Research & Innovation
Promising strategies: innovation in action
Looking for an idea to help stimulate your local economy? Watch this space for a growing collection of innovative strategies for spurring local and regional economic development. We’ll highlight projects funded through our Economic Innovation Grants Program. The emphasis will be on strategies that hold strong potential for replication elsewhere or for simply stimulating creative thinking about other solutions. We’ll add new strategies frequently so visit often.
Tim Will, executive director of the Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center in Rutherfordton, created a website for local farmers to market directly to restaurants in Charlotte willing to pay top dollar for fresh, local produce. Now farmers with even a small acreage can earn a good return on specialty crops – from micro-greens to squash blossoms -- for high-end restaurants. This is especially important in Rutherford County, where factory closings have created one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
The Farmers Fresh Market website features products from 140 farmers in Rutherford, Cleveland, McDowell, Polk, Burke and Buncombe counties. Fifteen restaurants and 140 individuals regularly order their food through the website. In 2009, in only its second year of operation, Farmers Fresh Market sold $85,000 of produce. This is expected to increase to $150,000 in 2010.
To help farmers become involved, Foothills Connect launched a sustainable agriculture training program in January 2009. The eight-week course teaches people how to grow specialty crops and operate sustainable farms, and it has now been expanded to the local high school, where hundreds of students are getting hands-on experience managing an intensive, small-scale livestock farm.
Another Farmers Fresh Market initiative is just getting under way. Foothills Connect will construct greenhouses, powered by methane gas from the county landfill, where farmers can grow crops during the winter months. In addition to creating jobs and income, the project will keep 20 metric tons of methane from being released into the atmosphere annually.
A Rural Center grant helped Foothills Connect with early expansion of the Farmers Fresh Market concept. Another grant, awarded in April 2010, is assisting the greenhouse project.
Commercial fishing has been a way of life for generations of families on Ocracoke Island, but that way of life was threatened in 2006, when the last remaining fish house on the island closed and was put up for sale. For decades the fish house had provided space for commercial fishermen to clean their catch and ice it down for transport to off-island markets.
The island’s fishermen resolved to determine their own destiny and protect their cultural identity. The nonprofit Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association raised the money to buy the fish house and refurbish it, with the help of the Rural Center and other funders. The fish house operates today as Ocracoke Seafood, a for-profit subsidiary of the association.
As a result, more than 35 local commercial fishermen, crabbers, shrimpers and netters have retained their livelihoods, selling more than $587,000 worth of catch and merchandise at the fish house in 2009. The fisherman who belong to the association – and therefore own shares in the fish house – earned dividends totaling $15,000 that same year. The fish house also means six additional jobs in retail, warehouse and office positions.
An efficient route to profits
Manufacturing has long accounted for a significant portion of the rural economy. In some counties, nearly half of the workforce was engaged in manufacturing in the 1970s and ‘80s. But manufacturing has been on the decline since then, particularly in traditional industries. The state has lost over 250,000 manufacturing jobs in past decade alone.
The N.C. State University Industrial Extension Service is piloting a technical assistance program to help make rural manufacturing more competitive. It is designed to improve profits by increasing energy efficiency. The program, called E3 for economy, energy and the environment, will be tested first with four plants in Burke and Cleveland counties. Both counties have long histories as manufacturing centers, but high unemployment rates.
The Rural Center grant, awarded in April 2010, is helping launch the project. E3 also will create partnerships with Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Brett Altman, senior policy associate, Economic Innovation Program
N.C. Rural Economic Development Center
4021 Carya Drive
Raleigh, NC 27610