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North Carolina is a state rich in agricultural traditions and resources, yet the majority of North Carolina’s food dollars are spent on products that are imported from other parts of the country, or from other countries. North Carolina farmers—existing, new and beginning—have the potential of meeting many of the state’s food needs but require support in order to do so.
A new type of farm, called an incubator farm, is popping up in North Carolina, but crops are not the only things they grow. They are also growing the state’s future farmers. America’s farmers are aging, with fewer young farmers stepping up to replace those that have retired.
The USDA’s latest farm census in 2007 offers dramatic evidence at opposite ends of the age spectrum. Only 54,197 American farmers are younger than 25, compared with almost 290,000 farmers 75 and older. At the same time, farmland faces intense development.
Lack of access to affordable land is often cited as one of the top barriers for aspiring farmers in beginning their new farm enterprises. One of the best ways to learn strategies for accessing land as a new farmer is to talk with other beginning farmers about how they acquired their land.
There are resources in North Carolina to help you get started in farming that also provide a land-base, at least temporarily while you hone your production and marketing skills. These are called incubator farms. Some are formal entities, while others are existing farms where experienced farmers allow a beginning farmer access to a portion of their land for a period of time.
There are also resources to help look for farmland, but most are currently available at a national level, rather than a statewide or county level. Incubator farms provide a low-cost opportunity for an emerging farmer to gain access to land (usually small parcels of land initially), start a small farm enterprise, test their skills and interests and start building their markets.
There are many examples of farmer training programs across the state. Incubator farms generally incorporate a training/technical assistance program, as well as offering land-based farm enterprise establishment opportunities.
There are already incubator farms in Orange and Cabarrus counties and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems is helping build five new ones in Onslow, New Hanover, Wayne, Guilford and Moore counties. The project is an integral part of the 10 percent campaign, a CEFS initiative that encourages consumers, businesses, institutions and agencies to spend 10 percent of their food dollars on locally produced foods. CEFS will assist with development of the new incubator farms by providing training, web-based resources, education on farm transition and land access, access to state agricultural professionals and business specialists, and partnership on grants for additional support.
CEFS will help each community develop their incubator farm by facilitating a process that will result in a visioning report, concept plan, or other materials for seeking additional funds.
Supporting North Carolina’s farmers makes good economic sense, as well. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolina’s 9.5 million residents currently spend approximately $35 billion per year on food. If each person committed just 10 percent of their existing food budget to local foods, approximately $3.5 billion would be available in the local economy.
Susan Brown is a horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Extension Service. Call 253-2610 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.