Returning Farmer Benefits from NC Farm School

Four adults and three children gathered together near a farm field.

Back row: Ben Sharpe, Ashley Vohne, Charlie McCoy and Kristen McCoy with their boys on the McCoys' farm.

To anyone who knows much about farming, the conversation that Ben Sharpe, his fiancé, Ashley Vohne, and Charlie and Kristen McCoy have around the McCoys’ dining room table one afternoon is familiar:

Farming is a risky business, and it’s hard work – and unpredictable, too. But, as Charlie McCoy says, with the right help and the right attitude, it’s possible to succeed.

Ben Sharpe met the McCoys through the NC Farm School. A partnership of NC State University’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and North Carolina Cooperative Extension, the program is designed to increase the number of sustainable and economically viable farms in North Carolina. It helps aspiring and beginning farmers put together solid business plans, and it also allows established farmers, like Sharpe, to explore the feasibility of adding new enterprises.

Funded by the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, the program pairs interested NC Farm School graduates with mentors – experienced farmers like the McCoys who not only share their knowledge and experience but also their connections within North Carolina’s agricultural community. Charlie McCoy has spent his entire life on a Craven County farm that’s been in his family for more than 100 years.

Ben Sharpe took part because he is considering adding organic tobacco to his livestock operation in Wilson County. After he graduated from the program in June, he decided to take advantage of the school’s mentor-mentee program and found it valuable.

We have made some lifelong friends from all the hard work that has gone into the NC Farm School.

“We have made some lifelong friends from all the hard work that has gone into the NC Farm School,” he says.

Sharpe was matched with the McCoys because of their experience with blending a livestock operation with row crop production.

Sharpe also has farming experience, but he’s approaching farm expansion cautiously: He knows firsthand that agriculture’s a gamble – and gambles don’t always work out. His father had been a farmer but got out of the business after he’d had to borrow money against his home to make ends meet.

“My dad told me and my brother he didn’t want either one of us to farm. He’s like, ‘Learn a trade,’” Sharpe recalls.

He took that advice, spending nearly 20 years working his way up the ranks with an agricultural equipment company. He found that he missed the farming lifestyle – being outdoors, working hard and learning something new with each passing day. He wanted to share that with his son, Bryson.

I wanted to get Bryson into 4-H and doing some of the things that I enjoyed as a kid.

“I wanted to get him into 4-H and doing some of the things that I enjoyed as a kid, instead of sitting in his room playing video games,” Sharpe says as Bryson plays outside with the McCoys’ two sons, Luke and Wyatt.

“I’m sure there are a lot of things easier to go do that would probably be more stable,” he adds. “I know the gambles you make with it and the work involved, but none of that bothers me.”

NC Farm School helps provide information and a plan to help you discover the possibilities that exist.

Derek Washburn, an NC State Extension associate who helps coordinate the program, says, “NC Farm School doesn’t hide the realities of farming; rather we help provide information and a plan to help you discover the possibilities that exist in order to make farming a reality.”

Kristen McCoy, listens, nods and then quickly adds, “I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I wouldn’t trade farming for anything. It’s meant that both our children already have a strong foundation and work ethic.

“That’s priceless.”

Find out more about the schools planned for 2019 in Greenville and in Roxboro.

Farm School is made possible by a grant from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.

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