmers.

    An initiative by ASAP and the Cooperative Extension Service resulted in major production of organic apples on several farms in Henderson County. Researchers in the local Cooperative Extension office, at Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, and at NCSU in Raleigh assisted local growers in developing an apple spray program using all organically approved materials. While organic spray costs are higher for organic orchards, the return per bushel is substantially better than for conventionally grown apples and dramatically better than the return for processing or juice apples. While the organic market is limited, this approach offers promise to Henderson County growers seeking alternatives.

    Our apple orchards typically contain mature plantings of older varieties like Rome and Delicious but adventurous growers are experimenting with boutique varieties, high-density plantings on dwarfing rootstock, cold storage to extend the season, and value-added enterprises like apple chips. A local grower, Greg Nix, was named Grower of the Year recently by American Fruit Grower magazine for his leadership in the industry by upgrading his orchard to new varieties and by exploring value-added opportunities for his farm. One challenge that we face is spreading this spirit of innovation to other growers and enabling younger growers to enter production as older growers continue to retire.

    Most county residents support a strong agricultural economy as a basis for our rural agricultural communities but uncertainty exists about how to provide that support. An integrated plan is needed that provides a framework for short-term strategic actions as well as longer-term support for our agricultural economy. Many organizations have a role to play, from agricultural advisors, to commodity groups, to environmental organizations, to community clubs, to economic development organizations, to local governments, to individual consumers. We believe that the plan that we propose below will provide that framework for action.


    -A background document on the state of agriculture in our county - We need information that is widely accepted as a basis for action. Where does each rural community and each segment of our agricultural industry stand? What are the trends? What is the likely future without local action?

    -Four “listening” sessions around our county - Some of the best ideas are likely to come from farmers and from the rural communities that are at risk. We envision an open process with broad opportunity to participate.

    -A draft plan based on broad community input - We will pull together what we have heard at community sessions and in individual meetings with key organizations into a common framework for action by organizations and individuals.

    -A final plan for consideration by our Board of County Commissioners - Portions of the proposed plan may be suitable for adoption as a portion of our County Comprehensive Plan. An adopted plan provides the basis for sustained government support.

    -Actions to implement the plan well beyond the project period - Strategic actions will be identified for the next two to five years. Longer-range initiatives will also be set forth.


    We assembled four collaborators into a working group for this project – two representing local government and the community development disciplines and two representing agricultural perspectives. The proposed project manager works for Henderson County government, which is responsible for land use planning and economic development in the rural communities that this proposal addresses. Land-of-Sky Regional Council is a four-county development district that provides planning and economic development services to member governments including Henderson County. The county Natural Resources Conservation Service manages a variety of programs to support environmental stewardship by farmers in these communities. The county Cooperative Extension Service is actively involved in sustainable agriculture including support to some of the first organic apple orchards in the Southeast. Both of the planning representatives on the working group are also farmers. The agricultural representatives are in close communication with a wide variety of agricultural interests. These four organizations will form a project working group. We expect this mix of disciplines and contacts to be particularly effective in accomplishing our objectives.


    -Profile of Agriculture in Henderson County
    Everyone has an opinion about what is happening to agriculture. We propose to add a basis of factual material to identify trends as clearly as possible. We will also project those trends into the future to see what the implications of inaction may be. For example, loss of our agricultural land base will preclude many options for the future.

    -Public Input
    We envision four public meetings in four agricultural communities across the county. We will present the agricultural profile document with recent trends and future projections. We will arrange the format of the meeting to solicit suggestions both from people that like to speak to groups and from those that prefer individual conversations. We will also go directly to a variety of individuals and groups that are important to the future of our agricultural economy.

    -Draft Plan
    The information gathered by all these methods will be assembled in a draft plan that will be presented for public review. A revised document will be presented to the Board of Henderson County Commissioners and perhaps other groups for their consideration as a part of our county comprehensive plan. Upon adoption, this plan will constitute one of the first of its kind in North Carolina. The proposed plan will coordinate governmental and non-governmental actions to recognize our changing agricultural industry and the changing demographics of our county. We are well positioned for a vibrant and sustainable economic future for our rural agricultural communities but action is needed to seize the many opportunities that exist and to blunt the threats that exist. The plan we propose will provide a widely accepted “road map” to a future that is sustainable – economically, socially and environmentally.

    Outreach Plan:

    Our outreach plan consists of two phases. The first phase is to ensure that our entire community is aware of the planning process that we propose. Publicity for the process and for individual meetings will extend to specifically targeted organizations and to the general public. SARE will be credited with support for our project in the local outreach phase.

    When our project is completed we will post the project report and final plan on the web sites of each organization represented by a working group member. We will write a series of articles for trade publications in the agricultural, planning, economic development, and local government interest areas. Working group members will be available to speak at state and national conferences upon request. SARE support will also be recognized in this second phase of our outreach plan.

    Timetable of Activities (2004):

    -January – Grant award and working group agrees on a specific work plan for each organization. Key organizations are approached about active participation in the process and a report is completed on the state of agriculture in Henderson County.

    -February – Four community meetings are held in rural communities to solicit public suggestions.

    -March – The working group meets with representatives of agricultural and community development organizations to solicit their ideas.

    -April– Strategic and longer-range action plans are drafted and reviewed by the working group.

    -May– A public meeting is held on the draft plan and a final plan is drafted.

    -June – The Board of Henderson County Commissioners considers the plan for adoption.

    -July – August – More detailed appendices are developed based on Commissioner comments and on suggestions from other organizations.

    -September – Outreach materials are prepared and distributed.

    -Fall 2004 and beyond - Adoption by other organizations and implementation of the plan.

    -December – A final report is submitted to SARE.

    SARE Funds Requested (by Category)

    Estimated Local Contributions (by Category)*
    Labor (Collaborators)-$9600
    Labor (Other Organizations)-$8400
    * Estimated in-kind services based on a uniform hourly rate of $30.

    Consistency with Southern SARE Objectives:

    Following are some characteristics of our proposal that appear to match SARE objectives as stated in the request for proposals.

    -Connections between agricultural and community development interests

    -Civic engagement in local government policy making and strategic planning

    -Making connections between farm activities and off-farm activities in rural communities

    -Activities that support long term development plans

    -Local government efforts to promote balanced discussions of sustainable agriculture and sustainable practices

    -Linking local governments and community organizations to benefit rural agricultural economies

    -Linking sustainable agriculture efforts with rural community development efforts in a common action plan.

    Proposal Applicant – Joshua Freeman:

    Josh Freeman will serve as project manager for this project. He is employed by the Henderson County Planning Department. Among other duties, Josh serves as the Project Manager for the Henderson County Comprehensive Plan. He serves on the Henderson Farmland Fund working group that is seeking to develop a revolving fund for farmland preservation, and serves is a member of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy Land Committee. Josh holds a Baccalaureate degree in Environmental Studies from Warren Wilson College, and a Masters Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). He is a member of the American Planning Association. Josh produces beef, goats, fruits and vegetables on a family farm in neighboring Transylvania County using sustainable practices. His family farm recently won the title of the Transylvania County and the Mountain Region N.C. Soil and Water Conservation Farm Family for 2003, and is in the running for the same title at the State level. Josh has extensive experience in project management and will be supported by the County Finance Department in ensuring the fiscal integrity of SARE grant funds.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.