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WNC Business

Supporting farming businesses supports entire communities

Aug 05, 2023 01:03PM ● By Randee Brown

WNC Ag Options is a program that delivers grants to a wide variety of agricultural businesses in 20 WNC counties. Executive Director Jennifer Ferre said that these grants come from the NC Tobacco Trust Fund, an organization created out of the master tobacco settlement to help put money back into communities affected by their transition out of producing tobacco.

“This program is unique in that it puts money directly into the hands of farming businesses,” Ferre said. “The Tobacco Trust fund can’t do that, so we help to facilitate the process as a flagship program for the Trust Fund.”

Though most farmers were no longer growing tobacco when the program launched in 2004, the goal of WNC Ag Options is still to help diversify farms, create more efficiency, and keep farms in farmland where agriculture is part of the cultural heritage and a big part of life for many residents. Ferre said through the program’s grants and business education for farmers, many small family farms can have a better opportunity to be successful.

Grants are available to farmers on a yearly cycle, according to Ferre. The program hosts information and outreach sessions, then applications are due in the fall. Leadership tries to make decisions for who the grantees will be by the end of the year so farmers can get going at the start of the following year. 

“It’s a competitive application process,” Ferre said. “We receive between 100 and 120 applications each year and award anywhere from 30 to 40 grants.”

The program developed an evaluation system and eligibility requirements to help determine which businesses are in the greatest need of these grants, according to Farre. A scoring system based on five questions helps decision makers learn how a grant will help farmers in the short and long term, how they interact with the agricultural community, and how their plans may be replicated in other businesses.

“It’s not necessarily a needs-based grant,” Ferre said. “It’s based on the highest potential for the biggest benefit for these farmers as well as their employees and their community. We’re looking for people ready to scale up, and looking at how a grant up to $8,000 can make a huge difference. We love seeing how more families can be involved as they scale, how more people can make a living, and how more people can be impacted by the growth of these farms.”

The dollar amount of each grant ranges from $4,000 to $8,000 depending on what the businesses are asking for in their application. Grantees must also agree to a 10% cash match for the amount of money they receive. “This shows they are putting some skin in the game for a project that will be beneficial,” Ferre said.

Submitting a business plan is required for the grant process, according to Ferre. Through feedback, they have found that grant recipients really appreciated having that help. Placing focus on running the farm as a business can be a key factor in creating that farm’s success.

WNC Ag Options also developed a network of support systems, beginning with an orientation for grantees at the beginning of each year. There are also workshops to help farmers develop business plans, and businesses are also paired with support organizations like the NC Community College’s Small Business Centers, Mountain BizWorks, and the Small Business and Technology Development Center.

“We all work together to help these growing agriculture businesses get their needs met,” Ferre said. “Grantees get this benefit as part of their award. We want them to be successful, and we feel good about helping create a long-term impact on the community in this way.”

Ferre said grant recipients are followed very closely during their first year, and she thinks it’s amazing that so many farms are so successful. She said 80% of some farmers markets are former Ag Options recipients, and 40% to 80% of Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project’s yearly farm tour locations are at grantees’ farms. 

“Not everyone is successful though, and that is okay too,” she said. “Some of these business plans are very innovative, and people are taking risks.”

Many grantees are beginning to work with other businesses as well as creating more jobs and having the ability to pay living wages to their staff, according to Ferre. There is a ripple effect in the upswing in the value-added aspect of farming businesses, and she is seeing many businesses make more money than simply selling raw materials. Farmers are making vinegars from apples, infusing chocolates with their products, or supplying herbs to local breweries, and she said creativity and trying new ways of doing things is really good for farming businesses.

“Agriculture is North Carolina’s biggest industry, and it’s important to support that because it’s linked to other issues like food security, nutrition, and health,” Ferre said. “It’s about the entire region being healthy and successful.”