Giving new farmers a boost
By Katie Reeder • SMN Intern
Demand for locally grown food is soaring in Western North Carolina, but recruiting — and retaining — the farmers to grow the goods has been a challenge. That’s a problem a trio of farm-centric groups is hoping to address through a $100,000 grant they just landed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Organic Growers School and Western North Carolina FarmLink are collaborating to create Farm Pathways: Access to Land, Livelihood and Learning, a new program that will mentor beginning farmers and link them with the resources they need to succeed. It’s set to begin in 2016.
Farm Pathways is a needed resource, the grant application said, due to a decline in both the number of farms and the amount of farmland in North Carolina. The state has 2,500 fewer farms and 100,000 fewer acres of farmland than it did in 2008.
However, Western North Carolina has seen a surge in demand for farm products in recent years. According to Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Local Food Research Center, the number of direct farm sales in Western North Carolina increased by almost 70 percent between 2007 and 2013.
But many of these beginning farmers are inexperienced and lack the resources a successful farm demands. One of the primary challenges is finding affordable farmland.
The grant application noted that agricultural property in North Carolina has an average price of $4,550 per acre, but in the western part of the state the price varies from $7,000 to $30,000 per acre. Farmers must compete with those looking to build homes or develop tourist areas, and landowners do not receive any benefit by lowering their prices and selling to farmers.
According to the grant application, the organizations expect more than 75 percent of the farmers their program will serve to be those with limited farm sales and income.
“Preserving farmland and supporting farmers is critical for a sustainable, local food supply and economic stability in our communities,” SAHC Associate Director Kristy Urquhart said.
To support these beginning farmers, the program will help them find mentors and apprenticeships with producers who are involved in a similar type of farming. It will also provide classroom and experiential education, earning them a journeyman farmer certificate.
Participants in the program will receive coaching on how to develop business plans and access start-up capital. They will also get help negotiating leases and finding affordable farmland.
Each of the three organizations involved will play its own part in helping the new farmers meet these goals.
WNC FarmLink, a matching service for landowners and farmers seeking land, will use the grant money to provide more personalized consultation for WNC farmers. It will also offer workshops on leasing and purchasing land.
Meanwhile, SAHC will launch the Farmer Incubator Project, a program to link beginning farmers with production workshops, reduced rates for land rental and training and leasing for farm equipment and infrastructure. The land trust will also use grant funds for the Farmland Access Service, which helps beginning farmers obtain affordable farmland.
In addition, farmers will get the benefit of a new curriculum the Organic Growers School is creating to help farmers with business, financial and marketing planning. The school also plans to expand its existing experiential training programs.
After the program starts, the project team plans to apply to the USDA for continued support. They’re optimistic about the future.
“Complex social problems are often solved through a collaborative approach across organizations,” Organic Growers School Executive Director Lee Warren said. “SAHC, OGS and WNCFL are poised to build a solid team for that collective impact.”
What it’s made of
- Farm Pathways: Access to Land, Livelihood and Learning may be just one program to support beginning farmers, but it’s made of three distinct pieces.
- Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy: The Farmer Incubator Project will provide beginning farmers with production workshops and access to resources such as equipment leasing and training and reduced-rate land rental.
- Organic Growers School: A Beginning Farmer Training Curriculum will help farmers with business, financial and marketing planning, and existing training programs will expand.
- WNC Farm Link: Farmers will receive personalized consultation and training in negotiating lease agreements, as well as guidance on land purchase.