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A Path to Success for Emerging & Expanding Farmers in Southern Appalachia

Our vision is a thriving foodshed that exemplifies diversity, resilience, and community in Southern Appalachia.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Organic Growers School

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

We are actively partnering with our regional farmer network, Warren Wilson College, NC State Extension, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Carolina Farm Credit, Asheville-Buncombe Community Food Policy Council, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, Urban Agriculture Alliance, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, USDA, and a myriad of local and regional businesses. The National Farm Beginnings® Collaborative, of which OGS is a member, is a national alliance of 13 independent regional groups of farmers and farmer-training support organizations working together to promote a farmer training model. Our Farmer Education Steering Committee is a group of regional farmers in Western NC, NC State Cooperative Extension Agents, and regional agriculture professionals. They play an active role in developing curriculum, decision-making, instructor identification, and class instruction for all OGS farmer programs.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.organicgrowersschool.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Asheville, NC

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

The United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Southern Appalachians

What country is your selected Place located in?

The United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Organic Growers School (OGS) is the premier provider of practical and affordable organic and regenerative education in the Southern Appalachians, building a vibrant food and farming community by boosting the success of organic home growers and farmers in our region. A 501c3 non-profit, we are based in Asheville, NC, and have been serving our region since 1993. Our place-based, grower-led, hands-on training, workshops, conferences, and partnerships strengthen and celebrate each grower's move towards self-reliance.

We selected the Southern Appalachians which includes western NC, East TN, Upstate SC, Southern VA, and North GA because it’s our home -  where we live, where we work, raise our families, and the land we steward. We are passionate about the growing conditions and culture of the Southern Appalachians which boasts a long and strong history of self-reliance, small scale farming operations, and hearty, community-minded people. In fact, our organization grew out of the volunteer efforts of a group of Western NC farmers and extension specialists who, in 1993, gathered to discuss the need for nuts and bolts, place-based crop information applicable for farmers in a local cultural context. Each year OGS serves 1000s of regional farmers, home growers, and folks wanting to live more organically.

The Appalachian region boasts a strong history of agriculture, forestry, and mining. Yet big agriculture and big industry have long capitalized on the rich resources while failing to bring long-term relief to poverty. Many are “transitional” or “at-risk” counties, defined as economically worse than the national average on at least three indicators (3-year unemployment, per capita income, and poverty rate). We want to elevate the strong history of agriculture embedded in this region to combat the extractive history our land and people have experienced for generations with a future that is place-based, regenerative, self-reliant, and equitable. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The concept of place is strong in Appalachia. And place can be defined as geography, landscape, culture, and people. The place called Appalachia is made up of 25 million people across 402 counties in thirteen states, from North to South.

Unfortunately, the stereotypes of Appalachia and the Appalachian people abound. Thoughts of lazy, tobacco-chewing, hay-seed sporting, “hill” people with a dozen children is often what’s portrayed. The hillbilly archetype is alive and well, even today. But many of these stereotypes are unsupported by historical records, ongoing statistics and the diversity across such a wide geographic and demographic area. This place, culture, and people are not just any one thing. 

Before white people settled the area, the Cherokee called this place home and many still do. Then came the Scots-Irish immigrants in the 1700’s and African Americans both from freedom and slavery. It’s true that the economy of Appalachia has long been plagued by poverty. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson, created the Appalachian Regional Commission to fight the “War on Poverty” in the poorest places in the US. Due to that poverty and ongoing resource extraction like mining and forestry, and the consequential ecological devastation, folks in our region suffer from higher incidences of negative health outcomes (less education, low birth rates, high smoking) and a greater percentage of hunger. 

We also know that the natural rural beauty here is unparalleled and there is a long and strong history of self-reliance through multiplex livelihoods, diversified food production, and community interdependence. Farmers have been considered the backbone of the Appalachian region. However, the history of farming in the Appalachian Mountains has not been an easy one, and the experiences of farmers are diverse. Since the Civil War, the numbers of farmers and land in farming has been on the decline. 

The topography of the Appalachians, often rocky and marginal, made it difficult for farmers to keep up with agricultural production in the lowlands which were better suited to mechanized work. Appalachian farmers were excluded as the food system became more globalized. Furthermore, as Appalachian farmers continue to lose their economic power they also became marginalized politically and socially limiting their access to social capital and public goods.

However, we also know it to be true that the Appalachians is a region that has historically been underestimated. As Appalachian farmers have been in the past and continue to be marginalized by changing patterns of industrialization and modernization history shows how farmers have sought to resist these changes and struggle to maintain farming as a way of life as social, economic, and ecological innovators challenging social norms, creating change, strengthening their communities and the land. We very much appreciate, build on, and work to recreate the long tradition of land-based wisdom that is so ubiquitous in this region.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

940000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

6018935

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

In most of our nation, especially Appalachia, we know that 150 years ago 90% of the population farmed. These land-based families provided their own food, fuel, clothing, lighting, transportation, and storage systems. About 100 years ago it was 50% of the population. During the first and second world wars, 20 million Victory Gardens provided up to 45% of fruits and vegetables consumed in the US. We were a nation of growers. Today, less than 2% of people in this country farm. As industrialized agriculture took over these land-based skills disappeared more and more. 50 years ago only  30% of the population farmed and today it’s less than 2%.

As mechanized systems moved in, more and more people moved to cities and then to the suburbs. We went from a nation of growing literate, cooking literate, and self-reliance literate people to having little to no relationship with the land and food systems that keep us alive. 

While the industrial revolution promised to “liberate” us from rural life and physical toil, it has created more problems than it has solved. Chemically-based methods and GMO foods are compromising our health and our environment and the promise of mechanized agriculture to feed the world has fallen short.

Over the last 50 to 100 years, we have produced a culture of food and farming illiterate people, not to mention a rising health care crisis, due in part to our disconnection from and lack of access to healthy food and cooking skills. There has been an epidemic loss of ancestral knowledge and of a local food community that leaves people disconnected, disempowered, and insecure. Our food and growing heritage and culture are fragmented by the agribusiness agenda and our communities have little cohesion with regards to interdependence, skill-sharing, or celebration of food and growing.

Furthermore, while farming is an integral part of Southern Appalachian heritage, both the acreage being farmed and the total number of farms has decreased dramatically. Southern Appalachia is at a vital turning point and at the crossroads of intergenerational land transition, aging farmers, and the obstacle of land access for beginning farmers. From 2007-2012, NC alone lost 2,700 farms and the amount of land in farming dropped by 600,000 acres (USDA 2012 COA). The number of farms decreased by another 8% from 2012-2017 (USDA 2017 COA). The average age of primary producers increased from 58.3 in 2012 to 59.4 in 2017. Primary producers over 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by more than 6 to 1 (USDA 2017 COA). In NC, over 70% of the farms are owned by farmers over the age of 55 and nearly two-thirds of those are over 65 (USDA 2012 COA). Trends are similar in the other Southern Appalachian states we serve.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

In the next 20 years, we will see a tidal shift in American agriculture, as the current generation of farmers retires and hundreds of thousands of acres of land changes hands. The influx of the “new” farmer can provide some counterbalance to the aging out of our region’s and nation’s farming community. Yet more must be done to support new farmers entering farm business and increase their ability to stay in business. 

Enhanced farmer training, in the form of farmer-led, whole-farm production, business, financial, and marketing planning paired with network development and mentorship will bolster our regional food system by increasing the success and retention rate of small-scale farmers. Supporting these new farmers to develop strong, viable businesses sets them up to be powerful leaders and drivers of rural economic and community development. 

OGS aims to expand and improve our targeted services, hands-on training, workshops, and mentoring to meet individual farm needs and foster successful farm business models that help farmers move towards self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods with a focus on whole-farm planning, farmer-to-farmer networking, mentorship and regenerative agriculture education. With access to this ongoing support, farmers will gain the critical business, financial, and marketing skills that will improve their decision making, increase resilience to shifts in the economy and climate, better manage their finances and cash flow and business strategies with a holistic, long term perspective.  

Furthermore, the farmers in our programs develop a holistic view of agriculture based on regenerative production, business, financial and marketing strategies. Our farmers are taught a systems approach to land use/management, ecosystem processes, soil health, production practices, business planning, enterprise development, financial literacy, labor, and marketing.  As a result, we expect more farmers will be profitable, stay on the land, increase their use of regenerative agriculture practices, and be more resilient and adaptable in the face of a changing climate.

Additionally, OGS is actively working, internally and externally, to become an equitable and inclusive organization. We see that work as fundamental to the effectiveness of all community-based grassroots groups. We cannot fully reach our highest goals of transforming the food system unless we recognize the implications of the oppressive history of the food system and actively work to dismantle the injustice embedded within it.

There are a plethora of ways that agriculture and small farm businesses maintain and fortify the viability of a region. And, we must acknowledge how the benefits of helping guide a new generation of farmers to agriculture are crucial when it comes to creating and sustaining healthy, vibrant, viable rural communities and a necessary investment in our region’s future and food system.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The outcome is that regional farmers will start a farm business, add or change enterprises, improve their farming systems, incorporate more sustainable production practices, expand production, receive significant training and assistance with production and comprehensive farm planning, and better meet their income goals. In addition, they will be integrated into a network of support, mentoring, and regenerative production training. These whole-farm skills will bolster our regional economy and ecology by increasing the success and retention rate of regenerative farmers.

In a traditional economic sense, small farm entrepreneurs bolster rural development through job creation and by keeping more local dollars circulating in the local economy. Entrepreneurs are the backbone of regional economic development, and a strong small farm industry can catalyze and launch other new entrepreneurial ventures, such as tourism, craft beverages, artisan and value-added food and body care products, herbal supplements, arts and crafts, restaurants, and supply stores that depend on the profitability and success of the farm sector. 

Additionally, farmers are the foremost stewards of our land and water. A commitment to ecologically-minded principles, reduces pollution due to decreased reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, and results in healthier water, air, and soil ecosystems. Furthermore, successful farmers fortify the community by becoming leaders and innovators, collaborating across sectors to advance economic and cultural development. 

The goal of this project is clear. We want more farmers on the land using organic practices and a system in which family farmers are profitable and can flourish. Our role is to facilitate the training, networks, and mentoring systems throughout the start-up years and beyond. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Sustainable and regenerative agriculture poses a unique opportunity to address pressing social, economic, and environmental issues that we face today, despite the trends of “Get Big or Get Out!” industrial agriculture has followed in the recent past. Agriculture is the most direct expression of our relationship with the environment. There are no buffers between what we eat and our bodies; what we do to our food we do to ourselves. Michael Pollan confirms this idea when he says that “the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world … Agriculture has done more to reshape the natural world than anything else we humans do.” Growing food can be a radical act. 

Fortunately, we have a choice in the matter of how our food is produced and the value system we support. From all sectors, research is showing that sustainable agriculture, in the form of regenerative and resilient production and business practices paired with localized food systems, offers promise for addressing our failed food systems. The UN Human Rights Council is calling for the world’s food system to be “radically and democratically redesigned.” They recommend “mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers and foster rural development.”

The sustainable food system we envision has the potential to be a foundational catalyst that can desegregate generations, provide food security, decrease environmental impact, promote a fair and just means of production and distribution and help communities and organizations reveal assets that already exist but might not be fully utilized – working to cultivate communities and landscapes that are whole, resilient and reproductive. And, well-resourced, well-trained, and well-equipped small-scale farmers and home growers are at the heart of this system.

Our vision for a regenerative and sustainable food system is a holistic approach that develops a living relationship with the land, technology, policy, and local culture promoting health and equity; where local wisdom and expert knowledge share equal footing; and ultimately brings about human, economic, and ecological thriving. A living relationship with the land entails valuing and caring for the soil as our basic foundation, after all, it is the largest continuous ecosystem in the world. Re-valuing the soil also acknowledges the cycle of life. We cannot expect to thrive ourselves if the soil does not thrive, we are vitally connected to it. A sustainable food system works to produce healthy soil. Food production and other land stewardship would be centered on giving and receiving in balance with the soil, rather than forcing additives into the soil to make it fit a predetermined mold. Caring for the soil is the beginning of systems-based thinking, which is crucial for a sustainable food system, where we are working to find our place within the systems of the natural world around us. This sense of care and emphasis on health, wholeness, and systems thinking also filters beyond the farmstead to mark a food system based on inclusiveness, accounting for environmental, social, and economic externalities. When we invest in our small farms we are supporting the farmer and farm workers in their efforts to care for the land, resources and one another. Their work is valued, they are compensated justly, and we acknowledge and celebrate the services they provide the greater community. 

Economic Vision:

Agriculture continues to be a relevant, innovative, and driving force in our rural communities and new farmers with successful businesses facilitate connections between rural farm production and urban markets, increase the percentage of local food produced and sold to regional markets, create more jobs in the farming sector, and keep the land in agriculture. When farmer entrepreneurs thrive, they keep a larger percentage of local dollars in the local economy. The benefits of fortifying the agriculture sector are not only far-reaching and many-fold, but they cannot be separated from the overall health and economic development of our communities. Investing in these outcomes is crucial to creating and sustaining healthy, vibrant, viable, and innovative communities. We want to see more farmers, especially those marginalized populations, gain economic benefit from successful agriculture enterprises and contribute to the region’s economic and rural development. Entrepreneurs are the backbone of rural development, and a strong small farm industry can catalyze and launch other new entrepreneurial ventures that depend on the profitability and success of the farm sector.

Social Justice Vision:

Diversity is a key element in sustainable agriculture systems and a value we believe in deeply. We reflect this value both in our agricultural education as well as our steadfast commitment to affordability and accessibility to all. In addition, we are equally as committed to the “beyond diversity” values of equity and inclusion by bringing in marginalized voices and ensuring a place at the table that exemplifies the entire spectrum of human experience. We believe in the importance of tapping into a bounty of knowledge, skills, experiences, and holism of marginalized populations. The outcome is much greater creativity and innovation than a homogenous community can match. The ultimate outcome is an empowered population, who are financially and nutritionally resourced, and ready to use their voices to advocate for a more equitable and resilient food system.

Environmental Vision:

Regenerative and sustainable agriculture is an extremely crucial component in all environmental, social, and political movements. As growers of all backgrounds thrive, they care for the land, strengthen their communities, and produce food for their region. In addition, they enhance their personal food security, self-reliance, and grow their capacity for environmental stewardship, ecological awareness, and best land-use practices. More specifically, farmers are the foremost stewards of land and water, they promote awareness of and action around farmland preservation and a continuation of the local agricultural traditions, and they become civic leaders and innovators. Further, they incentivize the increase in demand for local, sustainably raised farm products and add scenic and cultural value by enriching the rural character, which is vitally important to the Southern Appalachian tourism industry and other adjacent industries. 

At Organic Growers School we stand for sustainable and regenerative agriculture, in the form of small-scale and regional food production, as a solution to the environmental, economic, and health crises of our time and as an alternative to industrial and global food practices. We are actively advocating for an organic food system that values resilience, equity, and community. 

Our work of training small scale sustainable farmers and home growers teaches people to fish instead of giving them fish. Over the last 27 years we have learned that when people are actively involved and manage their local food and food systems, their lives are changed. 

Furthermore, national statistics show that 44% of agricultural businesses will fail in the first 4 years (Statistic Brain 2016), and only ⅓ will survive 10 years or more (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016) due to common shortcomings like undercapitalization and poor planning. Beginning Farmers, in particular, face critical questions of scale, market access, land access, managing cash flow and risk, enterprise innovation and diversification, and building responsive, adaptable business plans to achieve long term farm viability and resilience.

To back up these national and regional statistics, findings from our own 2015 and 2019 “Farming in NC” surveys, show the primary barriers to viable farm enterprises to be: access to land, capital, markets, and trainings, as well as a need for knowledge of legal requirements, business skills, financial planning, ongoing assistance, and mentorship. These results are reflected all over the country, and echoed in feedback from our own Farmer Steering Committee. And, they point to the need for targeted, one-on-one support and education to address specific farm challenges and create efficient systems that promote longevity and resilience in farming.  

We believe that by investing in our region’s farmers and home growers, the ultimate outcome is an empowered population, successfully growing organically on a farm, home, and community scale, who are financially and nutritionally resourced, ready to take a seat at the political table and use their voice to advocate for a more equitable, sustainable and accessible food system and a vibrant, engaged community.

In short, we want to reclaim agriculture. We believe this reclamation will transform the health crisis, strengthen communities, spark innovation, establish regional food sovereignty, and prepare the Southern Appalachians for economic and climate resilience.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Grant Station

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