The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

Rebuilding Communities through The Gillings Sustainable Ag Project

lonely gas station

In North Carolina, there are over two hundred towns with less than five thousand people. Many of these towns lack viable job opportunities and residents are forced to leave to find work in other nearby larger cities. As this exodus occurs the workforce diminishes, fewer people utilize services or patronize retail businesses, the tax base shrinks, economic activity slows, and small towns, that were once self-sufficient and self-contained, end up suffering and at times, completely vanishing. The migration of residents from small towns to the big city is not a new story, but as we look to North Carolina’s strong agricultural heritage, The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project views our state’s ties to farming as a potential new way to revitalize and preserve many of our state’s small towns.

Will Lambe, Associate Director of The Community and Economic Development Program at the UNC School of Government, and Helen Dombalis, a graduate student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, are working to connect the state’s movement towards a more local and sustainable food system with ways to maintain the viability of small communities. Will, who recently published a book entitled “Small Towns, Big Ideas, Case Studies in Small Town Economic Development” is not new to helping communities think outside of the box to foster economic development. He has researched and presented findings related to rural economic development strategies to communities in various states throughout the country as well as to an international audience. Now, Will is using the case study approach to assess agriculturally-related initiatives.

As part of this aspect of The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project, Will and Helen will be conducting eight case studies of local, sustainable food systems in counties throughout North Carolina that will showcase community economic development resulting from these systems.  These cases will begin to identify characteristics, assets and other commonalities among those counties and will likely encompass communities in various states of progression in their development of local food systems – from those that have just a few prospects to those with a strong agricultural infrastructure and networked resource base.  As part of this process, specific organizations within each county will be identified for their work within some aspect of food change. Leaders from each organization will be interviewed to learn what the organization has helped to achieve within their community and to explore the organization’s goals and challenges. According to Will and Helen, the intent is to document each system’s development including lessons learned regarding the challenges surmounted, opportunities realized and to identify the ingredients for success. Ultimately these findings, including both barriers to and facilitators of local food system development, will be presented to various county commissioners, economic development professionals, and others who are looking for ways to help save small towns.

Right here in the Triangle area, Pittsboro clearly seems like a small town success story. Just a half hour south of Chapel Hill in Chatham County, Pittsboro’s dynamic and progressive initiatives are impressive. As Sustainable Grub blogger and Pittsboro resident writes, “Clearly something is happening here that may be instructive for other communities. Within a bicycle ride of my backyard are: the first certified organic farm in our state, the first organic dairy in our region, the first two-year degree program in sustainable agriculture anywhere in the U.S., several incubators where newbie farmers have sprouted on small plots of borrowed land, an international research organization committed to preserving small farms, another devoted to saving rare animal breeds, several seed banks, a biodiesel operation that grows food and fuel, and a food co-op where I can buy local organic food seven days a week and eat the best slow-food-from-a-fast-bar for miles around.”

It’s encouraging to look at Pittsboro as an example of what many other small towns in North Carolina could transform into. Of course, we don’t want exact replicas of Pittsboro across the state and lose a sense of small town diversity, but this is an example worth replicating in some manner. Once completed, these Gillings case studies will help people that are rebuilding communities by learning from the experience of others at the same time they restore and maintain their town’s unique and individual flavor. I’ll keep you updated as Helen and Will trek to counties throughout the state to see how various local organizations are connecting back to their town’s agricultural roots and rebuilding on this sometimes forgotten foundation.


2 Comments so far
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Many thanks for the plug and for Pittsboro.

Comment by Dee

Good information here. Our town is pop. approx. 280 and we are growing thanks to the efforts of many hard working folks. Good luck on your end!

Comment by pallmallit

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