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BREVARD — Jon Strom first got the agricultural itch when he was in college.
The 28-year-old now is part of a growing group of Western North Carolinians who are new to making a living by farming — a sector being fed in part by the region’s expanding demand for locally produced food.
“I will predict that in the next (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) census, the number of people that are energized and getting into farming has grown,” said Charlie Jackson, executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, an Asheville-based nonprofit that strives to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food. “There is a generation coming back to the farm.”
Strom had no background in farming. He studied environmental science at Brevard College and concluded that food production caused many environmental problems. He read the writings of renowned farming environmentalist Wendell Berry and others and learned about the problems with large-scale industrial farming.
“My first love was for the outdoors and everything related,” Strom said. “I started romanticizing farming, especially sitting in the classroom.”
Strom interned at a farm in Texas and started a small farm in Brevard in 2007 on donated land. He realized quickly that farming was hard and financially challenging.
“I lost all my money,” he said.
Strom persevered. He took a job at an outdoor camp for a couple years. But the urge to farm stayed with him. Last year, he took over Morningside CSA, a small farm near Brevard, and is working 60-hour weeks this summer, wanting to make the venture successful. Strom is growing more than 40 different vegetables this summer, including lettuce, kale, bok choy, tomatoes and beans.
“This is not an acceptable career path people say,” Strom said. “But I am like, ‘Yes, it is.’”
Growth in small farms
The average age of a farmer in the United States is 57, according to the USDA. For a generation or two, children left the farm and found work in cities, reducing the number of family farms in the United States. At the same time, large corporations took control of farms all across the country and the average size of a farm grew.
That trend has reversed in recent years. Many small farms, defined by the USDA as less than 50 acres, have been started across the country by a younger generation, especially in Western North Carolina.
“There is something special going on here,” Jackson said.
The USDA last conducted an agriculture survey in 2007 and will conduct its next census in 2012. From 2002 to 2007, Western North Carolina, specifically the 11th Congressional District, saw a 7 percent reduction in the number of farms and an 18 percent reduction in the total number of acres in agriculture.
“That was the tobacco buyout,” Jackson said.
Burley tobacco was grown in Madison, Haywood, Yancey and northern Buncombe counties and was a large part of the culture in Western North Carolina. In North Carolina, 1,700 farmers quit growing tobacco after accepting cash payments from the federal government in 2004. Many quit farming all together.
Some areas of Western North Carolina did see an increase in the number of farms from the 2002 census to the 2007, like Transylvania and Polk counties. But places like Madison and Buncombe counties saw a decline.
Madison County Cooperative Extension Agent Elizabeth Ayers said Madison County has seen a huge growth in small farms over the last five years. She estimates 30 new farms have started but that, she said, “may be a low figure.”
The farms are trying a variety of projects, including mushroom production, “u-pick” berries and locally produced meat.
“We have a younger set coming back, but the interesting part is many of them do not have a farming background,” Ayers said.
Daunting entry costs
Strom is in a unique situation as a farmer — he does not pay anything for the acre or so of land that he farms. Property owners John Felty and Cheri Miller want the land farmed and have no plans to charge him, he said.
The arrangement is the only way for the venture to be viable, Strom said.
“If you don’t have a family farm or a trust fund, you couldn’t make the land payments,” he said.
Ayers said many of the people entering farming are in their early 40s and farming is a second career.
“It takes a lot of capital to start a farm,” Ayers said. “They have been in the corporate world and decided they didn’t like it.”
Some landowners will donate land to a farming venture for a variety of reasons, Jackson said, including taxes and the desire to see the land be productive. He said, however, the arrangement can become negative for the farmer. If the agreement is terminated, the farmer loses his investment.
Strom said he has a good relationship with the landowner and likes the situation.
“It’s a total example for young people,” Strom said. “You don’t have to own land to do it.”
Selling directly to consumers
Most farms in Western North Carolina are 3 to 5 acres, partly because of the mountainous terrain. Morningside CSA was started three years ago by Strom’s business partner on the donated land. Strom transitioned into owning the operation late last year and this is his first summer running the business. He sells boxes of produce directly to the public and at the tailgate market.
“The big things around here is people want quality, people want good food,” Strom said. “A lot of people want to say they got this local.”
Ayers said most small farmers now have direct contact with the consumer. There is a relationship developed between the farmer and the buyer.
“We have cycled again,” Ayers said. “Fifty years ago, everybody knew their farmers. They knew who grew their food.”
In 2002, there were 36 farms in Western North Carolina that sold directly to the public. Today, the area has 497 farms selling directly, according to the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. There were 28 tailgate markets in 2002; today, there are 83.
“We have seen a huge push for tailgate markets,” Henderson County Agribusiness Development Director Mark Williams said. “That is only going to increase. We are seeing them pop up in Flat Rock and we have one at Mills River.”
Many restaurants in the region now list the farms that are suppliers.
“There are real opportunities out there,” Jackson said. “There are profits to be made.”
Strom said demand was greater than he could produce this year and he turned customers away. He said he takes pride in producing a great product and knows that his business will grow based on reputation and personal relationships.
Adding value to products
Many farms in Western North Carolina are producing or looking to produce value-added products like jams, sauces, cheeses and meat products.
Ayers said the numbers of value-added products in the region has “sky-rocketed” in recent years. She has seen farmers selling everything from molasses to honey.
Jackson said the next step in the growth of small farms is secondary people producing the value-added products. The farmer grows the raw materials and an entrepreneur develops a product and manufactures and markets it.
“I think it’s only going to continue to grow,” Jackson said. “We want farmers and non-farmer entrepreneurs working together.”
Blue Ridge Food Ventures on the Enka campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College gives farmers and business owners a place to manufacture products in a government-approved facility without having to incur huge capital expenses.
Williams said farms in Henderson County are always looking at new opportunities, including value-added products.
“It’s expanded beyond produce,” Williams said. “We have seen people trying to produce locally grown beef and eggs, trying to find a niche market.”
Henderson County is looking at a processing plant for the apple industry and also wants to see other ways for farmers to add value to agriculture products, he said.
Some farmers have people visit the farm and pay for that experience, often called agri-tourism. Grandads Apples in Henderson County is an example, Williams said.
Brevard farmer Jon Strom said he has several ideas for other sources of revenue. He plans to do workshops and could see doing concerts at the farm.
He plans to finish out this season and take a few months off and think about the business. He has no plans to get out of farming.
“It takes a special kind of person,” Strom said. “You have to be stubborn.”
More on the 2007 Census of Agriculture
Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture produces a comprehensive Census of Agriculture. The most recent one is the 2007 Census of Agriculture; the next will be conducted in 2012. According to the USDA site, results of the 2007 Census of Agriculture were released February 4, 2009 and updated in December 2009.
A drop-down search tool allows the website visitor to get specific state data. For example, the website page for North Carolina’s includes state and county reports, county profiles and rankings of agricultural production.
The site also has multiple fact sheets summarizing the most recent collection of data about demographics, economics, farm numbers, geographics, practices and production.
In addition to reports from censuses conducted in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007, historical information on the site dates back to the first agricultural census in 1840.