In 2015, U.S. farmers — a third of them in California — reported $8.7 billion in direct sales to consumers, retailers and other institutions. North Carolina did not break the top 10. It’s not for lack of demand: The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association says residents in 14 counties surrounding Charlotte alone spent $662 million in 2012 on produce that could have been grown by local farms. Farmers in training at the 7-year-old Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm about 20 miles north of Charlotte hope to fill the gap.
LOMAX FARM COORDINATOR, CAROLINA FARM STEWARDSHIP ASSOCIATION
Newton once turned farmland into neighborhoods, Now, the former landscape architect gives beginning farmers affordable access to land and equipment to start their own farm businesses through CFA, a Pittsboro-based nonprofit founded in 1979. Lomax Farm finished 2016 with nine farmers in training.
Is our relationship with food changing?
In 1950, 30% of people were growing food for a living. By default, you had a 1 in 3 chance of growing up in a household that was actively growing food for a living. That number is less than 2% of the population now.
One of the things we can do is offer people a way to reconnect with their food and, in our case, the people who are training to grow their food. Not only are they learning where food comes from, but they’re learning where farmers come from. I don’t spend time trying to convince people to eat differently mainly because I have my hands full with the people that are already knocking on my door.
Why are we losing farmers?
The average age of a farmer in North Carolina is 59, so frankly, they’re just aging out.
With less than 2% of the population [farming], that means less than 2% of the population have children who are growing up on farms. It’s more of a journey for someone like that to get into a field like agriculture. In the past, most of what farmers would learn, they learned from their mom and dad growing up on the farm. But now that doesn’t exist. We’re having to replace that with something that is new.
Why are we losing farmland?
That’s primarily a factor of development. I turned farm fields into subdivisions for about 10 years, so I know the industry. I think there’s a way in the future for the two to co-exist. What if open space within your community was productive? What if we reprogrammed communities where you didn’t take the farm field out of the equation? What if you could build agriculture into the community so that you could have better access?
You cannot apply for [agriculture zoning designation] with less than 10 acres in production. You can make a living on less than 10 acres growing vegetables, but the statute that addresses that farm size hasn’t taken that into account. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want someone to be able to farm 2 square feet and get the tax designation on their entire property. I understand we have to define a bona fide farm if we’re going to give people a tax benefit for their agricultural output. But maybe there are other ways to help farmland be valued more intrinsically than just valued by what it was worth if it were covered in houses.
What’s the future for larger fruit and vegetable farms?
If you look at the last [U.S.] farm bill, more than 70% of money went to support five crops: cotton — which we obviously don’t eat — wheat, rice, corn and soy. Corn and soy are by far the two biggest. Right now, they are a really important part of the food system in that they make up a lot of calories that the average American consumes. The question is: From a dietary standpoint, is that a good long-term play for us? That’s not really for me to answer. From a policy standpoint and from a societal standpoint, we have tended to favor those commodity crops. Farmers are responding to that to remain economically viable.
It has to start with us, the people who are eating, to make some decisions. I cannot decide that I want a buffalo burger for dinner, because bison just isn’t available in any of the grocery stores anywhere near where I live. We don’t eat in a vacuum — we eat within a food system that has developed over time, and it offers us certain opportunities and it doesn’t offer us certain opportunities. The policies that we’ve created as a community locally, regionally, as a state and a nation have an effect over what is available, what isn’t, what is easily available, what is cheap. All of that along with culture, history, what your parents fed you, our tastebuds, shape what you eat.
Is it difficult to become a certified organic farm?
Not at all. I will spend less than eight hours in the certification process. [In the USDA’s National Organic Certification Cost Share Program] there’s been money left on the table for the past two years. That would mean overall certification costs would be $1,000, but Cost Share pays 75% of that, or up to $750. So for $250 and about eight hours worth of time, you can be a certified vegetable operation.
There are three main reasons we remain certified: First is market access — our new growers have greater market access as organic growers than they would as non-organic growers because of the demand that continues to jump every year. The second is return on investment. [Organic growers] are going to get on average $1 per pound more than conventionally grown produce. Third is decreased input costs; if you manage your farm within the organic system for the long run, you’re going to build fertility. You’re going to build systems less reliant on synthetic input.
What’s cooler, having The Avett Brothers at Lomax or ‘A Chef’s Life’?
Oh no, you’re going to pit my two biggest supporters! The night we had the dinner, the night we filmed most of that episode [of the Kinston-based TV show], that was one of the coolest nights of my life. Vivian [Howard] and Scott [Avett] are both so genuine that they are just a joy to be around. They’re both genuinely interested in what we do, but also they value the work of farmers. It would be like picking my favorite child.
GOALS FOR 2017
I’m going to try and run a 100K (62-mile) race in October. I finished a 50-miler in November in Maryland. I’d also like to ride a bike across Cuba [to talk] to farmers there.