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Gifts and Awards

Grants Expand Options for North Carolina Farmers

A group of people holding a large check
Jacqueline Murphy Miller, Susan Jakes, John Dole, Brandon Batten, William Upchurch, Rich Bonanno, Rep. Larry Strickland, Bill Collins, Susan Barnes

By Chris R. Gonzalez

A $1.5 million grant from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission (NCTTFC) will help farmers upgrade, diversify and maintain family farms throughout the state. It is the latest in continued funding by the Commission to NC State’s AgVentures program.

NCTTFC board members and staff presented a check to Interim Dean John Dole and NC State Extension Director Richard Bonanno in a ceremony on campus on Dec. 7, 2022.

“We have a long partnership with the Commission. With each grant we administer, I find it extremely rewarding to know that farming needs are being met to sustain traditional practices as well as encourage new ventures,” Interim Dean John Dole said.

NC State Extension awards grants through NC AgVentures to support family farms and community organizations that bolster family farms. The grant will be used to benefit at least 150 farms in 46 counties that were negatively impacted by the downturn in tobacco farming. To date, the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation has been granted over $4.4 million in support of the NC AgVentures program. 

Previous grants administered through the NC AgVentures program have enabled farmers to utilize 21st-century technology, from peanut-drying shacks to high-flying drones.

I find it extremely rewarding to know that farming needs are being met to sustain traditional practices as well as encourage new ventures.

The NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission was created following the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, which instructed cigarette manufacturers to pay over $200 billion to 46 states over the first 25 years of the legal agreement. The funds are to assist tobacco farmers and persons engaged in tobacco-related businesses adversely affected by the downturn in crop production.

In 2020, farmer Brett Sears applied for a grant to build a peanut drying shelter to shave thousands off the cost of his business operations each year. While discussing peanut farming ideas with Harnett County Extension Agent Brian Parrish, he was urged to apply for an NC AgVentures grant. Sears received the grant and quickly built his planned 90’ x 118’ shelter.

Four men holding a large check
Left to right: Brandon Batten, Dan Wells, Jeffrey Wood and Rep. Larry Strickland

Winning the grant has helped Sears Farms save money by drying their own peanuts, and it has the added benefit of protecting the hauling trailers during the off-season.

“I grow 350 acres of peanuts. We get them out of the field and put them in a semi, 45-foot-long van-body trailer, and we dry them. When you get them out of the field, they are not low enough in moisture to deliver,” Sears said of the process.

Previously, he was paying to have the crop dried. But now that the farm has a shelter, he can back the two semis under it and turn on the dryer. “Even if it is raining, we are good to go,” he said. “It will save me a minimum of $7,000 to $8,000 every year. And honestly, I see a lot of people with trailers who don’t have a shelter, and they look worn. Having that shelter is a two-fold gift.”

Sears launched his family farm, Sears Farms, with 125 acres of peanuts. 

“This was my fourth peanut season. I’ve increased 50 to 75 acres every year,” he said.

Larry Strickland and Bill Collins
North Carolina Rep. Larry Strickland and Bill Collins of the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.

The farm, which Brett and his father Ricky manage, now produces tobacco, peanuts, corn, wheat and beans, among other crops.

Five years ago, NC State agricultural engineering alumnus Brandon Batten applied for a grant to buy a drone for use on his 50-year-old family farm in Johnston County.

“I was trying to figure out how to talk my dad and uncle into letting me get a drone. I thought they were cool, so I wanted one. When the grant came along, I wrote up a proposal, and I was lucky enough to get awarded,” Batten said.

Having a drone has benefited the Batten’s crops and has also been the source of a startup business. Flying Farmer, LLC has assisted many area farms search for crop damage and has helped in culling back the overuse of chemicals.

“The drone has allowed us to be more efficient. It has improved our scouting, as well as helped us reduce some of our inputs, as far as fertilizer and chemicals go, by targeting those where needed and not putting a flat rate across the field like we used to. Now we can make a custom application depending on the needs of the crop,” Batten said.

Extension Director Richard Bonanno said, “Drone technology is proving invaluable in hunting crop damage and diseased plants. Spotting trouble quickly allows a farmer to replant or take other measures to minimize loss.”

Batten shares two examples of assisting nearby farmers following floods in the area.

“I was able to use the drone to do a stand count and made replant recommendations based on what plants had drowned or were washed away, and we could document all that for insurance and the farmer’s benefit,” he said.

 Another flood damaged many of the 250 acres of a tree farm.

“I gridded it off and showed them where the trees were and were not so they could target their efforts without having to hire a consultant to walk this huge tract,” Batten said.

NC AgVentures grants are administered to farmers via an application process and cover almost anything grown or raised in the state. Award categories in the past have ranged from aquaponics, livestock, crops, technology and agritourism.

Dole said, “AgVentures grants benefit the economic stability of communities across the state. Over 300 grants have been awarded since 2014.”

The NC AgVentures website gives instructions for applying for grants, and there are workshops to assist in the grant proposal process.

Some of the 50 grants awarded in 2021 and 2022 included: building storefronts to increase agritourism, expanding livestock, planting gourmet root vegetables, increasing goat herds for a dairy program, creating new and expanded elderberry farming, and building sheds to protect valuable equipment.

The following are a variety of specific awards most recently granted:

  • Valarie Jarvis of Durham will use the grant to open a fully functioning, solar-powered farm store offering proteins and local produce for the community.
  • Emma Hendel of Pfafftown will use the grant funds to purchase retail displays and cold storage to transform an existing barn into a year-round farm store.
  • Robert Stovall of Wadesboro received a grant to purchase cheese-making equipment.
  • Gary Foote from Farmville will use the grant to construct a greenhouse to extend the growing season for ginger and turmeric crops.
  • Adam and Mecca Lowe of Glade Valley received a grant to create a working sorghum syrup production facility.

To learn more about the AgVentures grant program and to read about grants awarded in the past several years, visit NC AgVentures.