Cultivating New Farmers

Incubator farms nurture a new generation of organic growers.

By Don Boekelheide

Photography by Nanine Hartzenbusch

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Named to honor the woman who donated the farm's site, the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm is part of a broad, community-wide Local Food Systems Initiative that Bost helped launch in 2007. The initiative includes several programs to support farmers, protect farmland, and create a sustainable local food system.

At first, extension agent Goforth quietly worried that no one local would actually want to sign up for the incubator program.

"We thought we might only have a couple of local people the first year, and even discussed building cabins for people coming in from a distance," Goforth says. "Instead, we had nine farmers who wanted to participate, all local. It was up to 16 by 2011."

Lomax has been a journey of transformation for Aaron Newton, one of the original novice farmers. A landscape architect and planner by training, he now serves as the county's local food system program coordinator and the Lomax farm superintendent, tasked with keeping everything working.

"The disappearance of farmers in this county, and the knowledge they have to share, is just as big a problem as the disappearance of farmland," Newton says. "And as resource scarcity bites harder, we're going to need to grow food closer to where we live. For most of us, that will be in and around cities and towns."

In addition to land and farm implements, Lomax provides farmers with a cleaning and packing area with a large walk-in cooler, a greenhouse, and a high tunnel made from locally harvested and milled lumber. Goforth and Pless offer informal mentoring, hold monthly workshops, and coteach a required 8-week beginning farmer class for all incubator participants. Even with this level of support, learning to grow crops isn't easy, but it's the marketing part—making money—that poses the biggest challenge. There's a silver lining to having Charlotte as a neighbor, thanks to the city's growing number of urban consumers eager for healthier food choices.

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