Aaron Nousaine is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning. He is currently working with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council in Asheville through the Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps (CERC).
In previous posts I have highlighted ways that the Land-of-Sky Regional Council (LOSRC) and its many partner organizations are attempting to link economic development environmental conservation and regional sustainability. Today, the focus is on a project that brings together various stakeholders in the region’s agriculture and timber industries to brainstorm ways to ensure a quality future farm and forest workforce, ensure viable commercial agriculture and timber production, and increase the proportion of farm and forest lands that are managed with sustainable, long-term practices.
The cornerstone of the current effort is the western North Carolina Forest Producers Marketing Project. The goal of the project is to support unemployed and underemployed forest workers with innovative ideas about how to improve their forest enterprises. Funding for the project includes nearly $2 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds, provided through the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station based in Asheville, but administered through the LOSRC. The funds are being used to provide seed capital to expand and diversify nearly 15 small-businesses and will allow for regional marketing of these businesses through the Council of Government’s existing community networks. Each of the involved businesses currently purchases regionally sourced timber and non-timber wood products from local landowners, loggers, mills, artisans, and handcrafters. By providing capital and non-capital support the project anticipates being able to increase the economic vibrancy of these firms and to create over 140 full-time equivalent jobs over the next few years.
One of the most interesting pieces to this project is the sheer diversity of business types that have been selected to participate. These range from local farmers who want to pursue sustainable forestry on their ridge to properties and existing small-scale mill operations who want to expand into kiln dried firewood production, to a manufacturer of rustic architectural products and training for sustainable forestry and trail maintenance. Of particular interest are the two food product operations. The first aims to expand and market shiitake mushrooms cultivated in western North Carolina. The second hopes to reintroduce traditional Cherokee food products into the western North Carolina market, training unemployed foresters in planting and harvesting techniques. Click here for more details regarding project participants.
While the true economic development impact of this effort has yet to be seen, the project does highlight how the Land-of-Sky region is attempting to develop various support bulwarks to ensure the future viability of their traditional industries through not-so-traditional product innovations. The question is, will these innovations be sufficient to overcome the various structural changes that are occurring global and that threaten the future viability of many resourced based industries in the United States? In an era of vast economies of scale and increased mechanization, are craft oriented strategies relevant and scalable within resource based industries. The answer I suppose is highly dependent on the industry and the markets thereof. However, as this project and others like it move forward, they will hopefully provide valuable lessons learned and at least some valuable local employment opportunities.