WNC Agricultural Options' 10th annual grant cycle is under way. With funding from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, WNC AgOptions will award a total of $153,000 to diversifying farmers in western North Carolina in 2014. Farmers have until Dec. 13 to submit an application for a $3,000 or $6,000 grant.
"The 2014 funding cycle will represent a decade of service to our agricultural industry through farmer grants, educational seminars and technical assistance," said Ross Young, Madison County Extension Director and WNC AgOptions steering committee leader. "Since 2004, more than 350 farmer grants and several community grants have been awarded. We are extremely grateful to the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission as the sole funder of this program since its inception."
The commission has helped ensure that farmers continue farming during changes in the tobacco industry in the past 25 years.
“The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission works hard to provide benefits to communities affected by changes in the tobacco industry," said William H. (Bill) Teague, chairman of the commission. "The WNC AgOptions program has been consistent and effective in helping western North Carolina farmers carry out innovative and income-producing ideas."
Since 2004, WNC AgOptions has distributed more than $1.6 million to farmers in Western North Carolina who are diversifying their operations. These small grants often turn farms toward profitability, as well as make significant economic impacts in the surrounding communities.
The fruits of the initial investments are often immediate, as new income typically matches the size of the grants in the first year of the projects. Data from 156 farmers who received grants in the past four years reveals that their projects resulted in a total of $1.15 million of new farm income in the first year alone. Income continues to increase year after year, doubling by the third year of the projects.
Embedded in the 10-year WNC AgOptions history are stories of hundreds of farmers' lives changed for the better. Traci McMahan of Mt. Mitchell Produce in Yancey County, a 2012 WNC AgOptions recipient, is still expanding to keep up with the demand that arose after she improved her certified organic lettuce operation. Following the purchase of a refrigerated transport unit, the farm quickly doubled the number of produce boxes distributed, now selling to 10 Ingles supermarkets and local restaurants. Two of her employees transitioned from part-time to full-time to help with the workload.
Jill Nicklaw of Sunshine Cove Farm in Watauga County, a 2011 WNC AgOptions recipient, not only made back her initial investment in a 1,000-square-foot greenhouse in the first year of her project, but also doubled her income in 2012 and was able to hire two employees. She sells microgreens to seven brokers, including Eastern Carolina Organic and New River Organic Growers, as well to individuals and restaurants.
Applications for the 2014 grant cycle are available at www.wncagoptions.org and at local Cooperative Extension Centers. Interested applicants should contact their local Extension Agents by Nov. 1 to notify them that they intend to apply. Extension Agents work closely with the recipients throughout the grant cycle, giving them moral support and answering questions.
WNC AgOptions welcomes four more counties to its now 22- county/unit coverage area: Burke, Caldwell, Cleveland and Rutherford. Other eligible counties are: Avery, Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga and Yancey counties as well as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Interested farmers who live outside of this coverage area should contact RAFI-USA's Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund. See www.ncfarmgrants.org.
The administrator of WNC AgOptions is WNC Communities, a non-profit organization that has been improving 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 and to enhance the agriculture economy.
"WNC Communities is delighted to serve as administrator for WNC AgOptions," said L.T. Ward, vice president of WNC Communities. "We are grateful to N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and North Carolina legislators for their support throughout the past ten years. This important and effective program has demonstrated tremendously favorable results in providing financial support to fledgling farmers that often makes the difference in their success."
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.