CONCORD, N.C. – As squash, okra and Swiss chard bask on a sunny slope outside town, another crop is also taking root: budding farmers.

Cabarrus County’s answer to consumers clamoring for locally grown foods – a demand undercut by aging growers – is to teach a new generation how to work the land.

The Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm Park, which opened this year, works like most programs for beginning entrepreneurs. Except that, besides class work, its students learn to drive a tractor, lay out straight rows and combat produce-gnawing bugs.

For a $100 yearly fee, participants get their own half-acre to work, use of a tractor and other equipment. Those who stick it out for three to five years should be ready to make it on their own and, like rotating crops, will be replaced by a new class.

“This is going to test them on whether they want to do this for a living,” says Brad Hinckley, a 10-year organic farmer who is mentoring the greenhorns.

Cabarrus is part of a movement to increase the foods produced in the communities that eat them. Locally grown food, the thinking goes, is healthier for consumers and local economies.

It saves energy. Most other food on our plate has traveled an average of 1,200 miles. It also preserves open space. North Carolina leads the nation in its loss of farms.

“Consumer demand has exploded in the past five years. People are looking at where their food is coming from,” says Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State University. The center is promoting a “farm to fork” local-foods initiative.

You’re part of that surge when you queue up for fresh tomatoes at one of the region’s bustling farmers markets or knife into pasture-raised pork at a local restaurant.

But as the beginners at the Lomax park are learning, growing food is still about sweat, calluses and leaps of faith.

“By 2010, farming will make up the majority of my household income. It has to,” says Aaron Newton, 34, sitting in the shade of a pole barn. A laid-off land planner with two young daughters, he and his wife are cobbling together a living as his first crops grow.

Newton, the 34-year-old Hinckley and a third Lomax farmer, Eric Williamson, have already started a business, Cold Water Creek Farms. They sold memberships to as many people as they could supply, about 60 households. For $300 to $500, each family will get a box of fresh produce for 20 weeks.

Newton says he recently turned away six more prospective customers, and chefs are calling. “If I could grow four times what we could produce out here, I could sell it all,” he says.

As soils play out, aquifers shrink, climate warms and energy prices rise, Newton calculates, the nation needs 100 million new farmers – including the smallest of growers. It’s all in a book he co-wrote, “A Nation of Farmers,” that came out in April.

By growing intensively, experts say, it’s possible to earn a living from just a few acres. What takes getting used to, Hinckley says, are the whims of weather, constantly changing market prices and months of labor before the first check arrives.

“I’ve never had one crop make me the most money two years in a row,” he says.

Cabarrus leaders began community conversations about agriculture some 18 months ago, says county extension director Debbie Bost. “We can’t sustain ourselves if we can’t feed ourselves,” she says.

The county worked with UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute on a study of foods produced in the county. In late 2007, a couple of hundred farm folk who crowded into a town hall meeting quickly identified some problems.

Farms are being lost to development, they said, and the farm community itself is graying. The average age of a Cabarrus farmer is 59.

And while beef cattle are the county’s largest agricultural product, Cabarrus has no “kill floor” to slaughter livestock, in part because of complex environmental regulations. Farmers have to haul their stock elsewhere.

That absence illustrates the ability to process local foods that’s been lost to globalization, Creamer says. As more food arrives pre-packaged from distant places, she says, it’s common for schools to have no kitchens and a beef-producing county like Cabarrus to have no slaughterhouse.

“There’s a lot of interest in North Carolina on the local food economy,” Creamer says, “but a lot of it is broken.”

Cabarrus is a state model for its commitment to local food, she says.

County commissioners have invested $175,000 in a new kill floor for which it got a state grant. They plan to create a food-policy council and a marketing plan for local farmers, and will require caterers for county functions to make local foods at least 10 percent of their meals.

The county, in collaboration with N.C. Cooperative Extension, also contributed $225,000 to develop the farm park on 32 acres southeast of Concord that a local woman had bequeathed for an undeveloped, passive county park. Along with $150,000 from the Cannon Foundation, it was enough to install a greenhouse and buy a tractor and other equipment.

A similar farm incubator is in its second year in Orange County, near Raleigh, among a handful nationwide.

A waiting list has already formed for would-be farmers at the Lomax incubator.

Among the first nine “participant farmers” are a stay-at-home mom, a banker nearing retirement and a volunteer intent on supplying food to the homeless at Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center. Most are home gardeners, but none had grown on a commercial scale.

Before they first turned dirt, they went through nine weeks of basic training, from building soil to buying insurance to handling finances.

“This is not about just learning to make a farm,” says Bost, the extension agent, who herself raises lambs and goats. “This is how to make a living from it.”

On the first hot day of June, sweat beads the red beard of Eric Williamson, 33, who is a quarter of the way through hoeing 23 rows of foot-high corn, beans and chard. A red Tractor Supply Co. cap deflects the sun. His dirty gray Duke basketball T-shirt is soaked.

Each row is 216 feet long, and each has to be worked twice, on either side of the plants. Williamson works backward, his freshly sharpened hoe chop-chopping four or five strokes at each plant.

A neighbor of Newton’s in Concord, Williamson graduated from N.C. State and has worked in restaurants and construction.

“I like seeing the results of my work at the end of the day,” he says. “You get done with 46 rows of this and it’s work, but it’s not the same.”

In their fledgling partnership, Hinckley brings expertise and Newton marketing skills while Williamson handles the books.

“But we’ll all have a hoe in our hands before the day is done,” Williamson says.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.