Cultivating New Farmers

Incubator farms nurture a new generation of organic growers.

Don Boekelheide April 6, 2012

North of the Rocky River, amidst central North Carolina's rolling pastures and woodlots, something surprising is growing at the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm. This 30-acre organic farm, on a sunny Piedmont hillside 20 miles northeast of Charlotte, produces plenty of crunchy lettuce and luscious heirloom tomatoes, but its most important harvest is a crop of new farmers.

Incubator farms provide beginning farmers with access to land, equipment, resources, and training, similar to the way business incubators support budding entrepreneurs. Dozens are now starting up across the United States, with great diversity in philosophy, organization, and services offered.

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The growth of incubator farms comes at a time when America's farmers are aging, with fewer young farmers stepping up to replace those who retire. The USDA's latest farm census, in 2007, offers dramatic evidence at opposite ends of the age spectrum: Only 54,197 American farmers are under the age of 25, compared with almost 290,000 farmers 75 and older. At the same time, farmland—including the land surrounding Charlotte—faces intense development pressure from urban sprawl.

From the weathered wooden barn at the top of the hill, the fields of the Lomax farm look like an old-fashioned quilt, stitched together with red clay paths and green ribbons of clover and rye. At this incubator farm, sponsored by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and Cabarrus County, beginning farmers are each assigned a quarter-to-half-acre field to manage on their own. They learn organic farming hands-on, guided by timely advice from extension agents David Goforth and Carl Pless.

Cabarrus County Extension director Debbie Bost is passionate about the benefits of local farms and locally grown food. She hopes the incubator will cultivate a new generation of farmers to keep county farmland in production.

"You can't sustain yourself if you can't feed yourself," Bost says. "Local food gives the entire American nation greater strength."

Named to honor the woman who donated the farm's site, the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm is part of a broad, community-wide Local Food Systems Initiative that Bost helped launch in 2007. The initiative includes several programs to support farmers, protect farmland, and create a sustainable local food system.

At first, extension agent Goforth quietly worried that no one local would actually want to sign up for the incubator program.

"We thought we might only have a couple of local people the first year, and even discussed building cabins for people coming in from a distance," Goforth says. "Instead, we had nine farmers who wanted to participate, all local. It was up to 16 by 2011."

Lomax has been a journey of transformation for Aaron Newton, one of the original novice farmers. A landscape architect and planner by training, he now serves as the county's local food system program coordinator and the Lomax farm superintendent, tasked with keeping everything working.

"The disappearance of farmers in this county, and the knowledge they have to share, is just as big a problem as the disappearance of farmland," Newton says. "And as resource scarcity bites harder, we're going to need to grow food closer to where we live. For most of us, that will be in and around cities and towns."

In addition to land and farm implements, Lomax provides farmers with a cleaning and packing area with a large walk-in cooler, a greenhouse, and a high tunnel made from locally harvested and milled lumber. Goforth and Pless offer informal mentoring, hold monthly workshops, and coteach a required 8-week beginning farmer class for all incubator participants. Even with this level of support, learning to grow crops isn't easy, but it's the marketing part—making money—that poses the biggest challenge. There's a silver lining to having Charlotte as a neighbor, thanks to the city's growing number of urban consumers eager for healthier food choices.

Lomax farmers come in all shapes, ages, and backgrounds. Among the dozen beginning farmers in the class of 2012 are Joe Rowland, a tattooed 30-something who is lead singer for a rock band; Thomas Gentry, a professor of architecture at nearby University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Doug Crawford, a tall, laconic Virginia native who enrolled at the farm after 38 years working for Phillip Morris; and Stacey Hicks, a mother who stumbled across Lomax when she brought her home-schooled kids to the farm for a workshop on making mushroom logs. At times, Lomax feels a lot like an old-fashioned village, or even a family, with its complex mix of relaxed friendship spiked with occasional fractiousness.

Jane Henderson, one of the first participants at Lomax, has now moved on to running her own operation, Commonwealth Farms, just down the road. She praises the incubator's results.

"Not only is more healthy food available locally thanks to the farm, but some farmers are now selling transplants and teaching neighbors and customers how to grow for themselves," Henderson says. "To me, that kind of empowerment is one of Lomax's greatest benefits."

About Incubator Farms

Incubator farms train novice farmers while giving them access to land and equipment. Some are nonprofits, others government-sponsored. A few are set up to assist refugees resettled in the United States, including former subsistence farmers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Two pioneering organic programs stand out as models: Intervale Center Farms Program, launched in 1990 in Burlington, Vermont; and Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, or ALBA, founded in 2001 near Salinas, California. The USDA's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program has helped fund more than 65 incubator projects since 2008.

Intervale, ALBA, and many other incubators provide educational and volunteer opportunities for organic gardeners. Some gardeners are taking the step of enrolling in incubator programs; incubator farms report unanticipated interest from home gardeners.