EmPOWERing North Carolina’s Farmers and Small Businesses

In October 2019, North Carolina State University (NCSU) received a $1.1 million grant from ARC’s POWER Initiative to launch EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems. The project initially intended to strengthen a seven-county “foodshed” in Western North Carolina by helping current producers become more profitable and training new farmers to grow the local food system. NCSU’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) would administer the program’s comprehensive model, which included business development, market development, training for new growers and food businesses, value-added production support, agritourism promotion and more.  

However, when COVID-19 hit in 2020, local businesses were shuttering operations and farmers were incurring major customer and profit losses. That’s when EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems took action and began redirecting their ARC POWER funds to buy cold storage for their growers and small business customers.

One small business beneficiary was Guadalupe Café, in ­Sylva, North Carolina. Owner Jen Pearson always bought local food to preserve and support the area’s agrarian culture. When local businesses began shutting down, the cold storage capabilities allowed Pearson to continue purchasing fresh products from farmers and store them for direct-to-consumer sales. Pivoting to a retail-based business, in addition to maintaining regular restaurant sales, Pearson said, has “[helped] me keep my employees; it’s helping farmers keep their farms, and it’s helping me keep my restaurant.”

About 30 minutes away in Franklin, North Carolina, Hannah and Alan Edwards were making a similar operational pivot. In just seven days, they shut down their restaurant and launched an online commerce platform, Yonder Farmers Market. To meet demand for fresh food and dairy, Hannah and Alan needed large, reach-in coolers — but lacked the funds. EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems came to the rescue, helping Yonder purchase the coolers needed to continue supporting local farmers and their livelihood. 

“There was funding available for people like us in a really tough time to support local agriculture, local food, and regional vendors,” said Hannah Edwards. “We’re so glad that that organization is in place for other people, because these towns need this right now.”

COVID-19 has affected nearly every industry, but thanks to EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems, local food businesses were given the chance to pivot and continue contributing to Appalachia’s economic growth. For more information on ARC’s response to COVID-19, as well as helpful resources, please visit arc.gov/coronavirus