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WNC Business

Keeping Henderson County a hub for agricultural businesses

Aug 16, 2023 07:29AM ● By Randee Brown

Started in 2011 as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit public/private organization, AgHC is funded by Henderson County and private membership to preserve and grow the county’s agriculture industry.

“Agriculture is not only a major component of the local economy, it’s also part of our heritage,” Executive Director Mark Williams said. “Our goal is to provide as many opportunities for agriculture to be profitable and sustainable here in Henderson County.”

Williams said similar to an economic development group, the organization is largely involved in building relationships and connections between growers and buyers, utilizing marketing opportunities, and helping new and expanding companies with site location and getting established.

“We act as the point person for farming businesses to reach out to for help,” Williams said. “When businesses are interested in coming here, they are excited to find someone who can help save time and energy when they are searching for points of contact.”

According to Williams, there are 455 farms in Henderson County, and AgHC has worked with many of those. They also help with the recruitment of businesses such as Tri-Hishtil, Bold Rock Hard Cider, BrightFarms, Flat Rock Cider, Lakeside Produce, AgriFacture, and Ohalo. The organization also helped to establish the county as an American Viticulture Area as there were no wineries in the county when the organization began, and there are now 10 that he said are “doing quite well.” 

“There is always some benefit to bringing farming businesses to the area, even if they don’t stay forever,” Williams said. “Driscoll leased property at one time to grow blackberries. They pulled out, but they helped get blackberries established here and we now have a market for that.”

Growing and recruiting farming businesses has created around 800 jobs in Henderson County since 2011, according to Williams. AgHC also makes a conscious effort to keep land for agriculture, preserving 1,029 acres as farmland.

Much of the county’s tourism is centered around agriculture as well. With the NC Apple Festival, the Garden Jubilee, wineries, cideries, and a variety of farms offering pick-your-own produce and seasonal events, Williams said agriculture attracts a lot of people to the county.  Also considering agribusiness facilities such as packing, storing, greenhouses, and more, the estimate is that agriculture is on the cusp of being a $1 billion dollar industry for the county.

“We have a balanced economy in Henderson County,” Williams said, but with 20% to 25% of the county’s business in agriculture, it’s really a big piece.”

Henderson County’s climate and geographical location make it a great production area, according to Williams. Producers look at what is possible to grow here, and apples and tomatoes are good indicators of both warm days and cool nights which fits many types of growers. The 2,200 feet of elevation and the number of clear winter days are appealing to greenhouse growers, and with the protection from frequent major weather events like tornadoes, hurricanes, or excessive snowfall, the county checks a lot of boxes for growers.

“There is also great water here,” Williams said. “It’s great for cider just like beer, and the same is true for greenhouse folks. I’ve heard when their water is lab-tested for quality, lab techs have said it’s the highest quality water they’ve ever seen.”

With so many farming businesses in the area, Williams said there is never enough labor. For the high-tech side of things, they have a great relationship with Blue Ridge Community College in developing and redesigning curriculum and customizing training for new facilities. He said it’s as much a focus on engineering and science as it is growing. The college’s training, mentor, or internship programs are helping locals become better trained and educated as well as enticing interest for people from outside the region to relocate to the area for some of these positions.

Williams said there is just as much skill required in base-level jobs like planting, harvesting, and caretaking, and as more people are exploring higher education, fewer people are interested in these types of labor positions. Many farms rely on the government’s H-2A program to bring in people from other countries for seasonal work.

“Growers are required to provide housing, transportation, and a base amount of pay, and people love coming here for seasonal work,” Williams said. “It’s very productive. We’re also lobbying for farm labor needs, educating politicians on the importance of importing labor instead of importing food.”

Another industry challenge according to Williams is the appreciation of land values. With so much demand for residential and commercial development, he said while some high-end farming businesses can afford to purchase farmland, it is extremely difficult for young farmers to get started.

“We are working on local programs to leverage other funds to put a strong, balanced program in place for agricultural easements,” Williams said. “We are working to perpetually keep farmland here in Henderson County.”