Building Assets for the Rural Future

Protect Agricultural Businesses and Jobs

Protect Agricultural Businesses and Jobs

The Opportunity

Agriculture is North Carolina’s top industry, bringing $70.1 billion into the state in 2007 and representing almost 18% of the gross state product.[1] The industry accounts for about 17%, or 700,000, of the state’s employees.[2] Likewise, North Carolina’s “working waterfronts” and fishing industry are significant employers for several regions in the state. In 2006, commercial fishing accounted for more than 13,200 jobs, while recreational fishing contributed almost 24,000 jobs.[3]  Many of the employees in these industries are, by definition, living on the economic margin. The 2008 average wage for farming, fishing, and forestry occupations was estimated to be only $24,639,[4] or about half the median household income for the state.[5]

These jobs are threatened by population growth and changing development patterns. North Carolina lost 10% of its farms between 1997 and 2007.[6] Likewise, from 2002 to 2006, there was a 33% decrease in North Carolina seafood packaging facilities.[7] To preserve these working class jobs, several approaches have been employed.

How the Tactic Is Applied

  • Preserve and enhance the viability of agricultural businesses
  • Preserve working waterfronts
  • Evolving practice: Farm Enterprise Incubators

Preserve and Enhance the Viability of Agricultural Businesses

Farms for the Future (Maine)
Rural Advancement Foundation International USA (North Carolina)

Farms for the Future is a Maine economic development program that assists established farmers with developing new agricultural products while simultaneously preserving farmland. The program provides farmers with business development assistance and then matches business investments that expand product lines. In the business development phase of the program, farmers are teamed with a group of advisors and technical assistance providers to develop a business plan that is tailored to each farmer.[8] Farmers then use the business plan as the basis for raising capital either through conventional sources or by applying for funding in the second phase of the program. Farmers entering the second phase of the program receive a 25% matching grant of up to $25,000 for implementation of the business plan. As a condition of the grant, recipient farmers must enter into a seven-year “farmland protection agreement” with the state that prohibits the farmer from using farmland for non-agricultural development.[9] Most of the farms entering the program are smaller than 500 acres and earn under $500,000 annual gross income.[10]  An independent evaluation of the program found positive impacts on farm employment, farm sales, and farmland conservation.[11] For farms participating in the second phase of the program, both total gross sales and net profit increased.[12]

In North Carolina, Rural Advancement Foundation International USA (RAFI) works throughout the state to assist former tobacco and new farmers develop new sources of agricultural income, such as expansion into sustainable and organic products.[13] RAFI’s Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Project Fund invests in existing family-owned farm businesses and community collaborative agricultural projects by providing technical assistance and competitive grants of up to $30,000.[14] Technical assistance includes business development and planning, product development, marketing, financial counseling, and referrals to agricultural experts and other support organizations.[15] An evaluation of the program found that from 2003 to 2005, $530,000 in grants leveraged more than $1.5 million in additional investment in the state’s agricultural industry and retained or created almost 450 jobs.[16]

Preserve Working Waterfronts

Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program (Maine)
Dare County (North Carolina)
Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (Maine)

Only a handful of states have formally addressed the decline of working waterfronts, and those states have predominantly been along the Atlantic or Gulf Coasts.[17] In Maine, the Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program funds local projects to purchase, preserve, and protect critical coastal properties that support commercial fishing activities. In selecting projects for funding, the program looks at the economic significance of the property, the threat of conversion to non-fishing uses, the suitability of the property for commercial fishing businesses, the existence of alternative waterfront properties in the vicinity, and the support of the local community. To receive a grant under the program, a working waterfront property owner must surrender some control over development of the working waterfront property, such as prohibiting certain uses on the property or granting a right of first refusal to a preservation organization prior to selling the property.[18] Since the program was established in 2006, it has secured nineteen working waterfront properties that support almost 1,000 fishing industry jobs and carry a combined fair market value of more than $17 million.[19]

The local government role in preserving working waterfronts is exercised through its zoning power. For example, Dare County, North Carolina, accounted for the traditional fishing culture and economy of the unincorporated Village of Wanchese during the county zoning process in 2006. Wanchese residents and Dare County officials worked together to develop a tailored zoning plan that reflected the community’s desire to retain its traditional fishing village culture. The approved plan calls for twelve distinct zoning districts, each of which permits traditional working waterfront activities while restricting other forms of development.[20]

Finally, the nonprofit Coastal Enterprises, Inc. runs a revolving loan program called the Fisheries and Working Waterfronts Project. The program provides low-cost loans (up to $300,000) and business development assistance to commercial fisheries and other water-related businesses. Borrowers must agree to participate in a marine science or public health research or management project in exchange for the loan funds. The research is intended to discover new marine-related industry opportunities that could enhance the viability of working waterfronts and fisheries.[21] Since the project’s inception, CEI has made over $12.3 million in loans and leveraged an additional $36 million for participating businesses. CEI reports that more than 1,300 full-time jobs and 200 part-time jobs have been retained or created as a result.[22]

Evolving Practices: Farm Enterprise Incubators and Value-Added Production Facilities

Farm enterprise incubators are similar to business incubators. They provide beginning farmers with low-cost land, equipment rentals, training, and technical assistance during the initial few years when farming businesses are at greatest risk of failure. A handful of farm incubators are currently operating in North Carolina, including Raft Swamp Farms in Hoke County, Breeze Farm in Orange County, and Maverick Farms in Wautaga County. In Orange County, the Orange County Economic Development department and Orange County Cooperative Extension run the PLANT Farm Enterprise Incubator.[23] The program offers an 8-week workshop series that teaches the basics of small scale sustainable farming. Program participants who complete the workshop and develop a business and crop plan are eligible to use shared equipment and lease land connected to the incubator.[24]

Value-added production facilities also provide an outlet for agricultural enterprise. Value-added production refers to processes that take agricultural products and turn them into more valuable products, such as turning cucumbers into pickles. Value-added production facilities typically offer food entrepreneurs the necessary space, equipment, and training to create safe, marketable products. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center offers case studies from around the country and information on products, markets, business development, and resources specific to North Carolina.[25]

[Updated 2015-4-2]

Learn More

Jason Schroeder
Program Director
Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Project
Pittsboro, NC
919-542-1396 x208   

Carla Dickstein
Senior Program Officer
Coastal Enterprises
Wiscasset, ME
207-882-7552 x118

On the Internet

Maine Farms for the Future

N.C. Waterfront Access Study Committee Final Report

Maine Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program

Orange County, NC – PLANT Farm Incubator

Agricultural Marketing Resource Center

[1]Mike Walden, Agriculture and Agribusiness: North Carolina’s Number One Industry (2009), available at http://ag-econ.ncsu.edu/sites/ag-econ.ncsu.edu/files/faculty/walden/agribusiness-2014.pdf (Agriculture and agribusiness include the food, fiber, and forestry industries.).

[2] Ibid.

[3] National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Economics of the United States 2006: Economics and Sociocultural Status and Trends Series 107 (2009), available at http://goo.gl/HD1DmY. These figures do not include related jobs in seafood processing sales, transport, and boating. Ibid. at 106-107.

[4] Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008 North Carolina Occupational Employment and Wages,

[5] The 2008 median household income for North Carolina was $46,574. U.S. Census Bureau, North Carolina Quick Facts, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/37000.html (last visited May 10, 2010).

[6] National Agriculture Statistics Service, 2007 Census of Agriculture: North Carolina State and County Data 7 (2009), available at http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_State_Level/North_Carolina/ncv1.pdf (The number of farms fell from 59,120 in 1997 to 52,873 in 2007.).

[7] N.C. Waterfront Access Study Committee, Waterfront Access Study Committee Final Report 15 (2007), available at http://www.ncseagrant.org/images/stories/ncsg_pdf/documents/conferences/wasc/WASC_FINAL_web.pdf.

[8] 7 Me. Rev. Stat. § 318 (2009).

[9] Ibid. at § 319(4).

[11] Pan Atlantic SMS Group, Farms for the Future Program 9-10 (2008).

[12] Pan Atlantic SMS Group, above note 11, at 43-48 (Gross sales increased an average of 37.3%, while 63.6% of farmers indicated that net profits had increased.).

[13] RAFI-USA is discussed here, but programs with similar aims include county Cooperative Extension offices, the NC Market Ready program, and programs such as the Central Carolina Community College Sustainable Agriculture Program.

[14] Rural Advancement Foundation International, The Agricultural Reinvestment Report 7-8, 10 (2006), available at http://issuu.com/rafi-usa/docs/agricultural_reinvestment_report  [hereinafter Agricultural Reinvestment Report] (describing the practical effects of the changes in the quota system and the tobacco buyout, including the fact that small and family farmers would need to develop new farm income and new skills); Interview of Feb. 19, 2010 (on file with authors).

[15] Ibid. at 11.  See also Rural Advancement Foundation International, The Farmer’s Guide to Development of New Farm Enterprises 19 (2009)

[16] Rural Advancement Foundation International, Agricultural Reinvestment Report, above note 14, at 16.

[17] One state is Florida, which created the Waterfront Florida Partnership Program in 1997 to combat the economic and physical change of the state’s traditional working waterfronts. Towns and cities selected for the program must engage in a community visioning process and develop a plan for revitalizing the waterfront area by addressing four issues: creating public access, hazard mitigation, economic revitalization, and environmental/cultural resource protection. 

[18] 33 Me. Rev. Stat. §§ 131-134 (2009).

[19] Maine Working Waterfront Coalition, Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program (No Date), available at http://web.vims.edu/adv/wateraccess/docs/day2/papers/Cowperthwaite.pdf

[20] N.C. Waterfront Access Study Committee, above note 7, at 22-23.  For example, in residential zoning districts, commercial fishing enterprises such as retail or wholesale markets, fishing or crabbing businesses, and crab shedding operations are permitted if the residence is occupied by the business owner, while the waterfront zoning district allows existing waterfront-dependent structures to be built back to the water’s edge if they need to be restored.  See Ann Green, Community Charm: Wanchese Implements Innovative Zoning, Coastwatch (Early Summer 2007).

[21] See Coastal Enterprises, Inc,, Marine Policy and Research, http://www.ceimaine.org/about/community-development-and-policy-research/

[22] See Coastal Enterprises, Inc., Development Approach to Fisheries and Maine’s Working Waterfront, http://www.ceimaine.org/investing/cei-investment-notes/

[23] “PLANT” stands for “People Learning Agriculture Now for Tomorrow.”

[24] Orange County, North Carolina, W.C. Breeze Family Farm, http://www.orangecountyfarms.org/PLANTatBreeze.asp.

[25] North Carolina resources for value-added production, http://www.agmrc.org/directories__state_resources/agmrc_directories/north_carolina_state_resources.cfm.