Looking Ahead to Farm School

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Now’s the time to apply for North Carolina Farm School. Designed for aspiring farmers, the school attracts people from all walks of life, including experienced farmers like Miriam Lewis.

When Miriam Lewis looks ahead to 2018, one of the things she’s most excited about is participating in the North Carolina Farm School – an NC State Extension program designed to increase the number of sustainable and economically viable farms in North Carolina.

The eight-session program, led by faculty with NC State University’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and local agricultural agents, guides aspiring farmers through the process of writing a sound business plan. Participants also tour working farms where others share their expertise and advice.

The registration deadline for the two Farm Schools to be held this year – one in Greenville and one in Lincolnton – is Dec. 18. Invitations to join the program and make payment ($399 for individuals or $599 for a two-person team) will be made in January.

Farm School participants have come from all walks of life. They include young people just getting started in their careers, mid-career folks looking to make a career change, people wanting to farm when they retire, and others, like Lewis, who want to strengthen their current farming operations. Participants come with wide-ranging ideas for their farms, from producing small fruit to tending water buffalo for meat and cheese.

While many who participate in the Farm School are new to farming, Lewis is not. She has a long history with agriculture, and her family operates a diversified farm and market in Pitt County. The family grows corn, soybeans, peanuts and pecans.

Lewis also has a long history with NC State: While growing up, she was a state 4-H officer and got to go to Holland as part of a 4-H exchange program. Then she became a student at State, earning a degree in animal science in 1981 before going to work as an Extension livestock agent.

Through that job, she came to meet the man who became her husband. His family had farmed land in Farmville for generations, and she and her husband settled there.

Ten years ago, the farm transitioned away from tobacco. “We searched for a while, looking for additions to our farming enterprise,” Lewis said. They added sweet potatoes and also increased peanut production.

The farm also supports agritourism and education. Extension’s NC AgVentures program provided a North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission-funded grant that allowed Lewis to turn a barn into a classroom, complete with a colorful farm mural painted by a local artist.

“Educating the public about agriculture has always been a passion,” Lewis said. “Applying for an NC AgVentures grant only seemed fitting.”

Visiting students get to go through a corn maze, and they learn about sweet potato and pumpkin production, Lewis said. In the spring and fall, hundreds of students visit the farm to learn more about agriculture.

Around the time Lewis received the grant money and added the educational barn, she also started an on-farm market that sells an array of local products, including meat, nuts, cheese and honey.

“The original store was built sometime in the early 1900s (and) operated by my husband’s granddaddy,” she said. Over the years, the building has had several other uses, including as a pack house and for storage.

The market now sells an array of local products such as meat, nuts, cheese and honey and much more, and from April to September, the family also offers a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, selling and delivering market baskets to consumers who want fresh, locally produced food.

This time of year, the market offers Christmas trees, wreaths and other seasonal items. The market also carries pumpkins in the fall as well as geraniums, ferns and bedding plants in the spring and summer.

“We try to keep things as local as possible,” Lewis said. “Most things come from within a 20- or 30-mile radius of the farm, but the trees are from Ashe County in the mountains.”

When it comes to the upcoming Farm School, Lewis said what she’s looking forward to most is learning more about marketing and meeting others.

“I’m excited. The ability to work with NC State on the business side of agriculture and learning about marketing, could open a new door for us,” she said. “Maybe I’ll meet somebody who has some kind of niche product that would like to sell here. With what we do here, networking with others is really important. You never know who you will meet.”

Interested in North Carolina Farm School? More information and applications are available online at ncfarmschool.ces.ncsu.edu or by contacting Derek Washburn at (919) 515-4614.