One federal agency’s economic outreach effort to help small farmers came to Burgaw this week.
North Carolina representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday held a town hall-style meeting to introduce their audience to a variety of programs coordinated through the USDA’s StrikeForce Initiative for Rural Growth and Opportunity. The event featured former N.C. Rep. Bob Etheridge, who is now the state executive director for the N.C. USDA Farm Service Agency.
“They want to help support us as well as directly connect with farmers to help them access available resources,” said Jane Steigerwald, director of Feast Down East, which partnered with the agency in organizing the event. Wilmington-based Feast Down East has a mission of linking farmers and buyers with a goal of building a sustainable local food system and will continue to work with the USDA on the initiative's action steps for the Cape Fear area.
One challenge for struggling small- and mid-size farms is learning about and tapping into programs designed to help them with everything from soil enrichment to securing capital, Steigerwald said. She said that several departments that operate under the USDA umbrella were represented at the meeting. In addition to the Farm Service Agency, those included the Rural Development and Risk Management departments and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“Farmers were given information about all the individual organizations and how they benefit the farmer and agriculture,” Steigerwald said.
About 80 people – of whom about 30 were farmers – attended the meeting, she said, adding that she heard from other farmers who were interested in the initiative but couldn’t attend.
“[Farmers] don’t know where the resources are; they don’t know whom to contact,” Steigerwald said, explaining that the USDA-Feast Down East partnership through StrikeForce is aimed at organizing that information so that farmers can understand how to tap into needed resources and planners’ work can support the needs of small farmers.
“A lot of rural counties have many small farmers; many of them are struggling to connect with markets. Larger farmers are shipping their products out of state,” Steigerwald said. “We are helping these small and midsize farms grow healthy food and keep it here, accessible to consumers. There’s an abundance of land out there to be farmed. Conservation services can help farmers enrich their soil and grow their farms that way. And there’s financial and capital support so young farmers can get off the ground.”
“It was a very positive meeting,” said Phillip Farland, StrikeForce coordinator for the state and a district director for the Farm Service Agency. “StrikeForce is about the USDA outreach to underserved areas and the eradication of poverty. It’s about trying to engage the private sector along with government agencies and nonprofit organizations – all of us working together.”
The purpose of the town hall meeting in Burgaw, and others like it that are taking place across the state, is to let farmers and local government planners know what agencies and programs exist to strengthen agricultural-based economic development and address problems such as food deserts, Farland said.
Once the information phase is complete, he said, the FSA will provide outreach to every county in North Carolina, especially what are termed Tier 1 or StrikeForce counties, where rural poverty abounds.
In the Cape Fear area, which is part of North Carolina’s USDA District 5, those counties are Bladen, Columbus and Duplin, but other pockets of rural poverty exist in all counties, including Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender, Farland said.
The outreach effort will consist of building teams in each county that will identify and evaluate needs and develop strategies to address them, he said.