Tracy Lafleur realized during her sophomore year in Massachusetts that the best thing about the small liberal arts college was its student farm.
“I realized that’s what I want to be doing, and the people around me, those were the type of people I wanted to be like,” she said.
Lafleur transferred to the University of Maine, where she studied sustainable agriculture and managed its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. She then worked on other farms before starting Sugar Hill Produce at the PLANT @ Breeze Farm Enterprise Incubator in 2016.
“I wanted to make sure that I was the fastest, best, most-efficient farm crew member before I started my own operation,” Lafleur said. “It doesn’t make sense to go, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a farm. Do you have any money? I don’t know. Well, are you any good at it? I don’t know.’ ... I think a lot of people do it that way, but it just scared the bejeezus out of me.”
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Sugar Hill delivers produce weekly to about 40 CSA customers and to the Eno River Farmers Market in Hillsborough and downtown Greensboro farmers market. Next year, Lafleur and husband Rob Van Veld will harvest their crops from a new, 40-acre farm they just bought in Cedar Grove.
“I don’t feel that I would have been able to start in this business if it weren’t for Breeze [Farm],” Lafleur said. “Even if I had tried to buy all this, I didn’t have the money for stuff and I couldn’t have gotten the money to do so, because I don’t have a track record, so this has allowed me to have the ability now to apply for credit.”
More farmers could get their start if a new festival kicking off Sept. 29 raises enough money. Orange County LocalFest will spotlight local food, beer, arts, traditions and music, including Lafleur’s band Five Points Rounders, and has pledged the first $30,000 in sales, sponsorships and booth fees to Breeze Farm.
Money is tight
Orange County farmer and conservationist, the late Col. William C. Breeze, donated the 269-acre Breeze Farm to N.C. State University as a way to preserve the land and train future farmers. The farm is located about six miles north of Hillsborough in Hurdle Mills.
Breeze Farm has helped over 40 farmers get started since 2008, either by providing land and tools or annual workshops. It isn’t certified organic, but it doesn’t allow pesticides or herbicides and requires fertilizers to meet Organic Materials Review Institute standards. Most farms incubate for three to four years before moving on.
Three farms — Sugar Hill, Color Fields Farm and Split Acre Farm — currently work the seven cultivated acres. Each pays $500 a year per acre, plus its share of the greenhouse gas bill. N.C. State leases the land to Breeze Farm at no cost.
Farm operations are sustained largely through fees, grants and fundraisers, plus $10,000 from Orange County each year. This year’s expenses are expected to be roughly $17,270, Orange County Deputy Manager Travis Myren said.
That has made the Farm to Fork NC picnic — a partnership with the N.C. Agriculture Foundation and Center for Environmental Farming Systems — an important fundraiser, officials said. The picnic started in 2007 and later moved to the Breeze Farm, but in 2016, the threat of severe weather forced it to Fearrington Village, where it has remained.
In 2015, the picnic raised roughly $30,000 for Breeze Farm, Myren said; in 2016, it raised $16,761. The farm got only $1,000 last year, said Richard Campbell, an NCSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences spokesman.
That’s because the picnic is raising less money, Campbell said.
“The number of sponsors, as well as the overall amount that the sponsors are contributing, is down and has been trending down, which clearly has an impact on the total amount of funds that would be available at the end [after] taking care of costs and all those different pieces,” Campbell said.
The picnic started as a way to connect people with Piedmont-grown food and farmers. It was never intended to be the primary fundraiser for CEFS or Breeze Farm, he said, although there’s still “every intent and desire” to fund those programs. The current fund-raising model gives Breeze Farm 100 percent of the money for each sponsorship it brings to the table, he said.
A national model
Mike Lanier, an N.C. Cooperative Extension agribusiness agent who manages Breeze Farm, said a little more money could help fix up an old barn for additional storage, buy more equipment and make room for more farmers.
“One of the problems here is if we want to add more than three farms, with more than the acreage we have, we need more coolers, more wash and pack space, more equipment and more space in the greenhouses,” Lanier said. “We use all that to the max now.”
Lack of funding is one of primary challenges facing most farm incubators, according to a recent Agricultural and Applied Economics Association report.
However, Breeze Farm and other incubators are part of a growing national trend that recognizes the role small farmers play in rural economic development and stronger regional food networks, the report noted.
It cites a 2016 survey that found about 220 farm incubator programs on about 20,000 acres nationwide, up from 62 in 2013. Most were funded through federal or foundation grants, and roughly 60 percent of the farmers who got their start at an incubator were still farming.
In North Carolina, several incubators have been added in the last decade, including the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm in Cabarrus County, the Inter-faith Food Shuttle Incubator Farm in Raleigh, the LINC Urban Farm Initiative in Wilmington, and the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm near Carrboro.
Farming for profit
Agriculture is big business in North Carolina, generating $84 billion annually and employing 16 percent of the state’s 4.2 million workers, N.C. State Extension reports. The 2012 Agricultural Census — the latest available — reported the average N.C. farmer was 59 years old, white and male; only 14 percent of farmers were 45 or younger.
In 2012, Orange County had 645 farms averaging 88 acres, although most were between 10 and 49 acres. The number of farms was up from the 2007 Agricultural Census, which reported 604 farms averaging 99 acres. Local farms were earning slightly more in 2012 — $30.6 million — from a roughly even mix of crop and livestock sales.
The $30,000 to $50,000 in gross income that an experienced produce farmer can earn per acre of land far exceeds the $100 to $150 per acre that farmers traditionally earn from commodity crops, like corn and soybeans, Lanier said. But after paying any debt they owe on equipment and land, a produce farmer’s take-home pay is about 40 percent of earnings, he noted.
A model that includes more crop diversity and market opportunities has the potential to make farming profitable, attract more young farmers, and help narrow the rural-urban economic divide, Lanier said.
Orange County is probably ahead of most counties in that regard, he said, noting that Henderson County has the highest direct-to-consumer sales in North Carolina. Durham also has been developing more markets for farm products in the last few years, he said.
The diversity of Orange County’s crops is amazing, Lanier said.
“You can make way more money doing this kind of agriculture,” he noted. “When I grew up, both of my grandparents had one-acre gardens. They grew the basic things, but the variety that they grew is nothing compared to where [local farmers are now].”
Connecting with customers
Individual farmers also are working together to maximize their reach, like Kelly Morrison, owner of Color Fields Farm, who helped start a wholesale flower cooperative that now combines the growing power of nine Triangle farms.
The Durham-based business, Piedmont Wholesale Flowers, won a $10,000 grant last year to help with marketing, rent and a part-time manager. It now has an online store and works with floral designers, event planners and others to create special arrangements.
Customer relationships are critical to the success of small, local farms, Lanier said, because they give farmers immediate feedback about the products their customers want.
“That’s what all the local economy stuff is about — a relationship economy,” he said. “We used to be that way, but we moved away from it, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s coming back is people miss the relationships they have with the people they buy stuff from.”
Orange County LocalFest
The Orange County LocalFest will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at Blackwood Farm Park. The park is located at 4215 N.C. 86, north of Chapel Hill.
Admission is free, although there will be a charge for food, drinks and some activities. Information about parking and shuttle buses to the event will be posted later on the website.