Western North Carolina farmers are gaining support in diversifying or expanding their operations. WNC Agricultural Options presented 31 farm businesses a total of $168,000 in grants Feb. 12 at an event at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.

Six of the farm businesses received $3,000, and 25 received $6,000. The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is the exclusive financial supporter of WNC AgOptions, which helps farmers offset the risk of trying new ventures.

“Western North Carolina farmers are very resourceful and have proven time and time again that these grants can make a significant impact on their farming operations,” said Bill Teague, chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.

Steven Beltram of Balsam Gardens is expanding his vegetable production in a big way, while transitioning to USDA Certified Organic so he can sell to large volume buyers and distributors. Since 2008, Beltram has farmed in Sylva, where he will be growing from 5 to 15 acres. He also recently acquired 33 acres on Sand Hill Road in Asheville and entered an agreement with the City of Asheville to rent 11 acres near East Asheville’s Azalea Park.

“By scaling up our operation, we are able to diversify our marketing options and get some of our product into large-scale grocers,” Beltram said. “I believe that expanding our wholesale vegetable operation is the most important thing I can do to ensure financial sustainability for our farm and to support my family.”

Beltram completed a WNC AgOptions project in 2011 to expand his poultry operation to include broilers and Thanksgiving turkeys. “Poultry has become a very important part of our business since being awarded funding for the project,” he said. “I do not believe that we would still be farming if we had not added the poultry venture to our operation, and I do not think that we could have afforded to do it without WNC AgOptions. We are likely still farming because of the opportunity provided by that small amount of grant money.”

Few organic farms in the far western region are at a scale large enough to supply the type of buyers Beltram is trying to reach.

Since 2004, WNC AgOptions has awarded nearly $2 million to 423 farm projects. “The funding provided to these projects combined with the educational opportunities have been invaluable tools in helping transform and sustain a viable agricultural industry in WNC,” said Ross Young, Madison County Extension Director and WNC AgOptions steering committee leader.

WNC AgOptions plans to distribute $172,000 to farmers in 2016. Interested applicants should check www.wncagoptions.org this summer for announcements about details on how to apply. Winning recipients show in their applications how the grant-funded projects can increase profitability of their businesses.

The administrator of WNC AgOptions is WNC Communities, a nonprofit organization that has been supporting agriculture in the region since 1947. WNC Communities provides a unique forum for leaders in WNC to carry out innovative programs to improve the quality of life for rural communities and to enhance the agriculture economy.

“WNC Communities is extremely pleased to partner with the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and the N.C. General Assembly in bringing this assistance to emerging farmers in the western district,” said L.T. Ward, vice president of WNC Communities. “This program demonstrates the commitment of our legislators to the agriculture community and the Commission. For that, we are indeed grateful.”

Members of the WNC AgOptions steering committee include representatives from N.C. Cooperative Extension, N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services–Marketing Division, WNC Communities, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and other leaders in agribusiness.

For more information, visit the following: WNC Agricultural Options (www.wncagoptions.org), N.C. Cooperative Extension Centers (www.ces.ncsu.edu), N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission (www.tobaccotrustfund.org), WNC Communities (www.wnccommunities.org).

To view a full list of recipients with links to descriptions of the projects, visit www.wncagoptions.org/2015-topics.