A Step towards Saving the NC Tobacco Trust Fund

If you follow us on Facebook, Twitter or email, you know that, for the last three weeks, RAFI and our partners have been fighting to save the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. The Commission uses funds from the tobacco master settlement agreement to support projects that revitalize our state’s farm economy. One of those beneficiaries is RAFI’s farmer grant program, the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund.

farmer grantees visit the NCGA

Field Coordinator Francesca Hyatt and farmers Paul Marshall, Debra Crumpton, George Teague, Helen Isley, Charles Southard and Lou Ann Leonard take a break from visiting legislators.

The Situation

A few days after the North Carolina State House of Representatives passed a budget that completely abolished the Commission, RAFI released an economic study on the effectiveness of our grant program. That study showed that the Reinvestment Fund has created more than 4,100 jobs and $733 million in economic benefits by investing a relatively modest $3.6 million in our state’s innovative farmers. Or, in simpler terms, every dollar invested in the Fund’s farmers created $205 new dollars of economic activity within just one year.

The study proved what we knew already: saving the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is critical for the future of North Carolina’s farms and rural communities.

A Step in the Right Direction

This morning, the North Carolina State Senate Appropriations subcommittee released a draft budget that includes funding and support for the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. This isn’t a win yet – the Senate budget still needs to pass the whole Senate, and then it will need to be reconciled with the House budget, which eliminated the Commission – but it’s a big step in the right direction.

Speaking Up for Farms

Farmers are a smart investment. We have the numbers to prove it, but it’s the personal stories that those numbers represent that have made the difference. The Senate Appropriations Committee decided to support farmers because they heard from you.

In the last three weeks, legislators have received phone calls, visits, emails, and hand-delivered letters. They have heard from consumers and researchers, cooks and CSA members. Most importantly, they’ve heard from dozens of farmers who’ve taken time out of some of the busiest months of the year to defend this resource for our future. Their experiences testify to the extraordinary benefits of the Commission’s work:

  • In Union County, the folks at Harvest Moon Grille received at $10,000 grant last year to start a local-food food truck. They now employ 49 people in their new downtown restaurant, and they reported that they’ve seen $1.5 million in new income in the last year.
  • In Surry County, Angela Shur, who received a grant in early spring of 2011, has already been able to hire four local women to help her make Miss Angel’s Pies, made with apples from her family’s orchard.
  • In Lexington, a farmer who didn’t receive a grant told his legislators that the application process helped him and his wife assess the future of their farm and decide to move forward with a new enterprise.

Making the News

These stories have gotten some media attention, too. In The (Raleigh) News & Observer, in The Independent Weekly, and on WUNC radio, farmers have made themselves heard.  An opinion article in the The Mount Airy News and impassioned letters in The Mountain Express and The News and Observer from the director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, another Commission grantee, are further testimony to the way farmers are demanding the attention they deserve in this budget debate. Their stories carry more weight than any numbers. Here’s one story from the Indy article:

Joseph Thompson… received money for a camera and sensor system that protects his Cedar Grove prawn farm from vandals, as well as from faulty valves and falling oxygen levels…

Thompson’s prawn farm… will eventually supply baby shrimp to farmers in North Carolina and Virginia. That wouldn’t be realistic without an advanced system to monitor the shrimping tanks. But with the grant paying for that system, other farmers can get their baby shrimp from North Carolina instead of Texas, Thompson said.

Then that’s one more product that doesn’t have to be trucked in from out of state.

“We need that grant money,” said Thompson who, at 62, is fighting health problems as he tries to keep his farm going. “Just can’t hardly make it without it, be frankly honest with you.”

“I tell you what,” he said. “You put (farmers) out of business, how are you gonna live?”

What’s next?

In the next few weeks, we’ll need to keep our attention on the General Assembly and the Governor. If we are going to defend the Commission and protect this resource for our state’s rural communities, we’ll need your help in the weeks to come.

We’ll keep sending updates by email as major developments happen. (Subscribe to the list.)  You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and our blog for up-to-the-minute updates and opportunities for action. We’re also convening a team of first-responders: farmers and advocates who can make visits to the legislature, make calls, write letters to the editor, talk to reporters, and help keep a strong presence in Raleigh as the budget moves forward. If you would like to be a member of this team, send an email to me at [email protected] with “TTFC Team” in the subject line, and we’ll keep you in the loop.

For now, on behalf of North Carolina’s farmers and rural communities, we say “thank you” – to the Senators who supported farmers, to the farmers and consumers who spoke up, to our partners in the fight to save this valuable resource. The Senate Appropriations Committee’s support is a significant first step towards preserving the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and the investments it makes in our farmers, our food, and our rural communities.

If  the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has touched you – by supporting your farm, or your local farmers’ market, or a processing plant for your favorite local food – tell us about it in the comments.

Ask your legislators to support farmers’ access to credit and co-sponsor the Fair Credit for Farmers Act!CALL