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N.C. Farm School: Seven-month program helping to produce a new generation of farmers

Rolling pastures, grazing cattle, tobacco curing, homegrown tomatoes and fresh cut hay take us back to a time that seems almost forgotten. The key phrase here is “almost forgotten.”

North Carolina has a rich history of agriculture, and it remains the No. 1 industry in the state, even today. But it faces many challenges. There are a few agriculture agents from the N.C. Cooperative Extension who believe they have a plan to make farming a common vocation again — and a successful one at that.

Some N.C., farms that have been operating for more than a century, and they are facing a new dilemma — no one to take over. People with no farming backgrounds are inheriting land, and with a future of 9.2 billion people in the world and not enough farms to supply the demand for food, it makes it pretty scary to think about. So what are we to do?

This is where an agency that has over 100 years of experience comes in to develop and create the new farming generation. To address this dire situation, the N.C .Farm School was born. It is a seven-month program teaching new and transitioning farmers about business practices, along with modern and traditional farming aspects. Its aim: establishing farmers who can grow and produce for another century.

The N.C. Farm School started four years ago as the Piedmont Farm School, utilizing Cooperative Extension agents from Davidson, Forsyth, Randolph, Montgomery, and Iredell counties. It has now grown to four schools across the state and has even crossed state lines, working with Virginia Cooperative Extension agents. With more than 20 county agents working the Southern Piedmont N.C. Farm School, Blue Ridge N.C. Farm School, Foothills N.C. Farm School and the Sandhills N.C. Farm School, the state has a great asset to teach those in need about running farms and how to diversify them.

It wasn’t easy to develop, but someone had to do it, considering the numerous people visiting the local Cooperative Extension offices, seeking help to grow crops, raise livestock, sell to local markets, handle employees and learn rules, restrictions, and reports they should have. It is tough for one agent to handle all of those questions, and by no means is it a one-time deal. Having the N.C .Farm Schools has helped agents use their production knowledge to give the students additional business skills that many new farmers need to survive.

The N.C .Farm School is not like any other program offered in the state. Nowhere else can you learn from specialists and farmers about record-keeping, taxes and trials and successes of current farmers. The participants even get to visit local farms in the participating counties to see how those farms operate. It is the best combination to teach business and production, while helping to ensure the success of the new farms. One of the best compliments I have heard while assisting with the N.C. Farm Schools is from a Southern Piedmont N.C. Farm School participant, Kelly Connor, when he stated, “It would have taken my brothers and I at least 20 years to get the information and education we have received in the short time attending the Southern Piedmont N.C. Farm School. This program is worth more than double the price.”

Participants have been able to learn from different-sized farms, small to large, and North Carolina has just about every imaginable farm available. Students have visited dairies, mushroom growers, sheep farms, hop growers, vegetable producers, orchards and more. The farm tours are just icing on the cake. The business meetings are the most important and are held in the evening to accommodate those with a second job. The business meetings are not all business. Participants get to learn from farmers themselves about their journeys to becoming the successful businesses owners they are today.

By having this opportunity, graduates have had over a 50 percent success rate of entering farming. Mike and Jenny Tate from Forsyth County own Rebecca Knoll Farms. They are 2014 graduates from the Piedmont N.C. Farm School.

“After 30 years in business,” Mike Tate says, “I had a voice telling me to do something in agriculture, and this school helped put me in the right direction.”

Hearing these comments inspires the agents to continue their efforts and add additional schools to meet the demand of their clients..

This is just one example of the work that Cooperative Extension is doing to help meet the needs and demands of our citizens. If you would like more information on the N.C. Farm Schools, call your local Cooperative Extension Agent, or visit the website http://ncfarmschool.ces.ncsu.edu/.

Danelle Cutting is a Cooperative Extension agent in Rowan County.

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