Kelly Owensby heard about the PLANT program from her friend Jessica Sandford. Kelly had interned on many of our area’s finest farms—Ecofarm, Perry-Winkle Farm, Wild Hare Farm—and had a large garden at home, but for 2008 she wanted to be on her own, planting something bigger than a garden and selling her produce. PLANT (People Learning Agriculture Now for Tomorrow) turned out to be just what she needed.
When Kelly and Jessica finished the PLANT workshops, Kelly signed up to use some of the program’s land at the Breeze Farm. This made a great addition to the land she’d cultivated behind her rental home on Arthur Minnis Road. Perhaps more importantly, at the Breeze Farm land, the farm trainees didn’t have to figure out all the details of setting up land on their own.
Most people think of farming as planting, weeding, and harvesting, but there are practical details that can overwhelm a new farmer: putting up fencing, planning an irrigation system, using plastic for organic weed control, hauling in straw bales for mulch, and planning and planting cover crops far ahead of planting season to prepare the soil. There are also equipment needs that stand in the way, like the irrigation pump and the all-important tractor. At the Breeze Farm, PLANT’s organizers put up an electric fence for deer and installed a pump to use water from the land’s pond. They planted a cover crop in plenty of time for the 2008 season, and then rented a tractor to turn it under and prepare furrows for the students. They even put plastic down for the students who wanted it. The students were welcome to participate in the land preparation, but they weren’t left doing it on their own.
By spacing out the hurdles to running a farm, instead of letting them pile up in a roadblock right at the start, PLANT gave the farm trainees the space to try out farming without being overwhelmed. Kelly still had to take care of details like fencing and tilling at her own land, but PLANT gave her some extra time to experiment with the planting and timing of crops, and to find ways to sell what she produced. She admits she felt comforted knowing that, thanks to the knowledge and work of PLANT’s organizers, at least some of her crops were likely to be successful.
At the Breeze Farm land, Kelly planted about a dozen kinds of watermelons, cantaloupes, and musk melons, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes. At her house, she grew potatoes, carrots, Swiss chard, cabbage, dried beans (or soup beans), snap beans, many kinds of peppers and tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, and flowers. Marketing all the goods was the hard part: she spent most of the season waiting to hear back from Farmers’ Markets, only to be notified at last that she hadn’t been accepted. She sold to Johnny’s in Carrboro and to local restaurants, where friends recommended her to the chefs as an organic (although uncertified) farmer. She also set up a roadside stand, where she sat on late summer afternoons, practicing her banjo under an Easy-Up tent while she waited for the occasional car to pass by and hopefully stop.
Kelly learned how hard farming is, especially on her own, but she also learned that it’s what she wants to pursue more than anything else. Thanks to PLANT, she was able to practice farming without being overwhelmed her first season. She’s determined to find a way to make it work, and has spent the winter mulling over her new realistic picture of farming, and what she needs to succeed—the skills she needs to acquire and her next steps to get them. Most likely she’ll be working with George O’Neal of Lil’ Farm, who sells on Wednesdays in Carrboro and Saturdays in Durham, as well as through his CSA program. (Read about a visit to Lil' Farm and watch a video here. )
And what of Jessica, who alerted Kelly to PLANT in the first place? “I knew farming was hard,” she comments, “But the class made me realize it’s way harder than I thought.” While the teachers weren’t discouraging, the class confirmed Jessica’s suspicions that there’s a long road from beginning a farm to being financially sustainable. And it’s hard to plan—with the vagaries of weather and pests, a farm can have good years and bad years, requiring a constant reassessment of the business plan. Before she’d start a farm, Jessica would plan, save money, and invest in the necessary infrastructure.
For now, Jessica isn’t looking to farming for her livelihood but plans to keep it as part of her life. Taking the practical skills she gained from the class about managing and planning a garden, she secured a job at SEEDS, a non-profit community garden in Durham whose goal is to teach people to care for the earth, themselves and each other through a variety of garden-based programs. She’s looking for more agricultural work and hopes to stay in the nonprofit sector, perhaps getting involved with another community garden.
PLANT continues as well.
For more information about the PLANT program, contact Beverly Shuford at the Orange County Agricultural Extension Agency at 245-2050. To learn more about SEEDS, visit their website, http://www.seedsnc.org/.
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