Piedmont Farm School helps small farmers get started

At Wild Turkey Farms in Rowan County, Georgi Goss and her sister Susan Agner listen intently as Lee Menius and his wife, Domisty, talk about their poultry and livestock operation. The Meniuses, both College of Agriculture and Life Sciences animal science alumni, are leading a tour of their farm as Goss and Agner and 35 other would-be farmers furiously take notes or snap photos with digital cameras.

The group members are participating in the Piedmont Farm School, a seven-month N.C. Cooperative Extension education program that helps new and aspiring farmers develop successful small farms. The farm school was started last year by agricultural agents from seven counties who continue to lead the program today.

The farm school is no small commitment: Participants pay $200 and travel twice each month for an evening of classroom instruction and a day of farm tours. During this year’s farm school, the group visited operations from Burlington to Statesville and in between.

Goss and Agner describe themselves as city girls who never even raised a garden. But both now own land in rural Rowan County, and they wanted some guidance on how to how to start a small farm. Agner, who is raising laying chickens on 10 acres, said she was motivated to join the farm school by “a desire to have better quality and better tasting food.”

“The agents do a fantastic job, with both the classroom instruction and field trips. The program works well – it’s a perfect mix,” Goss said.

The idea for the farm school came from Davidson County Extension advisory council member Jennifer Clark, wife of Lexington Mayor Newell Clark, who is an entrepreneur and local food advocate, said Amy-Lynn Albertson, Davidson County agricultural Extension agent. Albertson and Jennifer Clark started developing a plan for what a farm school would look like.

“One of our challenges as agents is getting farmers to talk about business planning,” Albertson said. “Also, we have lots of people who come in and want to know what they should do with a piece of land.”

Albertson realized the farm school would be overwhelming for just one agent, so she asked agents in nearby counties if they’d like to help, and they said, “Yes.” The group worked out a plan for the Piedmont Farm School in 2011, and the first school was held in 2012.

The first year, the agents hoped for 10 participants and set 30 as the maximum for the class. Colleagues told Albertson that the $150 fee for the program would discourage participation, yet the first group exceeded the class maximum at 34 and still had a waiting list.

This year, the cost of the program rose to $200 and expanded to 40 participants. In the end, they accepted 50 participants and still had a waiting list. Participants come from as far away as Cary, Statesville and Troy, though most participants come from the Piedmont counties of Guilford, Forsyth, Davidson and Rowan.

Agner said she and Goss signed up for the farm school after seeing an announcement in the local newspaper. Goss owns 68 acres of land she would like to farm on a small scale in her retirement.

“I want to make sure I understand what I need to do,” Goss said. “I feel like I have learned more than most participants because I probably knew the least.”

One of the biggest challenges of the farm school has been meeting the needs of a diverse group of participants, Albertson said. The 2012 class was largely former tobacco growers wanting to diversify. This year’s class includes some small farmers just starting out and others like Goss and Agner with no experience.

“We try to find middle ground in our instruction where everyone feels comfortable,” Albertson said. This year, the agents team decided to make some adjustments in the curriculum after learning the experience level of those registered for the farm school.

Goss said that the tours of working farms were very helpful for her.

At Peregrine Farms in Alamance County, the group learned how Alex and Betsy Hitt are making a good living on less than four acres in production. Goss said she learned the importance of fences, soil and water resources and marketing crops. She also learned about the many resources provided by Cooperative Extension.

She was so motivated by the farm school that she signed up for a course in permaculture certification, which advocates a number of sustainable farming practices. She has attended workshops and conferences in other places that she learned about through the farm school She also wants to investigate organic certification for her land.

“Attending farm school has raised my awareness of available learning opportunities,” Goss said. She’s thinking about taking the farm school again to complete her business plan.

“After taking the course the first time and learning about farming and marketing, I feel I finally know enough to write a realistic business plan. I’d like to do so with guidance from experienced and knowledgeable people,” she said.

Albertson said that getting people to develop a business plan for their operation is a big focus of the training. Class members keep their draft business plans online so they can work on the plans during class time.

The late Mike Roberts, Extension associate in CALS Agricultural and Resource Economics Department, taught the business planning portion of the training and helped guide the new farmers in developing their plans. (Roberts died in October following an accident at home. Extension agents say Mike’s passion for Extension work and helping farmers realize their dreams made Piedmont Farm School a success.)

This year’s class has asked for more production information, along with the business planning, Albertson said.

In addition, a number of Extension specialists from campus and other research facilities have talked with the farm school members on topics ranging from specialty crops production to small fruits and tree fruits.

On farm tours, producers are encouraged to share both their successes and the challenges they have faced along the way. The planning team wants class participants to come away with a realistic view of farming as a career, she said.

Chickens at CALS alumni Lee and Domisty Menius' Rowan County farm were part of the tour itinerary.
Chickens at CALS alumni Lee and Domisty Menius’ Rowan County farm were part of the tour itinerary.

During the tour of Wild Turkey Farms, Menius shares challenges he has faced with insurance, livestock processing, product marketing and land access. “A: Farming is a business,” he tells the farm school group. “B: You’ve got to know what you’re getting into.”

The farm school Extension agents count success stories in both new operations that are started and risky ventures that are avoided, Albertson said. “We count success as people not getting into something new when they shouldn’t,” she said.

The Piedmont Farm School has been so successful that plans are in the works to develop additional schools around the state. Last year, the farm school’s team won a Search for Excellence Award from the North Carolina State Grange and N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. Team members were also recognized by the N.C. Association of County Agriculture Agents and were national finalists for this program.

“The reason why we feel it works is because of the agents involved and the farm tours,” Albertson said. “The team approach has been really good for us. This would be really overwhelming for one person.”

— Natalie Hampton


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