Thank you to everyone who attended the NC Rural Center’s 2017 Rural Assembly. On November 16-17 at the Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley we took a deep dive into the topic of rural leadership and the importance of local leaders in helping rural communities chart their own course for the future. This.

The future is what we dare to make it. Will you help lead the way?

Our keynote speaker this year was bestselling author, renowned chef, and television host Vivian Howard. Vivian shared a personal story of her return home to rural North Carolina and her journey from a budding rural entrepreneur to television star.

The 2017 Rural Assembly also marked our 30th anniversary, and we were able to celebrate with so many rural champions!

It’s time for rural places to claim their future. 


“Let’s do something excellent, because we are capable. Do not let your location determine the quality and reach of your work.” -Chef Vivian Howard

“Don’t let other people save rural. I believe rural will save the nation.” -Kelly Ryan, Incourage



Click HERE to View the 2017 Rural Assembly Agenda.

Thank you to all of our partners who participated in our Rural Resource Fair!


Vivian Howard

Chef, Television Host, Cookbook Author

Instagram: @chefandthef
Twitter: @chefandthef

Born in Deep Run, NC to tobacco and hog farming parents, Vivian Howard learned early on to appreciate the ebb and flow of eating with the seasons. Still, it took 23 years and a start in the advertising business to convince her a career in food was feasible. After college, Vivian moved to New York for work, but found the city’s food and restaurant scene far more intriguing. A server position at Greenwich Village’s Voyage made it possible for her to begin training under the restaurant’s chef Scott Barton. She went on to learn from creative cutting-edge chefs Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason at WD50 and later, joined the opening team at Jean Georges Vongerichten’s critically-acclaimed Spice Market.

In 2005, Vivian, and her now husband, Ben Knight decided to return to Vivian’s roots to open a “farm-to-fork” restaurant in the small town of Kinston, NC. They opened Chef & the Farmer in the summer of 2006 serving local, seasonal, creative cuisine. Vivian and her restaurant have won numerous accolades, including her selection as a five-time James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast. She also owns and operates a second restaurant right across the street from Chef & the Farmer – The Boiler Room.

In 2012, Vivian approached her childhood neighbor turned filmmaker, Cynthia Hill, about directing a documentary film series about Eastern North Carolina’s food traditions. Five years later, the two women have produced five seasons of “A Chef’s Life,” a PBS series that celebrates family, work, and food. The show’s fifth season is slated to air in October 2017. In its first two seasons, “A Chef’s Life” won a Peabody Award and a Daytime Emmy. In 2016, Vivian earned a coveted James Beard Award for Outstanding Personality/Host.

In October 2016, Vivian released her first-ever cookbook – Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South – published by Little, Brown & Co. The cookbook is Vivian’s comprehensive record of modern Southern cooking, filled with stories and more than 200 recipes that celebrate the flavors of her eastern North Carolina home. The cookbook was nominated for a James Beard Award for the American Cooking category and was named ‘Cookbook of the Year’ by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Recently, Deep Run Roots was selected as the winner of the 2017 Southern Book Prize for the Nonfiction – Cooking category.

Up next, Vivian will expand her brand with two new establishments. In fall 2017, she will open her first restaurant outside of Kinston, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington, NC. In early 2018, Vivian will also open Handy & Hot, a bakery in Kinston located on the same block as her existing two restaurants.

Kelly Ryan

CEO & President, Incourage

Twitter: @kryan_incourage
Twitter: @incouragecf

Kelly Ryan has led Incourage in realizing its simple yet bold vision of a community that works well for all people for 20 years.To advance an inclusive and sustainable economy in its rural central Wisconsin home, Incourage has developed a holistic approach that is values-led and user-centered. As CEO, Kelly is leading Incourage in its commitment to align all forms of capital with organizational values and mission congruence, placing primary value on human potential.

Named one of the 50 most influential leaders in the nonprofit sector by the NonProfit Times and a Rural Innovator by the White House, Kelly frequently speaks and writes about the opportunity for philanthropy at the intersection of people, place, and prosperity. She also serves on the National Fund for Workforce Solutions Partners Council, and had the opportunity to serve on the board and sunset the Hitachi Foundation in 2016.

Napoleon Wallace

Deputy Secretary for Rural Economic Development and Workforce Solutions, North Carolina Department of Commerce

Twitter: @NCCommerce

In his role at the N.C. Department of Commerce, Napoleon Wallace manages the Department’s support for North Carolina’s rural communities, leading a team of specialists that help communities make the necessary preparations and infrastructure investments to attract business and spur economic growth. He also directs departmental efforts to strengthen the state’s workforce programs.

Prior to joining the Department, Wallace worked as the social investment officer at the Kresge Foundation and as part of the executive staff at Self-Help. Napoleon is a native of Pitt and Beaufort counties. Read Full Bio.

BJ Murphy

Mayor, City of Kinston

During his time as mayor of Kinston, Murphy has led the community through two major hurricanes, Irene and Matthew. In the past eight years, Kinston has become recognized for the nationally known eatery, Chef & The Farmer, and a local brewery, Mother Earth. Kinston is becoming widely acclaimed for its arts and small business renaissance in the downtown area and is now home to the Texas Rangers Single-A affiliate, Down East Wood Ducks. Mayor Murphy is a native of Lenoir County. Read Full Bio.


Al and Lilly Skok Bunch, Capital Development Services

Thank you to all of our generous sponsors!

Awards in Excellence

Each year, the Rural Center recognizes individuals, organizations, and towns that have demonstrated visionary leadership, impacted the economy, and built strong community partnerships. At this year’s 2017 Rural Assembly, we recognized excellence in four categories: leadership, entrepreneurship, small business lending, and small town growth and vitality. A description of each award is included below. Thank you to everyone who nominated an individual, town, or lender.


Rural Leader of the Year: Noran Sanford

The Rural Leader of the Year award recognizes a REDI alumnus who, through strong leadership, hard work, and dedication, has enhanced the quality of life in rural North Carolina and made significant improvements in his or her community, region, and/or the state. This is an individual who is committed to building partnerships and engaging all citizens in their community or region.


Outstanding Entrepreneur of the Year: Sandbar Oyster Company

The Outstanding Entrepreneur of the Year award recognizes an entrepreneur who is making a significant impact in the local economy through job creation, sales, and revenue generation. This individual serves as a mentor to other entrepreneurs and takes a leadership role in their community. The entrepreneur must have a business located in one of the 80 rural counties of North Carolina that currently generates revenue and demonstrates growth and long-term potential. The nominee should have made a significant impact in the local economy through job creation, sales, or increased overall economic vitality. It is recommended—but not required—that they have participated in a Rural Center program.


Small Business Lender of the Year: Entegra Bank

The Rural Center offers two programs that help community banks and Certified Development Financial Institutions make loans to small businesses throughout North Carolina. Through its Small Business Credit Initiative (SBCI), the Rural Center works to reduce loan risk with 31 partner lenders. To date, the programs have supported more than 12,000 North Carolina jobs and leveraged more $600 million of private funding. The Small Business Lender award is given to a financial institution that provides excellent customer service to a small business. To qualify, a lender must be supported by the Rural Center’s State Small Business Credit Initiative.


Small Town of the Year: Pembroke, North Carolina

The Small Town of the Year award recognizes a town that embraces citizen engagement, values diversity, and fosters strong partnerships. The town must show progress through innovative economic development initiatives and programs and promote an entrepreneur-friendly environment. The nominee has overcome economic barriers and challenges and been creative, diligent, and resourceful in building a new economic future for all of its residents. Priority will be given to towns participating in the Rural Center’s STEP program, but any town with a population less than 10,000 is eligible.


The Rural Center Lifetime Achievement: Bob Jordan and Billy Ray Hall

The Rural Center Lifetime Achievement award is given in appreciation and recognition of extraordinary contributions to improving the quality of life of rural North Carolinians. It is the highest recognition that the NC Rural Center can bestow upon an individual.


For media inquiries:

Todd Brantley
Senior Director of Public Affairs
[email protected]

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