Farm grantees show resilience in the face of COVID

WNC AgOptions grantees receive $219,000 for farm projects

ASHEVILLE, N.C.—Farmers in western North Carolina are receiving support to expand, diversify and modify operations in the midst of a pandemic. WNC Agricultural Options awarded 38 farm businesses a total of $219,000 in $3,000 and $6,000 grants. Funded projects reflect the resiliency of WNC farmers as they adapt operations and respond to the dynamics of a world changed by COVID-19.

Three of the farm business received $3,000 and 35 received $6,000. N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has been WNC AgOptions’ sole funder since the program’s first grant cycle in 2004.

“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, even in the face of a global pandemic.”

In spring of 2020 as the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding, Saturnia Farm in Haywood County started a plant delivery service between Waynesville and Asheville. An immediate and overwhelming hit during the spring, demand kept up throughout the year and customers requested to make this service permanent. To do that, farm owners Sarah Coury and Ben Pick are purchasing a used cargo van to up-fit it for nursery, flower and farm goods deliveries. “In the 2020 season we saw a dramatic increase in nursery plant sales, directly related to offering delivery,” said Sarah.  “In 202l, with increased delivery capacity, promotion of the service through a website, and an online ordering system, we anticipate increasing those profits by 50% or more, just in plant sales.”

After COVID-19 negatively impacted agritourism revenue and sales of shiitake mushrooms, lamb and other products to restaurants, Susan Epps Ward of Brothers on Farms in Clay County decided to expand her product line to include shelf-stable, freeze-dried culinary and medicinal mushrooms, greenhouse-grown figs, garlic and seasonal vegetables for use in health supplements and value-added food items. She is building a tiny-home structure on the farm that will be used as a farm store and commercial kitchen, and plans to purchase a large freeze-drying machine, commercial grinder and packaging equipment and supplies to launch her line of freeze-dried products. Susan sees opportunity in this diversification and said, “I see the freeze-dried food industry growing exponentially in the next few years, and with my husband’s chef background, I foresee us creating new products, such as instant soup blends with a variety of vegetables ready to use by just adding water. This avenue has unlimited potential.”

In Henderson County, Pressley Farms sold the majority of their 2020 harvest of strawberries via Facebook to retail customers who picked up at the farm. To meet this new customer demand, while also being able to fulfill their wholesale accounts, the Pressley’s will be scaling up production by adding 6,000 additional strawberry plugs and purchasing equipment to mechanize bed laying for increased efficiency. Adam Pressley says that making decisions to increase the sustainability of the farm is their most important goal. “Many of our customers, both wholesale and retail are excited about the strawberries that we grow,” said Adam.  “The decision to expand our production is a result of feedback from our customer base. Having more strawberries to sell to our established markets, as well as potential customers, equates to higher sales, which should impact profits, which equates to solidifying the longevity of our family farm, which is a pursuit that has no end.”

“N.C. Cooperative Extension is excited to be a part of a program that is making such impressive impacts in the agricultural community,” said Ross Young, Madison County Extension Director and WNC AgOptions steering committee leader. “Agriculture is a thriving and ever-changing economic engine in western North Carolina with new enterprises and creative ideas emerging daily. WNC AgOptions plays a crucial role in helping many of these farmers fulfill a dream that may not be attainable otherwise.”

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, as well as managing programs to enhance the agriculture and forestry sectors.

“WNC Communities is honored to be the administrator of this annual funding opportunity designed to support farmers in their quest to try new techniques or implement innovative farming practices,” said Jennifer Ferre, Executive Director of WNC Communities. “In the past year, we were impressed by our grantees ability to adapt and change business models to accommodate the new conditions of the pandemic. The support from the NC TTFC allowed us to assist in their successes. This is evidence that WNC AgOptions strengthens our agricultural community, ultimately benefiting us all.”

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.

CLICK HERE FOR A LIST OF 2021 GRANTEES