Thursday, June 30, 2011


For sixty years scientists have used chicken eggs to make flu vaccines. The process is reliable but slow and expensive. North Carolina is home to a new biotech facility that will soon be making vaccines not with eggs, but tobacco leaves. The $42 million dollar processing plant will allow the government to respond more quickly to flu pandemics.

North Carolina knows something about growing tobacco. According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, as of 2009 tobacco was still the number one cash crop with more than 4,100 pounds produced and an economic impact of more than $7billion. The tobacco industry has historically been important for agribusiness but it’s also true that cigarettes made from tobacco have well known health risks. New cigarette labels recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration will carry warnings such as “Cigarettes cause cancer,” and “Smoking can kill you.” According to data from the NC Division of Public Health, the number of deaths attributable to tobacco in North Carolina would equal about two fully loaded passenger aircraft crashing each week with no survivors.

What’s ironic is the same tobacco leaves that make cigarettes have a very promising and healthy biotech future. Scientists have figured out that the hardy, fast growing, porous plant is ideal for making vaccines. Tobacco is ideal because it’s cheap to grow and can yield large amounts of vaccine in a matter of weeks instead of several months under the egg method. The emergence of the H1N1 flu strain in 2009 after the flu vaccine supply had already been produced highlighted the flaws of egg vaccine production.

Medicago, a Canadian biotech company, is teaming up with DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense to develop the new tobacco based vaccine system. DARPA conducts research to protect soldiers from infectious diseases and is also concerned about the government’s ability to react quickly to a bioterrorist attac

For several years vaccine companies have tried a variety of techniques in harvesting vaccines in everything from caterpillars to dog kidney cells. Unlike animal parts, which might contain pathogens harmful to humans, plants have distinct advantages. Tobacco made vaccine is about a quarter of the cost of traditional egg vaccines and three times as fast to produce.

First, scientists engineer bacteria to carry the latest flu markers and wash them over the tobacco plants. The bacteria dump the DNA into the plant’s cells, which follow it’s instructions to churn out the flu protein. Technicians then grind up the leaves to extract the protein. Injected into a person, the protein works like any vaccine, training the body to attack the flu virus.

You could say tobacco is turning a new leaf in North Carolina, giving tobacco new life in our state—with very promising health benefits.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

NC International Agriculture Opportunity

It’s all about relationships- even in agriculture.

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services wants buyers in China to pick Tar Heel products. To help build relationships with international buyers, North Carolina is spending $15,000 to open its own trade office in Beijing. It seems you have to be there if you want to push your products.

Paul Chang is North Carolina’s Chief Agriculture Representative in China. He says building relationships makes North Carolina more proactive.

It means a lot of travel time for NC Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. Buyers he says, expect to see him. Troxler adds that Chinese culture puts a lot of value on his position and the fact he would take the time to come personally to China instead of sending someone to represent him.

Even the formality of business cards is important. North Carolina farmers who recently went on a trade mission to China had special cards made up and learned how to hold and present the cards properly when they were introduced.

It makes sense when you think about it. When I need any kind of service, I call who I know. And I call who I trust. Relationships count. You can’t put a monetary value on them, but we know they matter.

Peter Thornton, Assistant Director for International Marketing wants exporters to call on North Carolina for all their agriculture products. Thornton spends a lot of time building relationships with farmers at home too. Sometimes he must convince them how much value their products really hold and why they too should pursue relationships abroad.

Consider these numbers from the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services web site for a better take on the value of North Carolina agriculture to some of the state’s most impoverished counties.

*More Information from the NC AG web site:
North Carolina improves to 11th in the United States in terms of exporting. The total value of NC Agriculture Exports, not including lumber exports, exceeded $2.8 billion in 2009. Agricultural exports help boost farm prices and income, while supporting about 35,907 jobs both on the farm and off the farm in food processing, storage, and transportation.

Source: Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture
Note: USDA Information above does not include forestry exports.

What may surprise you is that right now North Carolina exports most goods to Japan. But with China’s expected growth, the push is on to nurture and grow relationships in one of the world’s fastest growing countries with the idea of helping farm counties here at home in North Carolina.

Source: Wiser Trade Data Base
Based on HS Codes 01-53

Monday, May 23, 2011

Opportunities to Fly:

I laughed when Lindsey Crisp said, “We can’t all cut each others lawns.” But there’s a lot of truth to what the President and CEO of Carver Machine Works jokes about. While the service industry is important, it’s economically critical to have companies that make something. Unfortunately, some of North Carolina’s 85 rural communities’ largest employers are the areas’ schools systems and local hospitals.

Crisps’ company does make a lot of components. And they’re an important employer in rural Beaufort County. Carver used to depend on repairing pulp and paper machinery. But as that industry shrinks, Carver employees have found a way to survive in todays evolve or die economy.

Today, aerospace components account for 25 per cent of the company’s business. Three years ago that number was zero. Military contracts are key, Crisp explains as he shares a recent photo. Like a proud papa, he shows pictures of a large metal looking piece of military defense equipment called an Aerostat made at this small business. Precise fusion welding certification called NADCAP or National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program helped Carver find its way into the US Defense industry.

Military contracts and military jobs are an important part of the state’s economy.

According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce:

+8 percent of total state employment is either directly employed by the military or Coast Guard, or have jobs that are supported by military installations in North Carolina.

+Military growth is expected to increase North Carolina’s Gross

Domestic Product by $2.9 billion by the year 2013. And some 49 Thousand additional jobs are expected by that same year due to increased military activity.

You may not recognize the impact in your community, at least at first. I must admit I’ve drived by Carver thousands of times and never knew what was happening behind those metal walls. Little did I know the small company had evolved from a family business to a company making parts for big name companies like Raytheon and Spirit Aerosystems.

During a recent visit, employees shared that they’re proud what they’re doing can save American lives. The piece of equipment they recently finished is going to Afghanistan. In return, some North Carolina employees are learning the defense industry can save American manufacturing jobs.



You can say I’ve traveled the roads less traveled over the past 3 years. I’m visiting the most rural, most economically challenged counties in North Carolina. The one thing I notice about the small business owners I interview is their passion. Sure it’s the all important profit that ultimately determines whether they will make it, but it’s their drive that stands out the most.

Bob Hege owner of Meadows Mills Grist Mills in North Wilkesboro is passionate about customer service. Under his direction, company reps log every sale, every piece of equipment. And when sales representatives recognize the customer hasn’t called in a while to reorder, a company representative will call and find out why.

Customer service is critical to Steve and wife Sandy Forest of the Brushy Mountain Bee Farm too. And business is booming. Help lines and internet assistance help users select products. The Forests have learned if customers are successful in setting up their bee hives- the company will be successful too. To quote an overused movie line... “Help me… help you.”

These passionate business owners understand if they care about your business, you will care about their company.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Foothills Connect

Tim Will retired from a career as a telecommunications systems analyst when he moved to Rutherfordton, NC at age 58. It was the film, The Last of the Mohicans that inspired him. Captivated by the unspoiled beauty, he left Miami and headed to the Appalachian Mountains.

He was surprised to learn that due to its rural nature, more that 85% of Rutherford County had no access to high speed Internet. Working with Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center, and the help of a $1.5 million grant, he wired the county with broadband and started connecting farmers to restaurants and individual consumers in the area with a specially designed online Farmers Fresh Market. For his efforts, Will was awarded the Purpose Prize, which recognizes people who use the “second chapter” of their lives to benefit others in innovative ways.

Will is very passionate about what he does. He’s convinced it’s not big factories that are going to revive this economically challenged part of the state, but small businesses called farms. While Rutherford County may lack in jobs, it has plenty of farmland. Six thousand families own between 5 and 20 acres of land and Will sees that land as the county’s richest resource.

The idea behind the Farmers Fresh Market system is to provide fresh, locally grown food to consumers while allowing farmers to see larger profit margins. The system reduces administration time for farmers and streamlines the transportation process. Foothills provides pick-up and delivery on a local route, enabling them to move more produce to more locations than individual growers could manage by themselves.

Will’s epiphany on how to reinvent the food distribution system was quite serendipitous. When he moved to Rutherford County he learned that his cousin was a chef 70 miles away in Charlotte. When they met up Will told him he thought it was strange that there was so much vacant farmland where he lived but nobody farming it. His cousin complained about how hard it was to get fresh food. Typically 90 percent of all the food takes two weeks to get through the system. It was that conversation that made Will realize there was supply and demand, but there needed to be a better system to connect buyers and sellers. He was able to recruit a roster of restaurants willing to add local produce to their menu and he persuaded farmers to grow unfamiliar items like Shitake mushrooms and heirloom tomatoes. Within two years he had 70 farmers enrolled.

When it comes to the industrialized farm system in the U.S., Will doesn’t have many positive things to say. He believes it’s wasteful and inefficient. He says what’s been developed since World War II is a hierarchical and petro-chemically dependent food system that is extremely vulnerable especially as gas prices continue to rise.

Will could have moved to Rutherford County and just sat back and enjoyed his retirement. Instead he looked around, saw a need and got to work. Another four million dollar grant is allowing him to spread the Foothills Connect model to Rockingham, Stokes Caswell, Guilford and Forsyth counties.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


What HELP?
Do you know what programs are available to help displaced workers or small businesses survive this difficult economy?

Here are a few NC Rising has highlighted.

GATE Program:

GATE stands for: Growing America Through Entrepreneurship.
North Carolina is one of four states participating in this program for displaced workers in the state’s 85 rural communities. The US Department of Labor is picking up the tab on the program expected to end later this year, 2011. The idea is to help laid off workers become their own boss. GATE counselors help participants develop business plans and then coach these would be entrepreneurs through the challenging stages of opening or expanding a business. Along with the advice, some microenterprise loans are available.

The program is offered at the Small Business Centers at eight different NC Community Colleges: Isothermal, Lenoir, Randolph, Richmond, Robeson, Rockingham, Surry, Western Piedmont. Virtual sites are also available with counselors providing help by phone.


CAP Program:

CAP stands for Capital Access Loans.

The idea behind this federal program to is to help existing or start up businesses that might not typically qualify-- get loans and in turn, grow the state’s economy.
Businesses with fewer than 500 employees are eligible to borrow up to 5 Million Dollars.Businesses pay an extra fee to the fund to help cover these higher risk loans.

North Carolina was the first state to offer one of these loans. A Lincolnton logging company took advantage of the opportunity to expand their business. North Carolina will be able to loan up to 800 Million Dollars thanks to this program. The North Carolina Rural Center is in charge of administering the loans over the next two years.

Here’s a list from the Rural Center’s web site of the banks who are participating so far:

Anson Bank & Trust

Bank of Stanly


Cabarrus Bank and Trust

Carolina Trust Bank

Citizens South Bank

Community Bank of Rowan

East Carolina Bank

First Citizens Bank

First National Bank of Shelby

Forest Commercial Bank
Great State Bank

KeySource Commercial Bank

Lumbee Guaranty Bank

Macon Bank

Mountain Biz Capital

N.C. Minority Support Center

North State Bank

Randolph Bank & Trust

Select Bank & Trust


Southern Community Bank & Trust

The Little Bank

Contact the NC Rural Center for more information:
(919) 250-4314

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Certified Entrepreneurial Communities

In Western North Carolina the rate of entrepreneurial startups is higher than the state average. In 2007 Advantage West, a regional economic development agency, created the Certified Entrepreneurial Community (CEC) program. After mentoring individual entrepreneurs, Advantage West wanted a program that would help entire communities foster a climate of entrepreneurism. CEC developed the first program of its kind in the country to certify communities as “entrepreneur ready”.

Haywood County was the first to receive the designation in 2008. Haywood has a long history of recognizing the value of entrepreneurship. In 1985 the county developed the first small business incubator in North Carolina. Haywood Community College was the first in the country to implement a REAL program, Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning, which provides hands-on entrepreneurship education. The school was also the first community in the state to create a two-year entrepreneurial degree program.

Youth engagement is an integral part of the CEC program. Advantage West along with Western Carolina University, Appalachian State University and local technology company , DigitalChalk created a collegiate competition, Juicy Ideas, to encourage the innovative talents of young people and retain them in the region. The program has since become a national competition supported by Google.

The CEC certificate guarantees that a community has the resources in place to support entrepreneurship. The five step certification process includes:

· Assurance that the community is committed to the process
· Assessment of the community’s current entrepreneurial landscape
· Creation of a comprehensive strategy for entrepreneurial growth
· Commitment of the community’s entrepreneurial resources
· Identification and nurturing of the community’s most promising entrepreneurial talents

The certification process typically takes 18 months to two years. The application is reviewed by a committee made up of leaders from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Council, Banking and Finance Executive, Venture Capitalist, as well as two entrepreneurial companies and Advantage West Board Directors.

Since the program began six Western North Carolina counties, along with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, have become CEC certified communities. To learn more about the program visit