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Teaching Farmers How To Farm In Concord

Say you want to become a farmer. If you didn't grow up on a farm, where do you start? In Cabarrus County, you can go to farm school.

The Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm was launched in 2009 to give first-generation farmers an opportunity to learn the trade.

And earlier this month, it was the subject of a funding controversy that led to the organic farm being shut down for a week in the middle of the growing season.

Credit Tasnim Shamma
Joe Rowland is in his fourth year as a farmer-in-training at Lomax.

Joe Rowland is picking 200 pounds of tomatoes this morning. He's inside the unheated greenhouse on the Lomax incubator farm. He's one of the ten farmers in training.

A couple of weeks ago, his crops were in jeopardy when county funding ran out.

"When the power went off, I had to scramble and move a bunch of product in coolers, freezers, things like that and find another location where they could temporarily or more permanently be housed," Rowland says. "So that's kind of put a monkey wrench into things right in the middle of the growing season here when we've got a few other things we've got to be doing than moving freezers around."

The power was shut off because the farm was included in $3 million $3.9 million of unexpected budget cuts last month. But in just a few weeks, the 30-acre Lomax farm will no longer be public property.

Cabarrus County Commissioners voted to eliminate about $115,000 in annual funding for the farm and the county's local food policy council. So the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, based in Pittsboro, quickly got involved and told commissioners it was willing to step in. CFSA takes in farmers in training for both North and South Carolina.

Moving Beyond Interest

Rowland grew up in Winston-Salem and moved to the Charlotte area in 2008. He now owns an 18-acre poultry and produce business in Gold Hill.

"Not everybody can go out and spend half a million dollars getting a farm and equipment they need and then realize three or four years in, that maybe it's not for you," Rowland says. 

Rowland also runs GO Local NC Farms, an online farmers market and delivery service out of the Lomax farm. He still has a plot of land here and serves as a mentor to newer farmers.

Credit Tasnim Shamma
Aaron Newton and Lynn MacDougall-Fleming weed rows of sweet potatoes.

Aaron Newton lost his job as part of the budget cuts. He used to manage the farm and the county's local food program.

He says Lomax has trained 33 farmers since it first opened in 2009 and has a dozen neighborhood partners. It includes a local church that grows and then distributes its harvest to food banks.   

Not everybody can go out and spend half a million dollars getting a farm and equipment they need and then realize three or four years in, that maybe it is not for you. - Joe Rowland

To get into the program, students have to complete an online training class and 80 hours of volunteer work at Lomax or another local farm.

"And we bring 'em out here, we give 'em a very small amount of land. And then we start to expand the amount of land they have access to," Newton says. "So Allen had a few rows here last fall, he was clearly good at what he was doing, he was keeping it weeded and watered and starting to find markets for his product, which is an important part of starting a farm business, so then we scaled him up to this entire plot."

Last summer, Allen Blake had about 400 square feet to grow on. This summer, he has 1,200 square feet of melons, okra, squash, sunflowers, green beans and cucumbers.

"I've learned so much out here in the last year, techniques and skills, that I probably would have never known, never had," Blake says. 

Farm To Fork 

Andy Thewlis is the newest farmer-in-training at Lomax. He was accepted into the program three months ago. He helped start the farm-to-fork restaurant Luna's Living Kitchen in South End several years ago.

Credit Tasnim Shamma
Andy Thewlis sprays compost tea over his green peppers and tomatoes.

"From there though, I wanted to explore more the farm end of the farm to fork continuum," Thewlis says.

So he put in his application and moved his family from Plaza Midwood to Concord. He's looking at selling his tomatoes, sweet potatoes and green peppers through a subscription service for his friends, family members and local restaurants.

And like most of the farmers at Lomax, he sees the transition to a private non-profit as a blessing in disguise.

"It was gut-wrenching, it was heart-breaking, you know, worry, uncertainty," Thewlis says. "But it seems to have panned out. It's come up roses, so to speak."

Lomax hopes to transfer the property from Cabarrus County to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association in the next few weeks. No money is exchanging hands in the transfer. CFSA will be responsible for operating the farm, raising funds and possibly helping Lomax become its own private non-profit.

As for Joe Rowland, his poultry and produce business in Gold Hill has kept him busy. He says he's considering handing over his online delivery business at Lomax to the farm's leadership. That way, they may be able to make the money they need to cover the funding gap to teach future farmers.