Assessing Polk County’s agricultural opportunities

Published 3:54 pm Sunday, October 26, 2008

Still, Sprague says he sees abandoned agricultural efforts like the one in Lynn all over the county. There were obviously five greenhouses there on Capps Road. A stockpile of unused plastic pots echoes a more productive time.

With some knowledge, a few thousand dollars, and a landlord willing to lease, &dquo;an unemployed textile worker with farming experience could come here and make a living&dquo; on those three acres, Sprague says. It just so happens Grover Industries, a textile plant just up Capps Road, recently closed.

In addition to sizing up Polk County, Sprague has been tracking down all the agencies trying to promote sustainable agriculture in Western North Carolina.

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The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project is one of many, and it offers grants of $3,000, $6,000 or $9,000 for projects just like rehabilitating this greenhouse business.

&dquo;With $3,000, you could get the plastics (to recover the greenhouses), the soil amendments and all the seed you need to get started,&dquo; Sprague says.

Prior to being hired in Polk County, Sprague worked in conservation and environmental education. He was in charge of N.C.&squo;s soil and water conservation districts for a time, and has moved to Edneyville to be near his family&squo;s apple orchard, a &dquo;century farm.&dquo;

Farming is a diverse business in Polk County, with livestock including beef, dairy, sheep, goats, buffalo, llamas.

Most of the farm acreage in Polk County is in hay and pastureland, some of which needs restoration after two summers of drought, and in forestry. There are also orchards ‐ peaches and apples ‐ as well as vineyards, strawberries, bean sprouts and vegetables.

Sprague says Polk County is &dquo;taking a very strong approach&dquo; to growing the local economy through small enterprises, working with entrepreneurs.

His job is to put green in the pockets of people who know how to produce raw materials from the land. He has lots of ideas. (Watch for more on those ideas soon in the Bulletin in a paper Sprague gave recently to the local entrepreneurial committee.)

New hay crops can allow local farmers to provide the nutritous hay the local equestrian industry now buys from farmers in New York, Connecticut and Kentucky.

Sprague will try to interest some farmers in growing hops for local breweries, like those in Asheville, for whom the slogan, &dquo;mountain grown hops,&dquo; is a marketing boon.

Through a non-profit in Rutherfordton, Foothills Connect, organic farmers in Rutherford and Polk counties are already cooperating to market their produce to restaurants in Charlotte. Organic gardens can be producing on three to five acres.

Part of the issue for small farmers is the need to coordinate sales outlets and product offerings. Sprague says he is looking at regional population bases and what products they want.

&dquo;The population centers are there,&dquo; he says. &dquo;It is just a matter of marketing.&dquo;

A serious farmer working a three-hour tailgate market can make $500, Sprague says.

What is needed, however, is a way to coordinate the transportation and sales effort so lots of farmers can get their products to tailgate markets in Asheville or Greenville when it would not be profitable for one alone to make the trip. Rather than go to waste, what&squo;s not sold at local markets could be pooled and then taken to regional markets.

Another way for farmers to greatly increase their profitability, Sprague says, is to add value to their raw products, such as turning apples into apple pies.

Another example: If a local butcher were to open up shop, a cattle farmer could get three times the return for his beef that he gets at auction by instead selling the beef cut and packaged.

There are only four dairy farms left in Polk County, Sprague says, and one day the wholesale milk collection truck may quit coming. However, rather than see an inevitable decline, Sprague sees an opportunity here for a milk processor and ice cream business.

Sprague says his job is to work to make those connections, coordinate those efforts for greater agricultural profitability.

&dquo;There are lots of regional efforts, but the mountains pose a real physical barrier,&dquo; he says. For a farmer to avail himself of offerings in Madison, Buncombe and Haywood counties can take a whole day.

Sprague hopes to overcome those barriers. He notes that Blue Ridge Food Ventures offers a licensed kitchen for processing, run out of AB Tech in Asheville. There, for $20 an hour, apple growers can make cider for sale in Atlanta. Sprague wonders if it might not be possible to get Blue Ridge Food to open a satellite facility down here.

Another program, Southeastern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, is working with restaurants, helping farmers learn how to extend growing seasons, and recycling waste from restaurants back to farms as compost.

Farmers say the Chinese purchases have driven up the cost of most fertilizers, and farmers are looking back in history to earlier techniques for enriching the soils.

&dquo;These are all services that should have been in Polk County,&dquo; Sprague says, but there just weren&squo;t any connections made. He wants to change that.

He also wants to work on educating youth to the possibilities of a career in agriculture. He asked for meetings with officials at Isothermal Community College after noticing that the college has no agriculture offerings, and, surprisingly, none in equestrian industry skills.

&dquo;The perception is that there are not jobs there (in agriculture),&dquo; Sprague says. &dquo;The perception is that farmers work long hours, work hard and end up broke.&dquo; There are also good jobs in training and breeding horses, contrary to the old saw that horse farms only pay low wages to those who will muck stalls, Sprague says.

Students who graduate from schools like N.C. State with the skills to be professional farm managers can make a decent wage, Sprague says, without having to have the capital to buy a farm.

&dquo;This is going to be more important in the future, as retirees buy farms,&dquo; he says. &dquo;There are a tremendous number of owners who need people to manage their land. My job is to make those connections.&dquo;

The largest tobacco farm in North Carolina is entirely on leased land, Sprague notes.

&dquo;There are examples of all this being done all across the United States,&dquo; Sprague says. &dquo;It&squo;s been tested and we can try these ideas here. There are opportunities here.&dquo;