Reaping What They Sow: Farms Seek Bigger Place at the Table
Ted M. Natt Jr., staff writer | Posted in The Pilot: Sunday, September 29, 2013 7:55 am
First came Sandhills Farm to Table.
Then a feasibility study validating the Farm to Chef concept.
Now, the Green Fields Initiative has been launched to support and promote agriculture in Moore, Lee and Richmond counties.
“You have something great,” said Brian Queen, community development coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD) in Raleigh. “You have momentum.”
The new initiative, essentially a regional economic development plan for sustainable agriculture in the three counties, was unveiled Thursday night at the Fair Barn in Pinehurst.
“It’s critical that we pay attention to agriculture the same way we pay attention to manufacturing,” said Paige Burns, an agriculture extension agent in Richmond County who lives in Moore County. “Agriculture is an economic driver.”
Agriculture is not typically included in county and regional economic development plans. But it is the largest industry in Moore County, as well as the state of North Carolina.
At $77 billion annually, agriculture and associated industries dwarf the rest of North Carolina’s economy.
“What we’re trying to do is fuse the rural areas of the counties with the more urban areas to make people more aware that agriculture connects the economies in the region,” said Stephen Greer, agriculture extension director in Moore County. “This is the bigger umbrella that will bring all of the pieces together.”
The kickoff event at the Fair Barn drew about 200 people, and featured local products and food from about 20 vendors in the three counties.
“We wanted to personalize this and make everyone aware that they’re part of it,” Greer said. “People of all types are here, and that’s what we were angling for. We’re seeking buy-in.”
The Green Fields Initiative grew out of “Stronger Economies Together,” a national program introduced in 2010 by USDA RD to promote economic collaboration between urban and rural counties to improve and enhance regional economies.
Five proposals were submitted in North Carolina, but only two were selected, including that of the Sandhills Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.
Stakeholders in Moore, Richmond and Lee counties have been working for almost a year on the Green Fields Initiative, a three-pronged plan to support the economic viability of agriculture in the Sandhills.
The initiative seeks to:
n Retain the number of acres devoted to agriculture and forestry at 2007 levels over the next five years, while increasing the number of people entering farming or forestry by 1 percent per year.
n Produce and consume more agricultural and forestry products in the region, resulting in an increase in average farm income by 20 percent over the next five years, and an increase in forestry management plans by 10 percent over the same period.
n Raise the profile of the agriculture and timber industries so they are widely recognized by local and regional policymakers, politicians, community and business leaders, and others as being critical and essential economic drivers. By 2018, the region will be generally recognized as a leader in sustainable agriculture and community development.
At least three strategies have been developed to achieve each goal.
State Rep. Jamie Boles, a Republican who represents most of Moore County, said changing times and markets have shifted the focus to regionalism.
“To me, it’s great to see the agricultural products that are available locally,” Boles said. “I think agribusiness has a future in Moore, Lee and Richmond counties.”
The Green Fields Initiative was developed by the local Working Group, which engaged stakeholders in the counties such as community college representatives, economic development partners, and agricultural advisory board members.
The initiative is a logical extension of the work done in the three counties to launch Sandhills Farm to Table (SF2T) earlier this decade, as well as the recently completed Farm to Chef study.
“It creates the enthusiasm and opens up the energy,” said Steve Peters, general manager of SF2T. “That leads to action by the stakeholders. It makes us feel good because it shows us that it can work. At the end of the day, this is all great fun.”
Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress, said the “great mix of folks” at the Fair Barn underscored the importance of agriculture in the region.
“I think what we’re seeing is the coalescence of interest in the local food movement in our area,” Corso said. “Nobody has done this before, but we can’t stop here. We’ve got to continue to build on it. It’s a big deal.”