'School' aims to help the move from office to farm

Nov. 21, 2013 @ 12:19 PM

If you ever had a "Green Acres" urge to chuck city life and an office job to take up farming, you were on your own in learning what farming takes.

But starting in January, you can go to school -- Foothills Farm School, a six-month training program for beginning and transitioning farmers, focusing on how to operate successful, small-scale farms. Extension agents from Caldwell, Catawba, Gaston, Lincoln and Cleveland counties collaborated to establish the school, which will feature six seminars focused on the business side and six tours of farms, so students can see what goes in to operating a farm.

Cindy Digh and her husband, Duane, both 56, had dabbled in farming as a hobby but left their jobs in medicine and retail to become full-time farmers in 2011. They raise chicken, pork, lamb, eggs and beef at her farm, on the Gaston-Lincoln county line but are taking the class to learn more about the business side of farming and develop a business plan from what started as a hobby, she said.

“We saw how the job market was going for our age group, and wanted to be self-sustainable,” she said. “It started off as a hobby, and we went with it full-time.”

The Dighs currently sell their products at farmers’ markets, but want to learn as much as they can about the business side and create a business plan to grow operations.

Although there is growing demand for locally grown food, the number of farmers in North Carolina has been declining as older farmers retire and many of their children leave the farm, said a press release on the school from the Caldwell County Cooperative Extension.

“Our culture has really gotten away from farming,” said Amanda Taylor, an extension agent in Caldwell County.

But there has been some renewed interest in farming, especially among those in the younger generation, she said, who see a romantic allure in living off the land and being close to nature.

Another person who has signed up for the school is Linda Bennett. She is the eighth generation of her family to manage her western Gaston County farm, but her grandfather was the last one to farm it full-time. But Bennett, 51, wants to make the switch from her current job of directing a child care center to full-time farming.

“I would love to do that,” she said. “I’ve got a good 20 to 30 years left, and that’s what I want to do with it.”

Bennett’s 25-year-old daughter is taking the class with her and wants to take over the farm full-time someday, a main objective of the Foothills Farm School.

Bennett already grows a heritage breed of meat chickens, as well as blackberries, blueberries and scuppernongs at the farm, which was traditionally a beef cattle farm.

“I know how to dig a hole, I know how to plant a seed,” Bennett said. “It’s going to give me more of an idea of what to do on the business end -- how to make a farm a business.”

For more information about Foothills Farm School, contact the Caldwell County Extension Service at 828-727-1290. Space is limited, and the registration deadline is Dec. 6.