North Carolina is Building its Local Food Economy by Supporting Beginning Farmers


In North Carolina, there is no shortage of support for local food but there is a real need for young farmers able to produce it. In 2007, North Carolina’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) was struck by how much food the state imports from far away places. CEFS, which provides agricultural research and education for the state asked the question: Can we build a sustainable local food economy from farm to fork? To explore this question, a statewide Farm-to-Fork Summit was held and a campaign was born. The 10% Campaign is based on a simple idea. If just 10% of consumers’ food dollars are spent supporting local food producers, that money will stay in the state and lead to more economically and environmentally sustainable communities.

Mike Morris of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) became involved in the project when he joined the consumer outreach and marketing subcommittee at the Farm-to-Fork Summit. The committee decided that forces in the local food movement should be marshaled in support of beginning farmers. A coalition composed of the CEFS, NCAT, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Counciland the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service came together to create a project that would both harness the passion and power of the local food movement in North Carolina and turn peoples’ attention to the issues beginning farmers face.  North Carolina is a place blessed with direct market potential, Mike Morris explains. It offers a unique combination of fairly large cities in close proximity to farmland. And for an Eastern state, it enjoys a relatively intact farming base. There are also excellent farmer training programs and a grassroots farming association already in place.

Mike Morris applied to the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) in its second year to launch the program Bringing New Farmers to the Table. Bringing New Farmers to the Table’s goal is to make support for beginning farmers an integral part of North Carolina’s 10% Campaign. The Farm-to-Fork Summit had established an impressive system of 100 cooperative extension “local food coordinators” in each of the state’s counties to connect farmers with markets. Instead of training young farmers one by one, the Bringing New Farmers to the Table trains these coordinators who then train farmers in issues from business planning to risk management to accessing farmland. 

Jacksonville/Onslow County is one of the five communities selected statewide to establish incubator farms

The program is multi-pronged, but when asked its most exciting aspect, Mike immediately points to the incubator program. The program works with communities who have vacant public land and who are interested in turning that land into training grounds for farmers. To date, they have chosen to support five very diverse communities, including an incubator project of the non-profit LINC: Leading into New Communities that works with individuals returning from incarceration in New Hanover County.

Bringing New Farmers to the Table wouldn’t exist without BFRDP funding. Thanks to this farm bill grant, a diverse group of partners has been brought together to strengthen support for beginning farmers in the state.  The program is able to support a full time staffer, Joann Lelekacs who works on the incubator initiative and who is constantly brainstorming ways to support beginning farmers. An attorney Andrew Branan is able to provide legal education services to dozens of beginning farmers each year. And the BFRDP funding provides scholarships for farmers and cooperative extension agents to attend the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s annual conference. Mike told me “…there is a real crisis going on. People want to see lots of new farmers. It’s a hard thing to deliver or prove in a short time period.” But Mike feels really good about the work that Bringing Farmers to the Table has already accomplished. Work, he believes, “absolutely couldn’t exist without the BFRDP funding.”

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