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WNC Business

Maintaining Polk County’s rural character through agricultural economic development

Aug 12, 2023 01:20PM ● By Randee Brown

According to Polk County’s Agricultural Economic Development Director Dawn Jordan, Polk County has a unique philosophy for economic development.

Jordan said a survey was sent to the county’s citizens which asked what they feel is the most important thing for the county, and the most popular answer was to ensure that the rural character of the county be vigorously protected.

“The county is deliberate about that,” Jordan said. “We don’t want big box businesses. Even if we did, there is not water and sewer infrastructure across the county to support that. The land is mostly rolling hills and farmland.”

In order to have farms, Jordan said the farmers have to make a living. Polk County was the first in the state to put an Agriculture Economic Development program in place, and she said this “woke up a sleeping giant of agriculture that is not going back to sleep.”

Jordan’s role entails that she works with agricultural businesses and helps them get the support they need to grow. The county is not actively recruiting new businesses to the area, but rather working with the large number and variety of small family-owned businesses that already exist in the county. The county’s largest vegetable producer is farming on 25 acres with no more than 10 employees.

“I do a lot of consulting,” Jordan said. “I help to connect the dots and inform farmers about regulations, zoning, licensing, product sourcing, and more. I am generally able to help get them on a good start, and this has been invaluable for many. I hear across the state there is a desire to have that focus — almost every county has agriculture but it's not the direction that every county has been given.

“There is a huge variety of different types of agricultural businesses here in Polk County. Sunny Creek Farm has been in place for 25 years and supplies sprouts to buyers up and down the East Coast. People are growing microgreens, blueberries, mushrooms, grapes, asparagus, and even kiwi. Local farms raise beef, pork, and chicken. There are also several interesting projects in the works that will add a different flare.”

Growing methods at many farms are evolving as these businesses grow, according to Jordan. Indoor growing methods like hydroponics are becoming more popular, allowing a more controlled environment and higher yields in smaller spaces.

“The next generation of farmers doesn’t necessarily have the capital to buy into large-scale operations in our area,” Jordan said. “They can do tremendous production with a smaller footprint indoors. While this takes a lot of education and management regarding nutrient input, the next generation seems to be interested in the technical side of things, and this will only grow in popularity.”

Agritourism is also a growing component of the industry. Jordan said visitors come for wineries growing their own grapes, farm tours at apple orchards, and treats from the local creamery. The county also co-hosts the annual NC Foothills Farm Tour with Rutherford County in October — a self-guided tour for the public highlighting a variety of local farms in the area. 

“This tour is a collaborative approach with business owners,” Jordan said. “We make sure to offer diversity within the locations on the tour. This year, we will be featuring homestead tours. These are family farms that have a holistic approach, and they will help show people what it means to homestead and what types of products are being offered to the community.”

Farmers markets in Polk County have also worked as an incubator space for agricultural businesses, according to Jordan. There are two broad varieties of vendors — those that need a supplemental income and are a weekly mainstay, and those that are younger, newer start-ups wanting to move to a full-time business and use the market to build demand and get to know their customers.

“In my 10 years in this position, I have seen people grow out of these markets by building their following with farmers markets and good marketing,” Jordan said. “This means we’ve done our job of helping them get to the next level.”