Cultivating New Farmers

Incubator farms nurture a new generation of organic growers.

By Don Boekelheide

Photography by Nanine Hartzenbusch

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North of the Rocky River, amidst central North Carolina's rolling pastures and woodlots, something surprising is growing at the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm. This 30-acre organic farm, on a sunny Piedmont hillside 20 miles northeast of Charlotte, produces plenty of crunchy lettuce and luscious heirloom tomatoes, but its most important harvest is a crop of new farmers.

Incubator farms provide beginning farmers with access to land, equipment, resources, and training, similar to the way business incubators support budding entrepreneurs. Dozens are now starting up across the United States, with great diversity in philosophy, organization, and services offered.

The growth of incubator farms comes at a time when America's farmers are aging, with fewer young farmers stepping up to replace those who retire. The USDA's latest farm census, in 2007, offers dramatic evidence at opposite ends of the age spectrum: Only 54,197 American farmers are under the age of 25, compared with almost 290,000 farmers 75 and older. At the same time, farmland—including the land surrounding Charlotte—faces intense development pressure from urban sprawl.

From the weathered wooden barn at the top of the hill, the fields of the Lomax farm look like an old-fashioned quilt, stitched together with red clay paths and green ribbons of clover and rye. At this incubator farm, sponsored by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and Cabarrus County, beginning farmers are each assigned a quarter-to-half-acre field to manage on their own. They learn organic farming hands-on, guided by timely advice from extension agents David Goforth and Carl Pless.

Cabarrus County Extension director Debbie Bost is passionate about the benefits of local farms and locally grown food. She hopes the incubator will cultivate a new generation of farmers to keep county farmland in production.

"You can't sustain yourself if you can't feed yourself," Bost says. "Local food gives the entire American nation greater strength."

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