Grants for Mountain Farm Diversification Awarded

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Diversifying farmers in western North Carolina are receiving support to offset the risk of expanding and trying new ventures. WNC Agricultural Options awarded 43 farm businesses a total of $229,000 in $3,000, $4000 and $6,000 grants on Thursday at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River. Farm projects include the implementation of a specialty planting device called a “Paper Pot Transplanter,” a Grade A sheep dairy, and an innovative irrigation project.

Nine of the farm business received $3,000, one received $4,000 and 33 received $6,000. The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is the exclusive financial supporter of WNC AgOptions, which aims to build sustainable farming communities in the mountain region by providing resources directly to farmers.

“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.”

Rand Gifford of Greenshine Farms in Madison County is purchasing a unique Japanese tool called a Paper Pot Transplanter. Rather than having to pop out plant starts by hand and place them into pre-dug holes, this tool allows farmers to pull the transplanter behind them as seedlings, housed in bio-degradable “paper pots,” are automatically planted into rows.

“Anyone who’s ever tried to transplant an entire 100-foot bed by hand can attest to the toll it takes on your body, not to mention the time needed to complete such a task,” Gifford said. “Currently it takes two hours for one person to transplant an entire 100-foot bed of lettuce. With the Paper Pot Transplanter, we will be able to transplant the same bed in ten minutes. And we avoid transplant shock and save our backs!” With the addition of this tool to their operation, Greenshine Farms expects to triple their current production to 300 or more pounds of salad mix per week.

Also in Madison County, Andrea Van Gunst and Tim Gallagher of Grassroots Farm and Dairy are upgrading their existing sheep milk operation to become one of the only Grade A sheep dairies in North Carolina.

“We are very excited to bring a new product to our local food community—local goat and cow’s milk are becoming pretty well known in the Asheville area, but sheep’s milk is still quite new to this region,” Van Gunst said. “There are very large sheep dairies in New England and the west coast, but not any sheep dairies of scale in North Carolina.”

In order to mitigate drought risk on his 40-acre farm in Rutherford County, Jeff Belflower is adding a K-line irrigation system to assist in maintaining consistent grass production. K-Line is a flexible hose line and sprinkler pod system that was designed in New Zealand for cost-effective and efficient farm irrigation. It has only been used in the United States since 2004. Any farm vehicle can easily move the equipment, and it has a low application rate that ensures maximum uptake of water and nutrients and minimal moisture loss via runoff. Using the K-line system, annual forage production is expected to increase.

“The system will fit seamlessly into my existing operation and will simply allow me to grow grass when it does not rain,” Belflower said. “As a farmer whose main markets are grass-fed beef and registered seedstock and breeding stock, it is very important for my cattle to be in good condition at all times. Irrigation will allow me to consistently feed my cows high quality feed using only pasture grown on my farm.”

“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 Linda Lamp, Executive Director of WNC Communities. “WNC AgOptions strengthens our agricultural community, ultimately benefiting us all.”

To learn more about the grant program, and current and past recipients, visit:  www.wncagoptions.org