Life can be tough for farmers. When it’s considered rationally, pros and cons on a ledger, it seems impossible. The weather is seldom perfect. It is often too hot, too cold, too dry or too wet for farming. Insects and wild animals impact farm production in ways that most non-farmers can’t image. High prices one year often result in a production glut the following year, causing prices to plummet.
A 2007 report by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project showed that western North Carolina is home to over 12,000 farms. Over half of these farms are less than 50 acres. The average size is 85 acres. This is approximately ¼ the size of the average farm in the United States. To maintain a competitive edge, regional farmers have to continually look for ways to produce their products in the most efficient manner possible. To aid in this process, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension has developed the NC Blue Ridge Farm School.
The NC Blue Ridge Farm School is one of four farm schools in North Carolina this year. Understanding the economic importance of agriculture both locally and statewide, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners dedicated $100,000 to this program. The program’s mission is to train “farmers to operate successful small-scale, economically sustainable farms.” The seven month curriculum consists of one classroom day per month where students focus on business applications such as marketing, developing budgets, and writing business plans. Another day each month is spent visiting working farms to see these business practices at work.
Leading this program in Alleghany County is Aaron Ray Tompkins. Aaron Ray is a product of Alleghany High School and a graduate of Virginia Tech University. After his college graduation, he spent six years teaching agriculture at North Surry High School. He came home to Alleghany County two years ago and is currently an agriculture extension agent with the NC Cooperative Extension in Sparta.
Aaron Ray describes the Farm School as a program focused on transitional and new farmers. The current class has 21 students that range in ages from 20-60 years old. Many students are established farmers seeking to diversify and expand their businesses into areas such as agri-tourism while others are just beginning to farm. A unique feature of this group is that 88% of these students have access to 50 or more acres to farm. All will come away from the training with a detailed business plan that will help them become more successful entrepreneurs.
An agribusiness that is growing throughout western North Carolina is the local food movement. Health conscious consumers increasingly want to know how their food is produced and to feel a connection to the farmer. In Alleghany County, the market for locally produced beef, dairy and poultry products is strong. However, the demand for locally grown vegetables currently exceeds production. Aaron Ray points to the Alleghany Farmers Market and its expansion as an outlet that links farmers and consumers.
The connection of the Cooperative Extension, resident agents such as Aaron Ray Tompkins, local farmers, and local consumers all reflects a core principle of mountain life – that of a self-sufficient yet interdependent lifestyle. Here, “local food” is not a modern movement and truly encompasses more than just food. The NC Blue Ridge Farm School is simply a formalized method of teaching that has been passed along by generations of farmers. Both are examples of neighbors helping neighbors and a way of life that is Absolutely Alleghany.