Farm Beginnings: Year-Long Farmer Training

Why Farmer Training?

Prospective farmers face many challenges, yet thousands are being drawn to an agricultural life. The number of people who want to farm or pursue careers as agriculture professionals nationwide has increased dramatically in the last several years. Many are returning veterans, second career seekers, college graduates, and young people with no prior farming experience.The OGS Farmer Programs have trained more than 600 farmers and farmers workers and saw a  75% increase in demand for training from 2011 to 2014. Farming takes courage and perseverance, dedication and time. Few who start and aspire to farm will be able to succeed without help.


National & Regional Problems

  • Access to Training: For generations, children of farm families have been moving away from farms, and traditional methods of farm training and transfer have been lost.
  • Access to Capital & Support: The face of the new farmer is often young, inexperienced, and limited resource.
  • Access to Land: While farming is an integral part of the Southern Appalachian heritage, the land in farming and the total number of farms in NC have both decreased dramatically. Since 2008 NC has lost 2,500 farms and the amount of land in farming has dropped by 100,000 acres (Krueger). Additionally, the average age of farmers in the US is 58 (Briefing on the Status of Rural America). In NC, over 70% of the farms are owned by farmers over the age of 55 and nearly two-thirds of those are over 65 (USDA 2012 COA). Typical farmland prices in WNC range from  $8,000 to $30,000 per acre (Cite). Productive farmland tends to be the flat, lower-elevation properties that are most easily developed and prized by developers for subdivisions. High demand for and aggressive construction of second homes, resorts, and retirement communities force farmers to try to pay real estate development prices for farmland, pushing land out of reach for limited resource beginning farmers in particular.
  • A Need for Regenerative Agriculture & Community: Due to rising rural poverty, world hunger, and environmental concerns, leaders from all sectors are encouraging a shift from industrial and conventional agriculture to diverse productions systems that can improve the soil, support farmers, and feed communities.

The Struggle is Real

The real struggle small farmers face is documented in the national media. Below are some significant articles highlighting the challenges:

The OGS Survey

In spring of 2015, OGS conducted a months-long survey of local farmers to ascertain their specific barriers to successful farming in Western NC. The collection methods included an online survey, one-on-one farmer interviews and a farmer focus group. The results were made public in a 96 page report entitled “Barriers to Farming in Western NC” and released in August of 2015. The research model specifically targeted emerging farmers as well as start-up and established farmers, all commercially focused.  The goal of the survey was to discover the specific barriers to successful farming in WNC and more importantly, the kinds of services, training or support needed for our farmers to succeed. In summary, the primary barriers to successful farm enterprises voiced by the beginnings farmers we serve are as follows:

  • Access to land– The ability to find affordable land to lease, rent or buy is considered the number one barrier to farming in WNC.
  • Access to capital– New farmers find it difficult to navigate lending institutions and government programs offering start-up capital. This is compounded by the fact that many are not farming on land they own, lacking collateral or equity.
  • Access to markets– This barrier was reiterated in all research formats, articulating a continuing need for diverse marketing options for new farmers all competing for direct marketing avenues.
  • Access to off-farm trainings and classesThis highlights a need for more off farm instruction and trainings, such as in marketing diversification and economies of scale.
  • A need for knowledge of legal requirements, business skills, and financial planning– These topics were covered in multiple questions and all rated high. This was also confirmed in interviews and in the focus group confirming the need for a farmer training program that includes these elements.
  • A need for ongoing assistance and mentorship- Specifically from experienced farmers as farm expansion decisions are made.

Despite the Challenges

The success of our communities depend on the success of our growers. Regions across the country need an influx of farming entrepreneurs in order to sustain and grow regional food production. In the Southern Appalachians, we know that the new farmers we serve are more likely to be interested in sustainable agriculture practices and running farm operations in the small-to-mid-sized range, which is ideal for our region and very aligned with the OGS mission of promoting sustainable agriculture. These new farmers offer the promise of enlivening our economy, advancing sustainable agriculture and forestry, and bolstering access to healthy local food.

The OGS Farmer Programs fill the current gaps in regional agricultural services for beginning farmers by providing comprehensive and holistic farmer training, ongoing support & mentorship, and innovative land access opportunities in the Southern Appalachians. 

OGS Farmer Programs are made possible by our farmer network and funding in part by the Community Foundation of WNC,  CLIF Bar Family Foundation, Organic Valley, Simply 1%, Carolina Farm Credit, French Broad Food Co-op, and by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of USDA-NIFA, Grant #2016-70017-25341