Though North Carolina is among the nation’s largest agricultural states, it is rapidly losing farms and farmers.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, between 1999 and 2006, the state lost 10,000 farms and close to 500,000 acres of farmland. The losses are even greater among African-American farmers.

In response to such statistics, North Carolina Cooperative Extension initiatives and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ education programs are helping to ease new and young farmers into agriculture.

At Cabarrus County’s Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm, 16 new farmers are learning as they grow crops on half-acre plots they rent for $100 a season. The farm, along with an eight-week course for new farmers, is one of the factors driving growth in local farms, says Debbie Bost, Extension director in Cabarrus County.

In Franklin County, part-time farmer Maggie Lawrence recently received a $2,500 grant from the Franklin County Agriculture Board to help her with equipment and farmers’ market needs. Lawrence is selling her produce for the first time this year at the Wake Forest Farmers’ Market. And this spring, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler urged College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students to join the state’s farming community, to help bring down the average age of North Carolina’s farmers — currently 58.
When Troxler addressed students in March during one of three lectures and panel discussions he brought to campus in the spring semester, he urged students to consider going into production agriculture.

Need young farmers

Troxler told students that 83 percent of the state’s farmers are older than 45. “This is an appropriate topic because we don’t have enough young people coming into farming,” he said. “We need the best creative minds in agriculture in order to move forward.”

Troxler told of his own struggles as a young farmer. He first came to North Carolina State University as an engineering student, using the income from 25 acres of tobacco to pay his way through school. He later decided that he wanted to farm full-time. Over the years, his farm grew to 135 acres of tobacco, 40 acres of soybeans and a fruit and vegetable operation.

One of the challenges that young farmers face is finding affordable land to start their operations. Incubator farms like the Lomax farm and the Breeze farm in Orange County offer new farmers the chance to learn on a small scale before taking the leap into buying or leasing land for a larger operation.

In 2000, Elma C. Lomax died and left her farmland to Cabarrus County, with the condition that some of the land be used for passive recreation, such as hiking trails or farming. Seven years later, 200 citizens and county commissioners gathered to develop a plan to sustain the county’s agricultural industry. The incubator farm was one of the group’s recommendations.

The farm first began offering land last summer, and nine farmers leased plots. Before obtaining a land lease, the aspiring farmers take an eight-week course offered by Cooperative Extension. The training program deals with topics ranging from marketing to soil fertility to food safety and control of insects and plant diseases, according to Carl Pless, Extension agriculture agent in Cabarrus.

Some are new

Unlike many traditional farmers who grew up on a family farm, most of the Lomax farmers are new to farming, though some have experience with home gardening or working in the landscape industry. A few have limited family ties to a farm, Pless said.

Pless spends a great deal of time on the farm, patiently answering questions. He even helped the farmers build a sturdy high-tunnel for growing early spring tomatoes. “I try not to be impatient at all because for some of them, it takes more than one time to hear something,” he said.

These new farmers face many challenges, especially learning to grow for local farmers’ markets. They have to determine when to plant, how much to plant, how much will sell in a week and how much reasonably can be harvested. Determining what to grow and what will sell at a market is also a challenge. Pless encourages the farmers to ask market goers what they want.

Several farmers who produced for community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs had to learn to plan their production so they had something for shareholders’ boxes every week. CSA is a marketing strategy where shareholders pay a farmer in advance to receive regular deliveries of fresh farm products.

Weed management is another challenge. As a certified organic operation, Lomax restricts the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides to those approved for organic use. So Pless encourages growers to get ahead of the problem after rain and before weeds take over their fields.

Many different enterprises

The farmers at Lomax are involved in a variety of enterprises.

Shannon Anderson tried heirloom vegetables last year, but this season, she’s experimenting with a “pick-your-own” flower operation. She will invite people to cut zinnias, sunflowers and other varieties in her plots on the Lomax farm. It will save her the time required to cut and sell flowers at a market.

Aaron Newton, author, teacher and landscape designer, joined the incubator farm after losing his job 18 months ago. He is among several incubator farmers who recently experienced job loss. A native of Concord, Newton grows for 15 families in a CSA. His spring crops included kohlrabi, Swiss chard, collards, spinach, arugula and potatoes. He’s thinking about starting a “storage crops” CSA for winter that would offer vegetables that store well, along with some preserved crops from summer.

Newton, co-author of the book A Nation of Farmers, was recently named the Cabarrus County local food system project coordinator. In this new position, he will coordinate efforts of the Cabarrus County Food Policy Council and provide educational programs.

On a recent afternoon, farmer Colleen McDaniel and a hired helper were cutting the remaining spinach from her field, hoping to steam and freeze it. A bamboo teepee structure will hold gourds this summer for her customers at the nearby Davidson/Harrisonburg market. McDaniel also provides a CSA to nine shareholders.

McDaniel has leased a 200-year old Cabarrus farm that comes with its own tractor but no water for irrigation. So she’s thinking about growing crops fall through spring, when there is less need for supplemental water. McDaniel, who also owns a landscape business, is achieving the ultimate goal of the incubator farm — transitioning to her own land.