New Bern, NC – An incubation farm is designed to give new farmers the capacity to, over time, develop their own farming operation. A person is loaned a piece of land and they grow a set of crops over multiple seasons while being closely monitored by local farm owners and agricultural experts who will train the group in all aspects of becoming successful farm workers. At the end of the program the trained farmer will venture out and create an operation that can sustain their means of living, and possibly the way by which the local community buys food. Extension associate of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, Joanna Lelekacs, is a coordinator for the community incubator projects in North Carolina
"we want to support new and beginning farmers that help support the local food economy in the state that is a growing interest. We see this project as part of the CEFS 10 percent campaign, which is a campaign that invites consumers, institutions, and businesses to commit ten percent of their food dollars towards local food which has an economic benefit, as well as other benefits to the state.
Lelekacs says a new possibly younger group of farmers are needed being that the average age of a farmer in North Carolina is 59. She says a new, diversified farming industry will attract all types of cultural backgrounds, who in turn, can help local farmers increase the understanding of farming methods used around the world.
"there are a number of incubator farms around the country that have a focus on supporting immigrants and refugees, many of whom had a farming background in their native countries, and certainly they bring to the table, and the farming experience, and to farmers markets, and other market opportunities in the area, diverse crops that may not be commonly found in the market place."
Onslow County has received a grant for an incubator farm project, and its first session begins next February. It is one of five counties in the state to receive grant money. The Onslow County Extension office has teamed with the Jacksonville Farmer's Market, Natural Resources Conservation Services, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems program (CEFS), and the city of Jacksonville to make this plan a reality.
In Onslow County the community has a special privilege, and responsibility to help the armed forces population.
"we know we've got these retiring marines in their 40s that are looking to supplement their income, have land in some instances, so we think geographically speaking we're in a very good location to help these people. "
Market coordinator for Onslow County Farmers Market, and program assistant for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Larry Kent hopes the program will encourage new farmers to take on the responsibility of the communities increasing interest in locally grown foods.
Kent is currently teaching a 20 week farming school called HELP, or the Horticulture Entry Leadership Program, which includes a comprehensive overview of farming practices, guest speakers, and a high tunnel, that allows a year round cultivation of crops.
"to give you an example in our twenty week long gardening class that we have, we have five, one of which is myself, or six different speakers that we bring in, and one of which is a banker and talks to them about the finances of home gardening."
Although the class is not strictly for the potential incubator farmers, Kent hopes it will prepare students for entry into the program. He also sees it as a way to test a potential farmer's dedication to the demands of sustaining a larger farming operation.
"In other words, we have a lot of people that take that class, and they find out, either they love it and want to continue, or they find out how hot it can get in august, or how much hard work there is involved in it, and it's not their cup of tea so to speak"
There's no question that farming is a tough business, farmers can work 12 hour or longer days. It requires intense calculation of aspects such as rainfall and pest management, and a large knowledge base of farming tools and equipment.
Communities around the nation have become interested in local food. Parents have become concerned with food whose origin they are unaware of, and in turn, farmers markets have become an important cultural habit.
"the mere fact that people want to know who's growing this food, how's it being grown, has led to a growing public awareness, and an absolute boom in farmer markets in the last ten years, that's just been phenomenal."
Kent expressed worries about the dominating corporate run farming enterprises, and people who've become curious about where the majority of food is coming from.
"corporations are taking over the farming industry in a very big way, the grass roots movement of buying local which started here a few years ago has grown now to the point that your local institutions are now wanting, demanding locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, part of their nutritional program."
He hopes that in the next few years incubator farmers will yield enough crops to supply the food needs of local hospitals and schools.
The incubation project accepts applicants, who must first complete the twenty week HELP course, write a business plan considering all obstacles to crop growth and necessary capital, as well as an interview.
J.R. Sweet is one these applicants. Sweet grew up on a farm in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. He went to college for political science, and about 8 years ago sold two businesses, and a large amount of his personal property to begin a farming operation. He currently runs a farm that has livestock, fruits, and vegetables, and attends the HELP course every Friday night.
"So I felt that this incubator farm was the extension of the agriculture, and put me in contact as a source, and as an agricultural source in the business , not just being an educated employee, and I think this is a really great beginning of the government getting back in on the home front, on the local front."
Sweet enjoys the diverse crowd in the class, young couples, older couples, people with farming experiences like himself, and people with almost no experience at all.
Another applicant is Sean OHara, a local farmer, who took the HELP class last year, and now hopes to be accepted to Onslow Counties upcoming incubation project. He says the class taught him many new things, and sees his crops improving because of it.
"it teaches al little bit of everything from how to take your soil samples, where to send them to, when to start your plants, and which ones will actually grow around here, and which ones are worth your times."
He looks forward to the three year incubation project, and is hoping to then run a larger operation that caters to his and the communities demand for locally grown foods.
"basically it covers what types of crops your gonna gro, irrigation controls you got set, and what you're gonna do about pest management."
One can't stress enough the dedication it takes to run a successful farm. Lenoir County farmer, Steve Putnam manages a farm and says the passion needed to maintain a farm, is the biggest factor in its success.
"it's not something that everybody can gonna jump out there and be able to do, it requires a lot of specialized equipment, it obviously requires a lot of land, a lot of expertise, and a lot of devoted employees, good employees. We're no better than out worst employee and we know that, and so it's a tough venture, but we've put the time in, we work twelve hours a day, sometimes more than that, but we realize it takes that to build a customer base, and we want our customers to be satisfied with what we give them, so we bend over backwards to make sure that anything that we do is overboard to help please them."
Putnam, manager of Putnam Family Farms located in Kinston, has run a locally based operation for many years, and he sees the incubation project as a very promising venture for new farmers.
"and I think that's what's so exciting about the incubator farm project, it's gonna allow them to participate in a scaled down way, and its gonna offer them a snapshot of what kind of things they are gonna be involved in if they're gonna farm, and I think it will play just as much a part in trying to discourage folks who's heart really isn't in it, you know they think they're going to make money, but if they're hearts not in it this is not the job for you, I can guarantee it.
There are still positions open for the incubation program. If you'd like more information on how you can apply for the HELP class, and to be considered for the incubator farm project call the Onslow County Extension office at (910) 455-5873. The next HELP class begins in February, along with the first incubation project in Onslow County.
These incubation farms are sprouting up all over the country; many have grown to be very successful. Among the other counties to receive the grant are Guilford, Moore, New Hanover and Wayne. As part of Wilmington's project their hope is to help incarcerated individuals who've recently been released.