From dream to reality: NC Farm Schools guide new farmers to success
Every week, Obalaye Macharia makes the 17-hour drive from northern Oklahoma to Raleigh, North Carolina. That was his one condition when his wife got her dream job out west: They would move there together – but he was not going to miss NC Farm School.
Macharia owns an acre in nearby Wake Forest. When the couple moves back to North Carolina, he plans to build a working farm that is also a community hub for youths, families and elders.
The drive from Oklahoma is tiring, he says, but Farm School has been worth the weekly round-trip journey of more than 2,000 miles.
“I have gotten even more than I bargained for,” he said.
Run by North Carolina Cooperative Extension and NC State University’s Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics, NC Farm School’s locations around the state guide both new and current farmers through the process of planning fiscally sound, economically sustainable farms. Extension agents, university specialists and local farmers are available to mentor and teach.
The program benefits everyone, said Gary Bullen, Extension associate in farm management and director of the NC Farm Schools: Formerly empty land becomes an economic engine.
“A lot of people have a dream of farming, but it’s a vague concept,” Bullen said. “We take this from that vague idea into very practical steps. …Through very hard work and thoughtful consideration, they turn it into a business. That transformation is what’s amazing to me.”
The first NC Farm School started in the Piedmont region in 2012. It expanded to locations statewide in 2014. About 270 farmers-to-be have completed the program since 2013. Each Farm School location usually has a waiting list.
Participants must either have farmland or be in the process of acquiring some. And they have to be serious about farming as a business venture – this isn’t about how to cobble together a backyard chicken coop or family vegetable patch. To complete the program, participants must finish at least 75 percent of a working business plan tailored to their property.
Those who sign up are a diverse, eclectic mix. Mary Penny Kelley already has a working farm but is looking to improve efficiency, while biotechnology workers Greg and Robin Stromberg only recently purchased 110 acres near the North Carolina border for retirement. Rebecca Larkin-Martinez recently moved to her husband’s 100 acres after a lifetime in New York City and found herself with a second new love: farming.
“I never thought this would be what I would be doing, but it’s what I love,” Larkin-Martinez said. “Farm School is giving me the tools to figure out what I can handle on my farm that’s within my passion.”
The program moves fast and seeks to provide a wide range of practical information. On a recent field day, participants met at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Agronomic Division Laboratory in Raleigh for a chemistry-laden crash course on soil testing and preparation. They then got on-the-ground anecdotes and efficiency techniques from farmer Jenn Sanford-Johnson at The Well-Fed Community Garden, an urban farm that supplies local restaurants with produce from just 1.5 acres near downtown Raleigh. To finish the day, the group traveled to the warehouse of The Produce Box, a local food delivery company, to learn about marketing and working with alternative distributors.
The program’s success opens the door for expansion. Bullen is currently piloting a farm school specifically for military veterans, as well as advanced level classes for program graduates.
“It’s amazing to me: We’ve been losing farms, but now we have all these people who are going back to that land and trying to make it productive,” Bullen said. “That’s why I get excited – it’s really working.”
Want to try it?
To sign up for the next round of NC Farm Schools this fall, email NCFarmSchool@ncsu.edu. Locations vary. Updated information is available on their website, where you can also watch a video from the recent field day in Raleigh.