Will Cramer knew he wanted to farm as soon as he tried it. With high school ending, his interest in issues of sustainability led him to an internship on a local farm. Will loved the work and continued to work on farms all over North Carolina for the next four years. He also took a program at Chatham County Community College.
Last year , however, Will felt it was time to move on from interning; just in time he heard about the new PLANT program: People Learning Agriculture Now for Tomorrow. The program, also known as the Farm Incubator, is a joint effort of Orange County and NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and was just beginning its inaugural season in January 2008. The program’s purpose is to help beginners start farming by providing lessons and guidance as well as land and equipment, often a barrier to beginners. Will signed up.
The first part of the class was weekly workshops at the Orange County Cooperative Extension in Hillsborough. Workshop topics included farm planning and goal setting; soil and crop rotation; pests, diseases and weeds; planting and harvesting; marketing, business plans, and record-keeping; and integrating livestock into a farm. Participants were required to complete the workshops and make a business plan and a “crop plan” in order to move to the second phase of the program: actually farming.
The farm trainees signed up to use plots of land at the W. C. Breeze Family Farm Agricultural Extension and Research Center on Walnut Grove Church Road in northern Orange County. Colonel Breeze had donated 269 acres of land to NC State to be used for organic, sustainable activities. A portion of this land had been set aside for class use, and the program organizers had prepared a plot by plowing and planting cover crop. Prior to the start of the growing season, they rented a tractor to plow under the cover crop and create furrows, and they put up an electric fence to stop the deer. An irrigation system was also established, using a pond on the property.
Many of the forty class members were already farming on their own land; others simply wanted to be better gardeners or to see if farming felt right for them. But a handful took advantage of the low-rent, ready-to-farm land at Breeze Farm and planted crops. Will planted a few rows, trying lots of different vegetables. He applied to area Farmers’ Markets and secured a spot at the new Orange County Market in Hillsborough, calling his enterprise “Verdant Furrows,” since he didn’t really have a farm yet, just some furrows.
Early in the summer, Will set up a lone folding table at the market, sitting on his tailgate behind small piles of produce. Initially, he just had some cucumbers, and while they sold out, he only made about twenty dollars. But as the summer progressed, more of his crops ripened and he brought more and more produce to market. All his initial crops did well, except for the slow-growing mâche greens, planted in May, which still hadn’t ripened by late October.
While some farmers might be known as “the shiitake guy” or “the tomato people,” Will had a varied assortment of produce every Saturday, as if new crops were constantly springing up on his land. Even in the late summer heat, he kept coming to market with heads of lettuce and beautiful bunches of rumpled green chard.
As crops ripened and passed, Will and the other PLANT farmers tilled under the rows they wanted to re-plant, using a hand tiller. Many rows were left with dead crops and weeds standing, because of the time it would take to till them under by hand. Using what land he could, Will planted crops for the fall and winter: beets, carrots, spinach, broccoli, and more greens. White cloth tunnels protected more delicate plants from the cold.
Will intends to keep farming, using both the Breeze Farm land for a second year and some land owned by his new farming partner. He hopes to farm full-time someday, but for now he works another job to pay the bills, a situation common among beginning farmers. Having the land at Breeze Farm, and the work put in by the program coordinators to prepare it, helps such farmers get started their first year, allowing them to focus on experimenting with crops and learning to grow instead of becoming bogged down with setting up the land. The program begins again each January, producing a new crop of local farmers and hopefully many more new tables at our assortment of local markets.
For more information about the PLANT program, contact Beverly Shuford at the Orange County Agricultural Extension Agency at (919) 245-2050. Will now runs Everlaughter Farmwith Sam Hummel, just north of Hillsborough. Look for them at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market in the parking lot at A Southern Season on Saturdays and Tuesdays, and at the Durham Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays, or visit them online at everlaughterfarm.com.