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Wanted: future farmers

NC State University student Rebecca Falkner spent the better part of summer 2015 working as an intern at White Rock Farms in Peachland. There she acquired, she said, “a well-rounded knowledge of the many types of animal agriculture,” as she learned all aspects of the farm’s business – including finance, daily operations, marketing, supplier partnerships, employee management and more. This fall, Falkner, a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences senior in animal science, has been equally busy preparing an in-depth report on the internship, attending bi-weekly workshops and creating her proposal for an agricultural business venture.

It’s all part of Developing Future NC Farmers (DFNCF), a new two-year pilot program funded by the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission to identify, support and graduate new agricultural entrepreneurs.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the average ages of U.S. and North Carolina farmers were 58.3 and 58.9 years, respectively. “To meet the challenges of the future, innovative perspectives and insights must come from a new generation of agricultural leadership,” said Dr. Sam Pardue, CALS associate dean and director of Academic Programs. DFNCF aims to help answer that leadership need.

Pardue spearheaded the creation of the unique two-year pilot program, based on a concept originated by state Sen. Brent Jackson. DFNCF is intended “to identify, support and graduate a group of new agricultural entrepreneurs to sustain and enrich North Carolina agricultural industries,” Pardue said. “The program combines a rich university experience with robust mentoring from external businesses to nurture creative thinking in combination with an academic foundation needed for each student to succeed.”

The first eight DFNCF students were selected in December 2014, and activities began this past spring. The chosen students receive many benefits, including scholarships, transportation and housing reimbursement, and internship wages; mentoring by an established agri-business leader; experience in the development of a business plan; and three hours of course credit.

Sara Lane, CALS Career Services coordinator and a graduate of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, is director of the program.

“Part of the objective of the program was to bring in students who are not from agricultural production backgrounds in order to grow the number of new agriculture producers,” she said. “To be eligible for the program, the students’ parents had to make less than 50 percent of their income from agricultural production.”

Lane explained that the basic components of the program are a workshop series in the spring to get the students ready for the internship (workshops on topics such as farm safety, agricultural Spanish and operating farm equipment), the 12-week internship in the summer and the fall workshop series to help the students complete their business plans.

Falkner with calf
Rebecca Falkner put her CALS animal science courses to good use at White Rock Farms.

“The overall goal of the program is to give students from non-ag backgrounds the opportunity to work on a successful farming operation with a successful Ag-Mentor and the guidance to create a business plan, with the hope that the students will pursue careers in agriculture, and more specifically launch their own production agriculture operations,” Lane said. “We try to pair the students with successful Ag-Mentors in their production areas of interest.”

Meanwhile, to serve as Ag-Mentors, the program looked for “for both successful business people and great communicators and teachers,” she said. “This year, Dr. Bill Collins was helpful in identifying many of our mentors through their participation in the CALS Agricultural Leadership Development program.”

The Ag-Mentors reap benefits, as well, including the opportunities to build a legacy by helping a young farmer start a business; build industry community by bringing in young farmers to take over for retiring farmers; pass on knowledge and values to the next generation; gain new ideas and perspectives from a student trained in the most innovative technologies and knowledge available through NC State’s academic programs; have additional labor for daily operations as needed (the student is expected to spend about 80 percent of time on farm labor and 20 percent on learning and job shadowing); and work with a program coordinator who oversees the internship experience.

This year Ag-Mentors contributed $2,500 to the students’ summer wages, but next year this amount will be covered by the grant, Lane said. “Because of this, the N.C. Pork Council assisted in sponsoring three of the students this year who worked with hog farmers. This was through the N.C. Pork Council’s internship program, which funds a portion of the wages for students who intern on hog farms.”

Daniel Miller in tractor
Daniel Miller, a junior in agricultural business, operates a tractor under the direction of Scott Taylor at Cross Creek Dairy.

The group of interns and their mentors include Falkner, the senior in animal science, working with Roddy Purser at White Rock Farms; David Johnson, junior in ag business, with Russell Wood at Wood Angus; Cory Levings, junior in ag business and ag science, with Chuck Stokes and Evan Stokes Caudle at Little Creek Hog Farms; Selena McKoy, junior in horticulture and poultry science, with Dana Massey at Plantworks Nursery; Daniel Miller, junior in ag business, with Scott Clayton at Cross Creek Dairy; Katelyn Thomas, junior in ag business, with Russell Vollmer at Vollmer Farm; Dené Vann, junior in animal science, with John Langdon at John M. Langdon Farms; and Abby Whitaker, junior in ag science, with Andrew Burleson at Thurman Burleson and Sons Farm.

“Six of the eight students learned how to drive a tractor for the first time during their internships,” Lane said. “The students have been overwhelmingly positive about the program.”

Their rave reviews can be found among the internship reports:

Said Levings, “My time at Little Creek Hog Farms Inc. met my expectations and solidified my choice of agriculture as a career. I saw things I had never seen before and performed tasks I had never done before.”

Whitaker spoke of how grateful she is to have spent the summer on the Thurman Burleson and Sons Farm and said, “My agriculture knowledge, experience and appreciation were expanded, and I cannot imagine a career for me in another industry.”

Thomas found “working at the Vollmer Farm this summer gave me an opportunity to learn about things I did not have much knowledge about. I come from a small grain farm in Lee County, and to go to Franklin County and submerge myself in an organic and agritourism operation was a huge step for me.”

McKoy called her time at Plantworks “a truly incredible experience.… I was able to see how an agribusiness is run, the day-to-day operations, the teamwork needed to keep things going and how product is sold and shipped.”

And Falkner concluded that “working at White Rock has expanded my knowledge on the subjects I have been taught in the classroom. … I am eternally grateful to be given the opportunity to learn about industries that I love and to be able to participate hands-on in the field and in the barns. I thank those mentors for putting their faith in me and for gifting me with information that I hope to take onto my own operation one day in the future.”

Lane recalled that Ag-Mentor Langdon “had some reservations about joining the program, especially after meeting his intern, Dené Vann, who is a very petite woman. He was concerned she might not be up to the challenges of working on a hog farm.”

Vann and Langdon with farm equipment
Animal science student Dene Vann (center) was undaunted by the challenges of working with the large equipment and animals at John M. Langdon Farms. Vann called Langdon (right) a “wonderful mentor.”

But by the end of the internship, Vann had proven her value, Lane said. “Mr. Langdon called me on the penultimate day of her internship and said that he didn’t know what he was going to do without her. … He said that if we could find another student like Dené, he would happily participate in the program again.”

And Vann is especially grateful for the opportunity. “I would like to thank Senator Jackson, the Tobacco Trust Fund and the Pork Council for creating and sponsoring my internship with Mr. Langdon and the DFNCF Program. Mr. Langdon was a wonderful mentor,” she said. “This internship has served to reinvigorate my passion for agriculture.”

Following the group’s internships, the fall series of program workshops focused on how to develop business plans, with the students presenting their plans in November.

“We’ve had loan officers from AgCarolina Farm Credit come in to talk with the students about the different parts of a business plan and what students should include in theirs,” Lane said. “The business plans are very basic plans for operations the students may choose to start after graduation or later on.”

Some of the presentations include Levings’ plan to take over two farrowing houses that are currently owned by her family; Whitaker’s plan to build a small beef herd that she can manage in addition to a full-time job (possibly as an extension agent); Vann’s proposal, not for a production operation but to open a mobile large animal veterinary practice in northeastern N.C., after completing vet school; and McKoy’s plan to create an organic produce farm, with a focus on pick-your-own blackberries, plus egg production.

Lane noted that McKoy’s farm would also have a strong agritourism/education bent, and that “she wants to create internships for minority high school students to introduce them to agriculture.”

Looking ahead, Lane hopes to enhance future workshops to provide the students with even greater training. “I’d also love to create a community of Ag-Mentors who may be able to provide mentorship even outside of the program,” she said. “With this being the first year, we’ve learned a lot about what the students need and how we can best get that information to them.

“If the program receives funding after next year, I’d like to be able to bring more students into the program and grow its reputation with the student population, so it becomes a go-to opportunity.”

– Terri Leith