Local agricultural experts and farmers are optimistic that a program to promote locally grown food can now obtain a grant they say will help it flourish.
At Tuesday’s Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting, the board authorized county staff to submit a $148,500 grant proposal to the Golden LEAF Foundation on behalf of the local food branding program Piedmont Grown.
Piedmont Grown was unveiled to the public in June. It certifies and labels farm products grown in the Piedmont region.
Its goal is to increase awareness and access to local farm products to help support small farmers, said Carl Matyac, Orange County extension director.
“It’s really difficult for small farmers to compete in the agricultural industry,” Matyac said.
He said large commodity producers have tried to create regional identities for their products, like “California raisins.” The new program is a chance for local farmers to compete with well-branded products by creating their own identity.
Debbie Roos, agricultural extension agent for Chatham County, said the term “local” is misused by big-time competitors.
“For them ‘local’ means the seven Southern states,” she said.
Piedmont Grown has certified 22 farms, three restaurants, two retail grocers and one artisan food producer in Orange County.
Sally Jo Slusher, owner of PlowGirl Farm in Chapel Hill, joined Piedmont Grown this summer and is optimistic it will promote locally grown food.
“I think the label will absolutely entice consumers,” she said. “It’s assurance that the food is local, and that’s becoming increasingly important to consumers.”
The current grant proposal is meant to help increase general awareness and consumer interest in Piedmont Grown. It would also help pay for staff to run the program, said Noah Ranells, agricultural economic development coordinator for Orange County.
Ranells said because the program is still in “start-up mode,” revenue is largely drawn from the licensing dues from acting members.
He said the grant — and eventually website advertising — could fund the program in the future.
Farms can join the program for free this year, but local farm businesses have to pay a $50 membership fee.
The group has yet to decide yearly fees, because they don’t yet know what typical operating costs will be.
The Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit that administers funds from a settlement with tobacco companies, requires that a grant recipient be a nonprofit or government entity, Ranells said.
Piedmont Grown needs to submit the grant proposal through the Orange County government because they have yet to be recognized as a nonprofit organization.
“We don’t have a letter of determination from the IRS — that effort is underway,” Ranells said. “In the meantime we can still proceed in our efforts if we have an institution with the ability to set up the grant.”
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