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Empowering WNC Farmers During COVID-19

Courtesy of Bob Wehr
Bob Wehr was able in build a new barn for hay storage in 2020 with the help of a matching grant from EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems.

Before the pandemic, agricultural funding came North Carolina’s westernmost counties to help connect farmers and those in need of local food. BPR shares how during the pandemic, the program became even more important:

Just a few miles outside of downtown Robbinsville sits Bob Wehr’s 27-acre farm.

“It's in a little bit of a valley. It’s kind of pretty. It has a Southern exposure, so it's a lot of sunlight. It's just kind of fun and makes you feel good when you drive by and see the cattle out there grazing,” said Wehr, who is 76 years old.

Wehr moved to Robbinsville 11 years ago after retiring as a veterinarian. Now he raises cattle. Cattle ranches make up the majority of farms in Western North Carolina. Wehr explains: 

“Well, there's not a lot of flat land and where we are in the Appalachian Mountains. So for like raising crops, it's best to have larger parcels of land to plant and harvest. And in this area, you can't do that very well,” said Wehr.

In the most recent USDA census of agriculture, the top farm products in the region were cattle, hay and Christmas trees.

“It's really important to support these farming entrepreneurs and, and this way of life.”

That’s Laura Lauffer. She’s director of EmPOWERing Mountain Food systems. 

The program – which was organized primarily to help connect farmers and people in need of local food --  is funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission. It also partners with NC State University, Cherokee Preservation Foundation, NC Cooperative Extension, local community college small business centers and others.

If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s because it is. That large network is what got this project funded says Lauffer.

“So that infrastructure was already here and, and we wanted to bring some resources to fund some of the things that they wanted to focus,” said Lauffer. She credits Tiffany Henry at SCC with helping bring everyone together.  

Those resources came in the form of a $1.1 million dollar grant from ARC for the three-year program which is focused on the seven westernmost counties in North Carolina.

The program started with a 2019 food assessment to understand the region. Then in August 2020, it  plotted out all of the farms and food access in this interactive map.

Credit Courtesy of EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems
This is a regional, food system map hosted by the Southwestern Commission and EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems.

These funds have also been used to help individual farms like Wehr’s. In 2020, the program matched funds for Wehr to build a new pole barn to store hay. He says it makes feeding his almost 85-head of cattle easier and more cost effective. 

Lauffer explains that during the pandemic, storage became a big need across the region. When restaurants and stores shut down, farmers needed to act fast to save the food that would have been sold.  

EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems funded additional cold storage for local markets and for farmers. Transportation and online shopping have also been important pandemic projects.

For cattle farmers, meat storage comes after the meat is processed.  But there aren’t enough local meat processers.  Wehr drives over an hour to get his meat processed in Georgia.

“It's hard work. I don't know that it's a pleasant job. I mean, part of it is, you know, you're killing animals. So that's not something everyone can do,” said Wehr.

This shortage of processors means that when there were national meat shortages, it was hard for local farmers to be able to sell their products directly to consumers at local markets. 

Lauffer shared that the program recently funded two processors – one in Macon County, another in Haywood County – who will process beef on a small scale. She hopes to add more to this list.

There’s still over $40,000 in funding for the NCIFund program to match farmer loans like Wehr’s, explains Lauffer. For farmers, that money can be a lifeline, said Wehr.

“Well, I'm just glad that I have the ability now to work for a longer period of time and keep doing what I want to do for a little bit longer,” said Wehr. “When you get a certain age, you don't know how long you can keep on going, or maybe even how long you want to keep ongoing, but this has worked for me and I hope it worked for others too.”

EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems is also working on a lot of other projects. One is value-added food. That’s when farmers make a product from their crops like a local apple orchard that was funded to start producing apple cider. They are also organizing paid virtual apprenticeships for students.

Lauffer also says that agritourism is a priority for the program to help develop in Western North Carolina.   

“People are coming out here already to bike, hike, kayak, drink good beer and, you know, pick apples. Well, part of how we keep them in the region is through visiting farms,” said Lauffer.

One of the program’s next events is “Agritourism as an Income Opportunity” on April 28th.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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