Joe Hampton thinks the number of Rowan farms needs clarification. He is the superintendent of the Piedmont Research Station on Sherrills Ford Road. “The number of full-time farms in Rowan County is closer to 40 or 50,” said Hampton, “The rest are like my wife and me. We have jobs and farm on the side.” Hampton raises beef cattle and sheep. “We’re not smart enough to raise crops,” he said.
Many of those who work full time at the Research Station are in the same boat as Hampton. “They are people who love agriculture, but because of economics, can’t farm on their own. It takes a tremendous amount of capital to farm,” said Hampton.
Money and land are just the beginning of the long list of what it takes to be a fulltime farmer today, said Hampton. Personal resources that deter
mine success include a working knowledge of chemistry, mechanical engineering, agronomy and business. “Farmers who are not good at business are gone. Someone else is farming their land,” said Hampton. “Business is unforgiving.”
Business tops the curriculum at the Rowan County-based Southern Piedmont Farm School of North Carolina. Rowan County Cooperative Extension Agent Danelle Cutting helped organize the school four years ago. The curriculum combines business with farm production. Classes and visits to area farms are held twice a month for seven months. Is it popular? “I have a waiting list for next year and I haven’t even advertised it yet,” said Cutting.
In the past four years, the Farm School for our area graduated more than 150 students with 47 from Rowan County. “There is no typical graduate,” said Cutting. Some are young or retired, some men and women, and some African-Americans. The Farm School’s mission is to train farmers to operate successful and sustainable farms. “That means they can pay their bills and have some money left in their pocket,” said Cutting.
The average farm in Rowan County is 118 acres. That’s about the size of 90 football fields. Farms that support a Rowan County family, such as Correll Farms in Cleveland and Miller Farms in China Grove tend to be above that average. Mike Miller has15 acres set aside for Salisbury Farmer’s Market produce and 400 acres for corn, wheat and soybeans, the major crops in Rowan County besides hay. Those 415 acres support two Miller brothers and their families. David Correll raises corn, soybeans, tomatoes, other produce and beef cattle on 400 acres. He too sells some of his production at the Salisbury Farmer’s Market. Correll thinks a full-time Rowan County farmer could raise a family on 118 acres or less with high-value produce or farm animals.
Broiler chickens may be one such money maker on limited acreage. Broilers are young birds raised for meat. Most live their brief lives in confinement houses with 20,000 other birds. Each house is 400 feet long by 40 feet wide, about one third the size of a football field. It may come as a surprise that there are over 4,350,000 broilers in grower houses in Rowan County. Broiler breeder chickens, commercial egg producing chickens, beef cattle and milk cows round out the majority of Rowan County’s livestock population.
The Noble One Percent
Mike Miller, David Correll, Doug and Michelle Patterson and Nora and Randall Patterson of Patterson Farms and other full-time farmers in Rowan County and the other 49 states represent a mere one percent of the country’s population. Add in those who live on a farm and the percentage swells to two percent.
By mid-21st century, that one percent will be called upon to feed 40 percent more people. “The United Nations predicted that there will be nine billion people on the planet by 2050,” said Hampton of the Piedmont Research Station. We are now at 7.2 billion. “That means we have 35 growing seasons to increase yield by 40 percent,” he said.
Hampton suggested a number of ways that growth is possible, even with only one percent of our population doing the work. Soils can be made healthier and more durable. Bio-informatics can spot important research results too minute for conventional statistics. Robotics and mechanization will replace more and more human labor. Genetically modified foods can be designed to enhance consumer health, not just increase yield. Foods can be developed that are more digestible, so that we eat less but still feel full.
Hampton and his staff are now investigating the possibility of growing California crops in North Carolina. Water for California cities has always trumped water for crops, said Hampton and that trend will continue. California crops undergoing research for Piedmont potential include eggplant, broccoli and almonds.
Nine billion people will require more land for homes and recreation. New housing can only diminish the relatively limited amount of land we now devote to food production.
Teens and Ag
Is Rowan County developing a crop of young farmers ready to feed the world in the 21st century? Both Mike Miller and David Correll have children who may take over their farms after they retire. On the 1,000-acre Patterson Farm in Millbridge and Mt. Ulla, ther e is only one fifthgeneration family member currently interested in the business. Randall Patterson’s son Taylor is farming, after recently finishing college. “Far ming is tough,” said Michelle Patterson, who as Director of Fun operates Patterson Far m Market and Tours that caters to the agri-tourism industry. “It is not an easy lifestyle.”
Many Rowan County high school students came to the same conclusion and are looking outside farming for a career. Sara Drake, extension agent for Rowan County Cooperative Extension, oversees fourteen 4-H clubs in schools throughout Rowan County. Last school year, 4-H membership in Rowan County topped 1,930 students. How many want to be far mers? “Of those interested in traditional farming, almost zero,” said Drake. “Our current 4-H clubs are not as ag based as before. The top interest among 4-H students is science and technology. Modern 4-H is more than cows and cooking.”
Laura Allen teaches four sections of Introduction to Agriculture at South Rowan High School. Each year, 200+ students join FFA, the non-profit agricultural education program formerly known as Future Farmers of America. At least half her ag students are girls, a growing trend since FFA first accepted women in 1969. What percent of her students want to go into traditional production farming? “Less than five percent,” said Allen. “Maybe one percent. For most students at South, ag is more an awareness.” Some take Allen’s class to prepare for veterinary medicine, others only want to grow a hobby garden or take better care of a pet.
“Most young people in Rowan County have no background in farming; no hands-on farm experience,” said third-generation farmer Mike Miller. That lack of interest may come from our ranking among ag counties. Fortythree of North Carolina’s 100 counties are more agricultural than Rowan. Despite our green appearance, Rowan County is an urban county. Agriculture may be North Carolina’s number one industry, but not here.
Rowan’s Local Foods
A lot has changed in Rowan County agriculture since Pete Seeger’s time. One of the most significant is the local food movement. Even though grocery stores stock all manner of fruits and vegetables year round, many in Rowan County have become “locavors.” They patronize the Salisbury or China Grove farmer’s markets because they want to minimize the number of miles their food travels from farm to table.
Add breweries, vineyards and restaurants to the list of locavors. New Sarum Brewery uses locally grown barley and North Carolina ground grits for its 142 Blonde Ale with Grits. The popular brewery expanded its capacity in September. “New Sarum’s expansion is a huge boost to the tourism economy,” said Eric Bowen, new manager of Salisbury Farmer’s Market. Expansion will also benefit the water buffalo at Fading D Farms in Salisbury. That’s where New Sarum ships its spent grain, said Brewmaster Andy Maben.
“During the growing season, 98 percent of our produce is locally sourced,” said Heather Teeter, owner of Sweet Meadow Café in Salisbury. She buys from Correll Farms, Wild Turkey Farms in China Grove and from the Salisbury Farmer’s Market. “We tell everybody that we are a farm-to-fork restaurant. That’s the way we roll.”
Locally grown sweet muscadines are processed by Cauble Creek Vineyard and Old Stone Winery into a number of different varieties of wine. Morgan Ridge Winery in Gold Hill focuses on grapes other than muscadines. They raise and process seven grape varieties at their seven-acre vineyard off Stokes Ferry Road. “We use only grapes grown at Morgan Ridge in our wines,” said Tasting Room Manager Kim Love.
Let’s Go to the Farm!
Diversity is the other new wrinkle in Rowan’s agriculture scene. That translates to agritourism – bringing visitors to a working farm to purchase farm products, pick fruit, spend the night, hold a wedding reception, celebrate a birthday, feed animals or run a mud obstacle course.
That’s what 1,300 visitors found at Patterson Farm in August during the first annual Big Muddy Challenge. Michelle Patterson followed fun in the mud with a Classroom in the Corn Maze Tour in the fall, one of dozens of educational tours offered at Patterson Farm since 1994.“We offer experiences that children can’t get in the classroom,” said Patterson. “We think it is important that children and adults know where their food comes from.” Patterson understands that many adults have never seen a live pig, but she was especially struck by a 7-yea r-old boy who was unable to separate tomatoes from potatoes. “He didn’t know which one was the potato,” said Patterson. “He may be seeing mo re processed foods, not the fresh, natural product.”
Newlyweds looking for an offbeat location for a wedding reception need to see Fred and Mary Lou Williams of Vista at Walnut Hill in Cleveland. They have a 7,600 square-foot barn and loft for rent. Williams spent a year and a half renovating his 1953 barn for his daughter’s wedding reception and now others can enjoy it and the surrounding farmland.
Eric Bowen sees an exciting future for the Salisbury Farmer’s Market. He envisions giving the Farmer’s Market an online presence in addition to its popular physical location. “Vendors could list their products online on Friday, customers select what they want over the weekend and pick it up at a central location on Tuesday,” said Bowen. A centrally located food hub would provide another avenue for selling local produce and meat to restaurants and schools. “Knowing what’s available can help a chef plan a menu,” said Bowen.
Combine agritourism with non-agriculture venues and you have a tempting package for out-oftowners, said Bowen. “Tourists are willing to travel to places where they can get the best food and do some really cool stuff while they are in town. If we can provide a complete package of food and entertainment, we might be another Athens, Georgia,” he said. Athens, whose population is three times larger than Salisbury and a bit smaller than all of Rowan County, has lured tourists with a blend of music, food and all that goes with the Bulldogs of the University of Georgia.
Bowen does double duty as a local food advocate. He is also executive director of Bread Riot, the group behind Riot in the Pasture, a spring showcase of local foods. As many as 15 local vendors and farmers provide the menu each year. “Even the flour for the pizza is local,” said Bowen.
Bread Riot is also responsible for Winter Harvest, a local food distribution system based on the Community-Supported Agriculture model. Consumers interested in receiving greens, sweet potatoes, eggs and bread after the Farmer’s Market closes, can become subscribers in Winter Harvest. “The majority of subscribers are in Salisbury and we are looking for a central pickup location downtown,” said Bowen. Deliveries are made every other week, but “if a crop fails, we give refunds.”
“A lot of people are catching on to local food,” said Bowen. “It is healthier for us.” And it’s healthier, too, for the livelihoods of local farmers, the onepercenters who sustain life on Earth.