"Who can resist a juicy, red strawberry in December?" asks Marc Cox, a tobacco transplant producer from Tabor City, N.C. Cox has been producing quality transplants for area tobacco farmers since 1992, but recent cuts in tobacco quota have reduced the demand for starts and left him with some extra space in his greenhouses. That's what led him to strawberries. Cox believes that he can use the skills he has acquired in his years of operating tobacco greenhouses to grow off-season strawberries.

Tobacco farming has changed in the past few years, and many farmers, like Cox, have felt the pinch from shrinking tobacco income. Historically, tobacco was one of the best money earners on the farm. With constant quota cuts and an increase in cheaper tobacco imports, many tobacco farmers and communities that depend on tobacco need something different. Last year, Cox received one of 20 cost-share grants awarded by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) for development of new enterprises which replace lost tobacco income.

With the support of the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, RAFI is again offering cost-share grants through the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund to farmers and community groups in North Carolina. Farmers, farm organizations, and community groups in Alleghany, Ashe, Bertie, Bladen, Columbus, Gates, Halifax, Hertford, Lee, Moore, Northampton, Robeson, Surry, and Yadkin counties are eligible. Cost-share support will be up to $10,000 for producer projects and $30,000 for community projects.

The deadline for proposals is January 14, 2004.

Workshops on the grant application process are being offered across the state.

RAFI's Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund was started in 1997 to help tobacco farmers and community groups develop alternative enterprises. According to a continuing study of 1236 tobacco farmers conducted by RAFI and Wake Forest University, farmers said that lack of capital, markets, processing and profitability stand in the way of replacing tobacco income with other enterprises. The Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund addresses those issues through a cost-share grant program. The cost-share grants make it less risky to try something new, giving people a chance to find the ideas that will work in the new economy.

Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Program participants have an opportunity to be truly innovative in their approach to replacing tobacco income. "It's going to take a real mixture to try to replace a portion of the income we lose from tobacco," said Dr. David Smith, NCSU Tobacco Specialist and Reinvestment Fund Review Board Member. Past RAFI projects have taken advantage of local opportunities and resources in a variety of ways.

"Most tobacco farmers grow crops other than tobacco, but profits on those other crops generally don't compare. The Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund provides an opportunity for farmers to try new marketing and processing strategies in order to get higher value for their crops," says Betty Bailey, Executive Director of RAFI. "We are so grateful to the Tobacco Trust fund Commission for recognizing the importance of this program to keeping North Carolina's farm families and communities viable," says Bailey.

The challenges faced by farmers and rural communities in this changing economy are great. However, as Bailey explains, "There is no shortage of good ideas among farmers." The Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund is giving farmers and communities the opportunity to put their ideas to work.