Welcome! This site contains work samples, client information and business philosophy of Megan E. Riley, owner of M R et cetera, LLC. See www.wncmretc.com for more information about Megan's communication services for social entrepreneurs. If you're looking for M R Gardens, Megan's edible landscaping, garden coaching and plant nursery business, see www.mrgardens.net.

Grants for mountain farm diversification awarded

WNC AgOptions announces 2016 awardees

MILLS RIVER, N.C.—Diversifying farmers in western North Carolina are receiving support to offset the risk of expanding and trying new ventures. WNC Agricultural Options awarded 33 farm businesses a total of $177,000 in $3,000 and $6,000 grants at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River. Farm projects include a poultry house conversion to an aquaponics greenhouse, cold storage for a multi-plot urban farm, and improved Fraser Fir seedling production to deter root disease.

Seven of the farm business received $3,000, and 26 received $6,000. The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is the exclusive financial supporter of WNC AgOptions, which aims to build sustainable farming communities in the mountain region by providing resources directly to farmers.

"The WNC AgOptions program has proven success stories," said Bill Teague, Chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. "We continue to be amazed at how these producers utilize these funds to ensure their family farms grow and remain profitable."

After raising broiler chickens for 13 years, Paula and Dale Boles of JB Farms in Caldwell County are ending their contract with poultry companies and converting their chicken houses to greenhouses to grow tilapia and a variety of vegetables. Using an aquaponics system, fish and plants grow in symbiosis since fish provide fertilizer through their waste and the plants' nutrient uptake cleans the water for the fish.

"We realize this first house will involve a lot of trial and error, and it may take several growing seasons to learn this new business before we are operating as efficiently as possible," Paula Doles said. In the meantime, income from 25 acres of soybeans helps pay for the new venture's expenses.

Sunil Patel of Patchwork Urban Farms in Asheville is adding cold storage space to his multi-plot urban farm to improve the efficiency and marketability of his Community Supported Agriculture venture. He is renovating a root cellar to be a walk-in cooler for produce storage using CoolBot technology, which can transform a room cooled with an air conditioning unit into a cold storage facility.

"Being a multi-plot farm, the logistics of harvesting from multiple sites all in one day become difficult with a limited labor supply," Patel said. "With centralized cold storage, we will be able to harvest things while doing general farm work at sites rather than having to make special trips for harvest. Cold storage will also allow us to lengthen the available storage time between sales."

The walk-in cooler is at Pearson Garden, owned by Bountiful Cities Project, a non-profit organization that is incubating Patchwork. Patel farms a total of one acre, spread over 10 sites within Asheville. He aims to integrate growers, landowners, workers and neighborhoods into a viable food system.

Read more on the WNC AgOptions website.

Grant-funded projects show WNC farms' potential for large volume production

2015 WNC AgOptions recipients include: Sylva vegetable farm expanding to 60 acres, including tracts in Asheville; 50-acre USDA Certified Organic farm in Cherokee County using innovative weed control tool; Boone ginseng grower with large-volume aspirations; and Marshall sheep dairy farmer unique to region. 

MILLS RIVER, N.C.—Western North Carolina farmers are gaining much-needed support in diversifying or expanding their operations this year, helping some grow to a whole new level. WNC Agricultural Options presented 31 farm businesses a total of $168,000 in grants on Thursday at an event at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.

Six of the farm businesses received $3,000, and 25 received $6,000. The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is the exclusive financial supporter of WNC AgOptions, which helps farmers offset the risk of trying new ventures.

"Western North Carolina farmers are very resourceful and have proven time and time again that these grants can make a significant impact on their farming operations," said Bill Teague, Chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.

Steven Beltram of Balsam Gardens is expanding his vegetable production in a big way, while transitioning to USDA Certified Organic so he can sell to large volume buyers and distributors. Since 2008, Beltram has farmed in Sylva, where he will be growing from 5 to 15 acres. He also recently acquired 33 acres on Sand Hill Road in Asheville and entered an agreement with the City of Asheville to rent 11 acres near East Asheville's Azalea Park.

"By scaling up our operation, we are able to diversify our marketing options and get some of our product into large-scale grocers," Beltram said. "I believe that expanding our wholesale vegetable operation is the most important thing I can do to ensure financial sustainability for our farm and to support my family."
Photo of Steven Beltram, courtesy of Jen Ferre, WNC AgOptions

Beltram completed a successful WNC AgOptions project in 2011 to expand his poultry operation to include broilers and Thanksgiving turkeys. "Poultry has become a very important part of our business since being awarded funding for the project," he said. "I do not believe that we would still be farming if we had not added the poultry venture to our operation, and I do not think that we could have possibly afforded to do it without WNC AgOptions. We are likely still farming because of the opportunity provided by that small amount of grant money."

Lessons from WNC farmers

Megan Riley, Owner of M R et cetera LLC, reflects on a driving force behind her mission-driven business, M R Gardens.
Since 2008, I have been involved with a special program called WNC Agricultural Options, which awards seed money to diversifying farmers, helping to offset the risk of trying new ventures. While I scaled back my duties significantly since I started focusing on my own business endeavors in 2011, I still greatly appreciate the opportunity to write up descriptions for each of the awarded projects for the WNC AgOptions website.
As I read through the recipient applications, I'm always filled with such energy, as a vision for evolving agriculture—one that is healthy for the consumers, the land and the animals—shines vibrantly in my mind. While the recipients are not required to undertake ecologically sustainable ventures to receive a grant, many of them are just because that's what many successful farmers leading agricultural innovation do these days.  

WNC AgOptions 2014 award ceremony marks 10 year anniversary

Grants for on-farm store for freezer beef; spader equipment that improves soil conditions; solar hot water system at new dairy

MILLS RIVER, N.C.—A program that has fostered farm diversification, innovation and profitability in a midst of a transitioning agriculture economy is celebrating its 10th year of awarding grants to assist farmers. WNC Agricultural Options presented 29 farm businesses in western North Carolina a total of $153,000 Thursday at an event at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.

N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has been WNC AgOptions' sole funding source since the program's first grant cycle in 2004. This year, 22 farm businesses received $6,000 and seven received $3,000. All of the projects provide demonstration of unique approaches to farm enterprises to other growers.

"The Commission is very pleased to fund and support the WNC AgOptions program for another year," said Bill Teague, Chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. "We expect to see some unique projects because mountain farmers have shown they are resourceful, innovative and committed to making their farms successful."

Neal and Ava Morgan of Shady Place Farms in Leicester are constructing an on-farm building where customers can purchase freezer beef. They aim to make the store a destination experience where customers can see first-hand where their food is grown and leave with a sense of the excellence in their farming conditions.
Neal Morgan of Shady Place Farms
The Morgans are expanding upon a 2009 WNC AgOptions grant with which they perfected a recipe for homegrown feed that they produce in an on-farm grinder. Finishing their cattle with their own recipe, which they tailor to their customers' taste preferences, significantly increases their bottom line.

Joe Evans of Paper Crane Farm in Mars Hill is purchasing specialty tillage equipment called an articulating spader that enables him to improve the condition of his soil as well as expand into root crop production, boosting winter sales. Spaders prepare garden beds in a gentle manner, preserving the integrity of soil structure as well as preventing or shattering hard pan. In the heavy rains of 2013, Evans lost a significant portion of his carrot crops to rotting because of the hard pan's inability to drain.

Evans, 27, began farming on his own in 2011 after learning from and working with other western North Carolina farmers, including former WNC AgOptions recipients Green Toe Ground in Burnsville and Let it Grow Organic Gardens in Spring Creek. He expects this grant project to boost his income so that he can farm fulltime even in the winter months.

This year, WNC AgOptions welcomes new counties to its now 22-county/unit coverage area, with awardees in Rutherford, Burke and Caldwell counties. Lisa and Brandon Higgins of C-Saw Hill Farm in Rutherfordton are installing a solar hot water system as part of their new dairy, where they plan to milk approximately 10 cows to produce cheese. Hot water, heated in a solar panel on the roof, is used to pasteurize milk.

"We started C-Saw Hill Farm in 2008 after our daughter, Cecelia, was diagnosed with salmonella at the age of one from a fast food restaurant," Lisa Higgins said. "Being able to farm allowed us to provide quality protein for our family and avoid eating Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation produced food."

Since 2004, WNC AgOptions has distributed more than $1.75 million to farmers in western North Carolina who are diversifying their operations. The fruits of the initial investments are often immediate, as new income typically matches the size of the grants in the first year of the projects. Data from 156 farmers who received grants in the past four years reveals that their projects resulted in a total of $1.15 million of new farm income in the first year alone. Revenue continues to increase year after year, doubling by the third year of the projects.

See http://www.wncagoptions.org/2014-topics/ to view a full list of recipients with links to descriptions of the projects. Read the rest of the news release.

Grants boost farm profits, sustain businesses for future generations

2013 WNC AgOptions projects include innovative hydroponic fodder system, micropropagation lab and no-till equipment

MILLS RIVER, N.C.—Western North Carolina farmers received $148,500 in WNC Agricultural Options grants to diversify their farm businesses in the 2013 growing season. The 28 grant recipients celebrated January 29 at an event at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River. The goal of the farms' projects is to enhance profitability.

The WNC AgOptions grant program has been funded exclusively by the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission since 2003. "The Commission is very pleased to fund and support the WNC AgOptions program for another year," said Bill Teague, Chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. "We expect to see some unique projects, because mountain farmers have shown they are resourceful, innovative and committed to making their farms successful."

Six farm businesses received $3,000, one received $4,500, and 21 received $6,000. Many of the farmers are undertaking projects that are unique to their counties, and some are leading the way in innovative agriculture nationwide.

Tester Dairy Farm in Watauga County is creating a hydroponic fodder system, which grows barley, rye and wheat from seed to sprouts in eight days so that the farmers can feed their cattle high-protein grasses daily. The fresh palatable feed is proven to enhance animals' milk production, improve fertility and decrease respiratory issues. Thomas and Margaret Tester said they are renovating the farm so that their granddaughter Jessica Lawrence can take it over without the worries of weather, lease agreements and costs associated with row crops.

South Valley Nursery and Landscaping in Avery County is building a micropropagation lab so that grant recipient Tyler Buchanan can mass produce unique plants such as native orchids that are expensive to propagate using traditional techniques. Tissue culture requires a significant upfront investment, specialized training and a sterile environment to be able to produce new plants in vitro (in a test tube), but payoff can be significant since the demand for these rare native plants is high.

Joe Ward in Jackson County is establishing a no-till planting system in an area where few farmers use this method. In no-till fields, soil erosion and runoff decrease as a network of fibrous and tap roots grow throughout the soil profile, providing pathways for air and moisture. This method also creates a good environment for earthworms and beneficial bacteria, fungi and enzymes, all crucial for healthy crops.

Photo courtesy of Addison Farms Vineyard.
The WNC AgOptions grants help sustain several significant farms, such as a 65-acre Old Fort property that the ancestors of grant recipient Alvin Lytle first acquired in the 1850's, as well as a Bethel Valley farm that has been in the family of grant recipient Joseph Cathey for more than 200 years. As profits increase, Reems Creek Nursery and Landscaping will be able to boost employment beyond its current 25 employees while also continuing to preserve the rural quality of Reems Creek Valley. With the help of the grant, Addison Vineyard, a part of a fourth generation cattle farm in Leicester, will be on track to reaching their goal of profitability by the eighth year of wine grape production in 2016.

The grant projects help many of the grant recipients' achieve their dreams of passing their farming operations to their children or grandchildren. Rick Walker, who is building a poultry processing facility in Cherokee County, named his farm after his four sons, Ricky, Joseph, Daniel and Joshua, who are ages six and under. "4 Sons Farm is the name I chose not only because I have four sons, but because it is for my sons," Walker said. "I began farming to provide wholesome food for our children, to teach them an ancient and respected way of life, and to create a business legacy to hand down to them."

Read more.

On a mission

... to learn about mission-driven businesses

Megan Riley, Owner of M R et cetera, summarizes her research into social entrepreneurship—business for the common good.

When I heard the words "as you climb the corporate ladder" from my professor's lips this past summer, I had to smile. I looked around the classroom at the MBA students thinking, how in the world did I end up here?
Graphic by Johann Dréo
If you would have told me 10 years ago that I'd be sitting in an MBA class one day, I never would have believed you. In 2002, as a graduate student of an environmental education program, I was becoming aware of corporations' impacts on the planet and human health. I was starting to become a conscious consumer—buying products that positively impact ecosystems and avoiding businesses with unethical practices. I wouldn't have expected to ever be learning how to work for corporations. Yet that's what I was doing this past summer.
Like many good things in life, I did not seek this. Business—an emerging form of it—found me.


In the last few years, I've been surrounded by business owners who are trying to align profit with public good. Many of the WNC AgOptions recipients I worked with are improving the land, producing healthy food, and improving animal welfare, all the while trying to build successful businesses. Also, whether I am in North Carolina, Ohio, New York or the UK, I find myself in brainstorming sessions with friends, family and other colleagues who want to make a living by using their talents and passions for the common good.
     In part inspired by them, I'm adding mission-driven businesses to the clientele of M R et cetera, which has primarily served non-profit organizations in the past. I'm realizing that if society is to make significant and holistic changes, our entire economy needs to center around sustainability and health. Philanthropy, while an important piece of the picture, will only get us so far. Our visions of sustainability—where we are stewards of the Earth so that future generations have resources to sustain them—won't be complete unless everyone is earning an income in ways that betters communities and ecosystems.
But I have a few questions. Is it possible to live a healthy, balanced life while also running a business? Is it possible to live values of compassion and collaboration while operating in the competitive, aggressive business environment? Are traditional business models suited to address sustainability, so that our lifestyles encourage life rather than destroy it?

Back to school

Graphic by Ramblersen
This summer, I took advantage of an educational opportunity to see if I could find answers to my questions. An AmeriCorps allotment that I earned volunteering for the program in 2004 would expire this year if I didn't use it to pay for university-level classes. I had a difficult time narrowing down exactly which classes I wanted to take, so when I finally signed up, I found myself enrolled in four different universities.
Among my 12 classes this year—"Introduction to Entrepreneurship" with University of North Carolina at Asheville as well as "Business Sustainability in a Global Economy" through the MBA program at Appalachian State University. Both classes scrunched a semester's worth of material into five-week summer sessions—so we covered a lot in a short period of time.

2012 WNC AgOptions recipients

Recipients trying new production techniques, reaching consumers directly, and preserving multi-generational farms.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, January 26, 2012

MILLS RIVER, N.C. — Three farm groups and 23 farmers throughout Western North Carolina were awarded $150,000 in WNC Agricultural Options grants to increase profitability of their diverse farms. They celebrated Wednesday, January 25 at an event at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.

The 2012 recipients are expanding the delivery of healthy vegetables, poultry and meat directly to consumers, demonstrating the viability of medicinal plants and other alternative crops, and experimenting with products such as tilapia, Kalura romaine lettuce and a unique hybrid hazelnut. The grants help sustain such historic farms as a third generation dairy farm in Marion that has sold milk since 1927 and a Haywood County trout farm founded in 1948.

"Western North Carolina is one of the most diverse agriculture regions in the United States," said Ross Young, Madison County Extension Director and WNC AgOptions steering committee leader. "The WNC AgOptions program has served this region for eight years, contributing to the success and sustainability of agriculture as a leading economic industry."

The grant program has been funded exclusively by the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission since 2003. "The Commission is very pleased to fund and support the WNC AgOptions program for another year," said Bill Teague, Chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. "We expect to see some unique projects, because WNC farmers have shown they are resourceful, innovative and committed to making their farms successful."

The three community groups each received $8,000:
  •  The Jackson County Farmer's Market in Sylva will open a community commercial kitchen for farmers to process, preserve and package foods. Classes in cooking, nutrition and food safety and sanitation will also be offered at the venue;
  •  The Appalachian Botanical Alliance, which aims to demonstrate the viability of medicinal herbs as an alternative crop, will research the quality of locally grown medicinal plants and construct a climate-controlled warehouse and packaging space for growers;
  •  The Independent Small Animal Meat Producers Association will advance the opening of the Foothills Pilot Plant in Marion by supplementing labor and supplies. The plant will process poultry and rabbits for farmers, providing them with a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection stamp that will allow them to reach new markets.
Four individual farm businesses each received $3,000 and 19 received $6,000. This year's recipients will:
  •  Partner with farmers and food producers throughout the region to create a distribution system for weekly boxes of vegetables and local food products to cooperative members;
  •  Manufacture fresh cheese spreads as a means of diversifying a 3rd generation dairy farm directly across from Linville Caverns, which is the only dairy farm left in the valley north of Marion;
  •  Establish a nut tree orchard in a county where no commercial nut orchards exist;
  •  Create a greenhouse aquaponics system for symbiotic leafy greens and tilapia fish production;
  •  Construct a greenhouse for hydroponic strawberry growing;
  •  Expand the production of an uncommon romaine, Kalura, that is outstanding in all attributes—size, rapid growth, heat tolerance and shelf life;
  •  Grow one acre of yellow onions on land that has been in tobacco since 1890;
  •  Construct an on-site meat processing and storage facility to better meet customer demand for pork, chickens, rabbits and turkeys;
  •  Establish a mobile pollination trailer to transport bees to farms in the Western North Carolina region to help successfully pollinate crops while also producing honey and other bee products;
  •  Improve water quality of rainbow trout ponds with the purchase of an ozone generator, resulting in increased production to satisfy high demand;
  •  Practice Managed Intensive Grazing, a method of rotating cattle and maintaining grass pastures for optimal health of the soil, plants and animals;
  •  Enhance a farm's capacity to respond to online ordering for home delivery of meats, chickens and vegetables.
Read more.

WNC farmers featured in 2012 calendars

Proceeds benefit program that aids mountain region's diversifying farmers

ASHEVILLE — The photographs and stories of more than fifty Western North Carolina farms are featured in a 2012 wall calendar that can be purchased at select Asheville stores and some N.C. Cooperative Extension Centers in the region.

Each year, WNC Agricultural Options produces a calendar highlighting grant recipients who received support from the program, which assists farmers who are diversifying or expanding their operations. The calendars celebrate the diversity of mountain farms, build a sense of pride among recipients and educate other farmers about potential ventures.

"The calendar has been a great tradition of ours, and we always receive such a nice response from just about every person who looks at one," said Project Manager Jen Ferre. "It gives people an inside look at interesting farm projects in beautiful, hidden-away areas of our region."

This year, WNC AgOptions leaders are distributing the calendar widely to the public for the first time
as a way to expand the number of people reached, as well as capture much-needed funds in a tight budget year. To continue to offer educational materials such as the calendar, the program is raising funds for production costs.

The calendars are currently available at the French Broad Food Co-op, The Fresh Quarter Produce in the Grove Arcade, and Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe. Call (828) 649-2411 for a list of Cooperative Extension Centers that are carrying the calendars.

The 2012 calendar features such unique projects as microgreens, canned bamboo shoots, goats used to clear invasive vegetation, and Black Perigord and Burgundy truffles. It also celebrates the mountain region's long-time traditional products such as Christmas trees, milk, berries, honey and beef. One Cherokee Indian Reservation grower expanded her crawfish pools and sold canned and frozen wild greens, all traditional Cherokee foods.

"The calendar is an important reference in our changing agricultural economy," Ferre said. "We are delighted to have a practical and attractive way to share the stories of innovative, creative, hard-working farmers."

The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has exclusively funded WNC AgOptions since 2003. In partnership with the West District of N.C. Cooperative Extension, the RAFI-USA Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund managed the farmer grants in 2011. WNC Communities will administer the program in 2012.

For more information about the program and partners, see the following: WNC Agricultural Options: www.wncagoptions.org; N.C. Cooperative Extension Centers: www.ces.ncsu.edu; N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission: www.tobaccotrustfund.org; WNC Communities: www.wnccommunities.org; Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, RAFI-USA: www.ncfarmgrants.org.

Studio Zahiya: A business that changes lives

Megan Riley, Owner of M R et cetera, shares her experience writing for dance instructor Lisa Zahiya.

Dancers can never really see themselves dance. Sure, they can look in the mirror or watch themselves on videotape. Some dancers can even feel energy exchanged between themselves and the audience so they are clued in to what the audience is feeling. But ultimately, dancers will never know what it's like to be in their own presence. A good dance performance involves a kinesthetic and emotional involvement that a videotape or a mirror cannot fully capture.

The same can be said for well-run mission-driven businesses. The owners are often standing too close to the mirror to be able to assess and articulate the multifold impacts they are making on the community. Furthermore, small business owners who are their own marketing directors can feel awkward bragging about themselves. Busy with the work of their businesses, they have limited time to fully articulate their contributions to people's lives.

I approached dance instructor and studio owner Lisa Zahiya to help her with her marketing, but not because she needed advertising assistance. She's a natural social networker with a circle of 2,000+ online followers and a talented graphic designer with beautiful promotional materials.

However, after a couple of years of taking Lisa's dance classes, I realized that so much more was happening in her classes than dance instruction. I recognized what a special person she is and what an impact she is making on many lives. As people become increasingly fed up with unscrupulous business practices, the base of customers who are attracted to such community-minded businesses is growing rapidly. I told her she might benefit by articulating the impacts of her business in her marketing materials.

Photo courtesy of A Portrait of You.
So she agreed to let me interview her dance students and write profiles about their experiences.  The dancer's stories confirmed that Studio Zahiya is a mission-driven business with numerous positive impacts. Lisa's commitment to a non-competitive class environment, her excellent teaching abilities and her sense of humor and thoughtfulness supported many women through powerful transformations. 

  • Therapeutic Benefits of Dance
  • Improvements in Body Image & Self Confidence
  • A Fun Education – in Dance and Culture
  • Community and Family Connections
  • Inspiration

Dance studio a positive force in community

Free dance classes at Studio Zahiya's grand opening September 17

ASHEVILLE — Dance is for everyone. That is the message of Studio Zahiya, which recently moved to North Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville. The studio will have a grand opening celebration Saturday, September 17.

Photo courtesy of A Portrait of You.
"Everyone can get positive benefits from dance," said Lisa Zahiya, the owner of the studio. She has taught bellydance, Bollywood and hip hop in Asheville since 2008, and recently expanded her business from a small space on Carolina Lane. "Those benefits can be everything from, at the base level, the endorphins that you get from moving, to the positive feeling you have about your body and self."

Zahiya creates a safe, non-competitive atmosphere where students feel comfortable moving among others. They take the positive energy they feel at the studio and approach the rest of their lives more joyfully. "Having a joyful experience can change your day, and then change your life," Zahiya said.

Her philosophy is that dance evolves both self and community. Her students are encouraged after they first try something new, and then watch themselves transform, both physically and emotionally. That confidence boost transfers to the rest of their lives, and the students are motivated to try other life goals. "When their friends see that, they want to follow their lead," Zahiya said.

The instructors of Studio Zahiya will offer free classes at the grand opening at the new studio at 90 1/2 N. Lexington Ave. on September 17. In addition to touring the renovated 100-year old building, which has large windows overlooking Lexington Avenue, visitors are welcome to drop in on 30-minute sessions of yoga, pilates, and bhangra, a high-energy dance that originated in India.

The grand opening will culminate that evening at Dobra Tea, where dance students and professional bellydancers will perform and guests will be encouraged to join them.

Zahiya's team of teachers include: Mahsati Janan, Middle Eastern dance instructor; Alexis Miller, pilates instructor; Alex Moody, yoga instructor; Sparrow, bellydance instructor; and Leanna Joyner, Groove instructor. Groove is a group fitness class that draws on several dance styles to cater to a variety of body types and experience levels.

Area non-profit salutes employee's 20-year tenure

ASHEVILLE — Twenty years in the same position at the same organization. That's something to celebrate in the non-profit field, or really any profession in the today's transitioning economy.

Graphic courtesy of SAHC.
Kristy Urquhart of Asheville has dedicated 20 years of her life to Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, primarily serving as the associate director. Her colleagues threw a bash that echoes the positive energy that she gives to land conservation work at Highland Brewery Company on August 31.

SAHC's Executive Director Carl Silverstein said he feels privileged to have Urquhart as a colleague and friend. "She is one of the most insightful, intuitive people I have ever known," he said. "She has a sixth sense for what people need in order to move forward, and she is genuinely kind. Kristy cares unwaveringly about conserving the Southern Appalachians for future generations."

Attorney Lynn Cox, the organization's first executive director, remembers well the day she interviewed Urquhart and realized she was perfect for the job. "And I was right," Cox said. "I don't see how the Conservancy could be where it is without her. The best professional decision I ever made, and the one that had the most positive, long-lasting effect, was hiring Kristy to come to SAHC."

Slow Food USA President: FEAST program 'inspirational'

FEAST program shares healthy food with families

--> Asheville, NC — The President of Slow Food USA made a special request during his recent trip to Western North Carolina. He wanted a glimpse of FEAST, an Asheville-based program that teaches families, many from low-income communities, how to cook with healthy, local food.

"It's so important that kids grow up knowing where food comes from, how to cook it, and how to experience it with others," said Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA since October 2008.

Viertel gives tips on homemade tortillas
He attended a FEAST class at Asheville Middle School in hopes he would glean ideas to use in national programming. "The best ideas come from volunteer leaders who work on the ground," Viertel said. "I find it inspirational."

About 20 sixth grade students in Sara Monson's Exploring Career Decisions class split up into teams and busily made hummus and baba ghanoush with fresh herbs from the school garden, tortillas, bruschetta, peach salsa, kale and salad with strawberries. Local growers supplied the greens and fruit.

M R Gardens: Healthy plants, healthy landscapes

Introducing M R Gardens, a division of M R et cetera, LLC

Note from Megan: Since entering the sustainable agriculture field in 2001, I have gained a great appreciation for all scales and methods of farming, including those of the backyard or apartment patio grower. It is in our backyards that we connect to our food and enjoy the taste of a fresh tomato with basil. It is here that we experience seasonality, life cycles and the natural pace of life. It is here that we connect to past generations and relearn our grandmothers' ways of food preparation.

We're at an important point in time when generations that did not grow up in the garden are regaining the extensive knowledge of growing food before older generations are gone. Plus, we're learning traditional methods of gardening pre-chemicals or even pre-tiller.

M R Gardens is my small contribution to this effort. M R Gardens' products and educational materials add to the reinvigoration of fresh eating that is fueling the small diverse farms in the WNC region. Meanwhile, all of us can have the experience of walking out our back doors and picking foods that were grown especially for us.

Read more.

Veils, fire, golden wings, oh my! A new flavor to non-profit fundraising.

Event raised well over $15,000 for Caring for Children.

Asheville non-profit organizations are using creative fundraising techniques during this era's transition to a new economy, and what better way to be creative than to hire dance instructor and performer Lisa Zahiya to choreograph the entertainment.

On Valentines 2011 weekend, Caring for Children gave its supporters a taste of the exotic at the Crowne Plaza for a fundraising gala. Bollywood and belly dance performers skipped and shimmied on top a stage before a heart-shaped backdrop and a lit-up border of the words "Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love." Veils, fire, golden wings, colorful costumes and energizing music entranced audience members, who wore their own bhindis, turbans and saris to participate in the gala's theme.

Caring for Children has provided shelter for 30 years for abused, abandoned, and neglected children in homes staffed by nurturing professionals who are trained to deal with the special needs of children in crisis. They help children and families deal with the present, put the past behind them, and look to the future.

"It is my mission to use dance to create positive change in the world," Zahiya said. "To be able to support an organization like Caring for Children, whose work creates immediate positive change for children here in Buncombe County, was a wonderful opportunity."

Zahiya also teaches dance to children in low-income or other challenged situations as well as to women in correctional institutes. She regularly performs for LEAF in Schools in Streets and recently formed a professional dance troupe, "The Ohm Girls," which will choreograph pieces with positive messages for the community.

Lauri Nichols, owner of Asheville Event Planning and Staffing, LLC, hired Zahiya for the Caring for Children gala to direct and choreograph 45 minutes of dance, which included two group performances by Bala! Bollywood and Bhangra.

"It was a pleasure working with Lisa from beginning to end," Nichols said. "She was professional and dedicated in making this event a huge success. Her troupe worked tirelessly on creative routines and with the other performers to come up with a truly amazing performance. I am impressed by all the positive feedback we have received from this event." The event raised well over $15,000 for the organization. Final numbers have not yet been calculated.

To learn how to book Lisa Zahiya to direct entertainment for events that benefit social causes and communities, click here

2011 WNC AgOptions awardees announced

Grants support diverse ventures, build local agriculture system

MARSHALL — The WNC Agricultural Options program recently awarded six community groups and 47 farmers grants totaling $326,000 to assist them in farm diversification and joint marketing and distribution efforts.

This year's community grant recipients are creating cohesion, infrastructure and marketing for local products. Individual recipients are improving such diverse operations as a 75-acre kale, turnips and collards farm in Cherokee County, a new dairy in Madison County, a micro-greens venture in Watauga County, and a canned bamboo shoots business in McDowell County.

Since 2003, N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has supported WNC AgOptions, a N.C. Cooperative Extension program that provides resources directly to farmers diversifying or expanding their operations. Read more.

What's next for M R et cetera?

In January 2011, Megan moved to the sidelines of WNC AgOptions to solely handle media relations and other communication work for the program, while Jen Ferre took over administration, facilitation and field work duties. Megan had the pleasure of working with Jen to ensure a smooth transition between managers.

WNC AgOptions program leaders comment that the program came a long way since the time that Megan stepped into the coordination/management role in January 2008. During the next three years, Megan worked with the steering committee, primarily composed of N.C. Cooperative Extension Agents, to:
  • Improve the scoring system and grant review process to better reflect the committee's intentions and the agricultural community's needs;
  • Accept and distribute an additional $100,000 from Governor Beverly Purdue's Family Farm Innovation Fund, so that the program awarded a third of a million dollars in 2011;
  • Initiate a community grant program for groups of farmers to respond to the local agricultural system's needs for improved distribution, packaging, processing and marketing;
  • Undertake a research project into past recipient projects, which identified key areas for bettering the region's agricultural education resources;
  • Evolve business planning training to best suit WNC AgOptions recipients' needs;
  • Improve the program's promotional, evaluation and reporting materials.

Now that Megan does not have a full-time contract with WNC AgOptions, her colleagues and clients are asking her, "What's next for you?" She returns, "What's next for you? What are your needs as you improve current programs or develop new ones, and how can I help?"

As a social entrepreneur herself, Megan enjoys working with business owners who are creating livelihoods that enable them to grow their unique talents to improve their communities while also enhancing their own quality of life as they find their true callings. Megan is especially well suited to provide communication services for sole proprietorships that have grown to a point where the owners can no longer do all the work. They could benefit from a professional image and new marketing materials such as rack cards, a website and blog, and e-newsletters. 

Contact Megan at 828.333.4151 or info@wncmretc.com to discuss your project.