Cultivating New Farmers

Incubator farms nurture a new generation of organic growers.

By Don Boekelheide

Photography by Nanine Hartzenbusch


Lomax farmers come in all shapes, ages, and backgrounds. Among the dozen beginning farmers in the class of 2012 are Joe Rowland, a tattooed 30-something who is lead singer for a rock band; Thomas Gentry, a professor of architecture at nearby University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Doug Crawford, a tall, laconic Virginia native who enrolled at the farm after 38 years working for Phillip Morris; and Stacey Hicks, a mother who stumbled across Lomax when she brought her home-schooled kids to the farm for a workshop on making mushroom logs. At times, Lomax feels a lot like an old-fashioned village, or even a family, with its complex mix of relaxed friendship spiked with occasional fractiousness.

Jane Henderson, one of the first participants at Lomax, has now moved on to running her own operation, Commonwealth Farms, just down the road. She praises the incubator's results.

"Not only is more healthy food available locally thanks to the farm, but some farmers are now selling transplants and teaching neighbors and customers how to grow for themselves," Henderson says. "To me, that kind of empowerment is one of Lomax's greatest benefits."

About Incubator Farms

Incubator farms train novice farmers while giving them access to land and equipment. Some are nonprofits, others government-sponsored. A few are set up to assist refugees resettled in the United States, including former subsistence farmers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Two pioneering organic programs stand out as models: Intervale Center Farms Program, launched in 1990 in Burlington, Vermont; and Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, or ALBA, founded in 2001 near Salinas, California. The USDA's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program has helped fund more than 65 incubator projects since 2008.

Intervale, ALBA, and many other incubators provide educational and volunteer opportunities for organic gardeners. Some gardeners are taking the step of enrolling in incubator programs; incubator farms report unanticipated interest from home gardeners.