Young Durham farmers try their hand at the land
May. 20, 2014 @ 06:01 PM

After traveling around the country for six months with three friends on a school bus repurposed as a mobile gardening classroom, 25-year-old Eliza Bordley is putting down roots.

With the help of her family, Bordley bought 28 acres on Redwood Road in northern Durham County where she plans to start a small, sustainable vegetable farm. While the farm is in its earliest stages now, she has big plans.

On a tour of the property on Monday, she showed where she and family members cleared thick brush that, in some places, had reached the pitch of an old barn’s roof.

In the process of clearing out part of the property with chainsaws and weed-eaters, they uncovered a small corn crib.

She also pointed to where they plan to cut a road to the back of the property. There, they want to plant the garden.

In the first year, she wants to have the aging barns and house on the land stabilized, and to have one to two acres cleared for fields.

Eventually, she wants to have several acres in production, to convert one barn into a farm store and to have a community house with space for teaching workshops.

She’s also working as the Durham agriculture manager for the hunger relief organization Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, managing the organization’s community gardens in Durham.

“Now that I own the property and it’s starting to settle in, (I’m realizing) what a big undertaking it is,” Bordley said. “I don’t think anybody who goes into this profession gets bored.”

Locally, there’s a “tremendous market” for locally-grown produce, and not enough farmers to meet the demand, said Michelle Wallace, a consumer horticulture agent for the Durham County Center of the N.C. State University Cooperative Extension Service. But with the high cost of land, Wallace said, it’s not easy to start farming in the county.

“We have some young farmers in Durham, both male and female, that are both young in age and new to farming,” she said. “But it is not an easy thing to do when you’re young, because of the cost of land and the cost of equipment.”

However, nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported an uptick in the number of young farmers getting into agriculture full-time between 2007 and 2012, according to updated 2012 Census of Agriculture data.

The USDA reports that 22 percent of all farmers nationwide were beginning farmers in 2012. Young, beginning principal operators who reported farming as their principal occupation increased 11.3 percent to 40,499 in that period.

That trend isn’t clear in data for North Carolina or Durham County. The average age of farmers rose in Durham from 56.5 years in 2007 to 60.6 years in 2012.

In the county, the number of principal farm operators ranging in age from 25 and 44 years was down from 49 in 2007 to 27 in 2012. Across North Carolina, the number of principal farm operators in that age range was down from 8,577 in 2007 to 7,033 in 2012.

However, anecdotally, Dave Barrett, the 30-year-old owner of Dig It Farm in Durham County, said his feeling is that a lot of new local farms are starting. He said he knows of young farmers who have started in the job in the last several years as their principal occupation, of others who want to start, and of others who – like Bordley - are farming while working on the side.

Starting any new business is uncertain starting out, he said. But it may be even more uncertain for new farmers. He said the work is challenging, and farmers he knows are “constantly re-examining” what they’re doing to figure out if they can do it better or more efficiently, or if it’s what they should be doing at all.

Barrett said he got involved in farming while working an office job in San Francisco and volunteering at farms on the weekends. He said he wanted to determine what career path to follow and after finding a paid internship in farming, he quit his job. Besides connecting people with fresh, healthy food, he said the career also shows the value of his work.

“Everything you look at is a product of your daily work,” he said. “I find that incredibly gratifying.”

He’s now in his second year farming in northern Durham County. He’s leasing about an acre of land, and sells arugula, basil, cilantro, eggplant, potatoes, radishes, and other items at the South Durham Farmers’ Market and at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market on Saturdays.

“Where to begin?” Barrett said, when asked about the challenges of farming. “Any given season is going to have different weather challenges. We just got a torrential downpour last week that caused a lot of flooding. Weather is major challenge.”

While she grew up with hobby gardens, Bordley said she doesn’t come from a farming background. Her father is a doctor and her mother is Leigh Bordley, a member of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.

Her interest in farming started with an effort to launch an urban garden while in college, she said. And when she returned to Durham, she and three other friends – all graduates from Durham School of the Arts -- launched a mobile gardening classroom called the Sol Food Mobile Farm.

They bought a school bus, and through the crowdfunding campaign website Kickstarter, raised money to take the bus on a nationwide tour for six months in 2012.

The bus runs on biodiesel and is equipped with solar panels, a green roof, and a greenhouse, she said.

After the four friends returned from the trip, they started a demonstration garden outside of Foster’s Market in Durham to put into practice what they learned about sustainable farming on the tour. Now, Sol Patch Farm is run by one of the four founders.

At her own farm, which Bordley plans to call Panther Creek Farm, she wants to grow a range of vegetables to diversify her practice. She believes there’s been a loss of farms focused on production of a single crop, but she thinks the Triangle has found its niche in small farms that offer crop diversity.

 She also plans to take some farming, soil science and other classes.

“I’m such a rookie, and that’s super exciting, and also daunting,” she said.