Rural Center project offers biz assistance to farmers

010919 Farmers Meeting
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Jamilla Hawkins, senior program manager for the N.C. Rural Center's Rural Food Business Assistance Project, discusses the project's benefits with local residents at the Hugh Cale Community Center in Elizabeth City, Wednesday.

010919 Farmers Meeting

By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Local farmers can get scholarships, business coaching, and even loans through the North Carolina Rural Center, staffers from the nonprofit said in a visit to Elizabeth City on Wednesday.

The N.C. Rural Center can provide scholarships of up to $400 per person, sometimes more, for business-related training and conferences, Jamilla Hawkins told farmers and small business development groups during a presentation at the Hugh Cale Community Resources Center. Hawkins is a senior program manager who oversees the Rural Center's Rural Food Business Assistance Project.

The Rural Center partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer the project, which started in 2016 in other rural parts of the state, Hawkins explained. The project has been expanded to northeastern North Carolina and two other regions, leading the Rural Center to visit those communities this week to promote it.

The Business Assistance Project provides “technical assistance, food business training and conference scholarships, connections, skills assessment, business coaching, and access to capital,” according to program materials. In addition to farmers, its services are also available to agricultural entrepreneurs, such as those in agribusinesses, food service businesses, and value-added processors.

Hawkins said the project often helps pay for Quickbook accounting courses, community college courses, attendance costs for food business-related conferences, and training in ServSafe for farmers who want to prepare and offer their crops for direct consumption. The Rural Center won't pay for an entire degree program, as it generally offers only up to $400 per person, but it can still help farmers acquire important skills or connections, she explained.

Hawkins also stressed the Business Assistance Project does not reimburse people for expenses already paid. Those who want scholarships must submit applications, she said. If people are asking the project to pay for conferences, they should apply at least four weeks ahead of the event, she added.

The Business Assistance Project also will not pay for membership fees to organizations or equipment. While it will pay the entry fees for conferences, it doesn't pay for travel expenses, Hawkins said.

The project can also help connect farmers to other useful organizations, such as Small Business Centers and Cooperative Extension offices. Finding and getting the most out of those groups can be difficult for farmers sometimes, Hawkins noted.

Access to capital is also vital to farmers and related entrepreneurs. The Business Assistance Project can connect them to good lending sources, including the Rural Center itself, she explained. Through a subsidiary, Thread Capital, the Rural Center can provide loans of as much as $50,000, she said.

Few farmers attended Wednesday's event, but officials from Elizabeth City State University, the Small Business Center at College of The Albemarle, the economic development group NCGrowth, and River City Community Development Corp. were present. River City CDC President Lenora Jarvis-Mackey is also a board member of the Rural Center.

For more information on the Business Assistance Project, call Hawkins at 919-250-4314, or email her at jhawkins@ncruralcenter.org.