Extension sees farm renewal
Extension sees farm renewal
By Larry Dale
Daily Courier Staff Writer
Part 4 – July 10, 2009
SPINDALE – North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents have been serving with pride in Rutherford County for almost 100 years, and the agency is seeking new and innovative ways to help farmers and consumers in a world that is changing rapidly.
Interim County Extension Director Greg Traywick said recently that a new breed of farmers is encouraging and challenging Cooperative Extension to be as open to new ideas as they are.
“Just reflecting personally,” he said, “when we saw the fall of tobacco, and farm acreage loss I think that was kind of a time when you could easily get depressed, and I’ll have to admit that I had doubts about the future of agriculture. But now I am very excited because I’m seeing the land owners take a close look at some innovative kinds of things that will help keep them in business. Not only that,, but help transition that farmland from generation to generation.
“I see a lot more young farmers now that are getting into these niche markets, specialty production. There’s a young couple over in Ellenboro, Aaron and Holly Cookson, that have Red Dirt Ranch – just to see a young couple like that so actively involved in production in agriculture.”
“What that challenges us in Extension to do is to be as open to new ideas as we’re asking the farm community to do. And we can’t rest on research that centers around traditional production.
“We have to be open-minded and think more holistically as far as production, food safety, market development and those kinds of things. So we’re right there with farmers looking back; we may have to revisit some old ideas about how we advise clientele as we go into this new ag.
Extension is looking at the agricultural equation both from the producer side and the consumer side.
“We are almost seeing a return to the way things used to be when people knew where their food came from, and in many cases, took an active role in producing it,” Traywick noted. “And they might be a couple of generations removed from the farm or the family garden right now, but there is very much an interest in healthy eating and supporting the local economy, supporting the local farmers.
“I think consumers are now a bit more savvy. They, in many cases, are willing to pay a bit more, invest their food dollar in something fresh and local, and they value very much their opportunity to build relationships with the farmer that grows their food. There has been some fairly recent studies done that said that whenever you spend a dollar in your local community, that dollar turns over six times. The farmers go out and do business with other businesses in the community. There is that multiplier effect.”
Jan McGuinn, agriculture extension agent commented, “In the farm families, you’re seeing some transition in farm operations where they may not be as large but there are more of them. But that’s true of agriculture across the United States, not just North Carolina or Rutherford County. So you are still going to have a very firm agricultural base.
“In North Carolina, of course it is one of the most diverse agricultural growers in the United States, at least 30 or 40 varied commodities, and five or six of those are in the top 10 of production.”
As farms become smaller the need to specialize becomes larger.
“One of the most important things,” Traywick said, “is that folks now who are looking at farming are taking a bit different approach. Many of them are looking at smaller scale or highly specialized operations. They are looking at having to establish local demand. They are not producing, in many cases, as a wholesaler for a grocery chain or a big distributor.
“So they are trying to develop a local clientele base, and being very open and forthcoming about their production practices and what they do on a day-today basis on the farm becomes a part of their story that helps them build that relationship. So I think that is why we are seeing a lot of things like the need for local farmers markets that Extension can support that will provide that venue for the farmers and the customers to get together to continue that relationship and execute their sales.”
McGuinn noted that the farmers market is one example of Cooperative Extension’s ability to network with other groups.
“Here locally, we network with the county in the operation of the county farmers market. With that, in the last eight to 10 years we have been able to have the farm market nutrition program accessible through our Rutherford County market. We network with the local WIC (Women, Infants and Children) office and they coordinate with their clientele.
“This summer, for the first time, we will have liaison with the Department of Aging here in the county; we will have a senior program for redemptive vouchers at our local farmers market as well.”
McGuinn said the local farmers market has been really good so far this season.
“We are anticipating the day when we will be moving into our new facility,” she added.
Extension works on many fronts, she continued.
“We network with NCDA (North Carolina Department of Agriculture) and other ag agencies as well,” McGuinn said. “With NCDA, with their disposal group, providing not only the farm community but the residential community access to proper disposal of those wastes.
“The commodity associations, we network with those individuals as well. We have been doing quite a bit of field trial work over the years, both in livestock and forestry, some in field crops and horticultural areas, both ornamental and fruit and vegetable.”
Traywick emphasized that farmers may be thinking in terms of what worked in the past but said they are not ready to abandon all modern methods.
“I think what is interesting, too, is that we talk about, in some cases, turning back the clock in some respects; we’re not seeing farmers abandon the tractor to go back to the plowhorse. They’re very much using modern technology and production systems.
“But there has kind of been a resurgence in some of the heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables that are being grown, simply because they were grown for their flavor and their unique visual appeal, those types of things. We’re seeing heirloom tomatoes and apples and things like that gaining popularity.
“Even in the livestock industry seeing some folks go away from just strictly a cow/calf production where they’re selling their feeder calves off to feedlots in the Midwest. They are actually maintaining those calves and finishing them out on local pastures and selling their beef direct to the customer.
“I’ve seen some demand in more rural communities for that, but, for example, some of the area beef cattle producers are actually selling their products in more urban farmers market settings like Charlotte and Asheville, and the demand for that product is high. But that mindset likely may change even in rural communities.
“We’re talking about going back to old-style production, there is a cattleman over in Cleveland County that is producing grass-fed beef, and he has actually gone back to the style of cattle that was. grown back in the ’50s shorter, squattier cattle, so that he can get them up to the desired carcass quality on grass as opposed to having to pump them full of grain and that sort of thing. A lot of the current innovation is sort of looking back to the way grandpa did things.”
Cattle production in Rutherford County was seriously impacted by the recent drought. When asked if a cattle comeback seems to be under way, McGuinn said, “I would say gradually. We had quite a few that sold off because of forage accessibility. Hopefully in the next few years, if we can have normal weather maybe we will see some micro-operations starting back.”
Traywick noted that the impact of farms goes beyond the actual farm family, and a resurgence in farming could have a wider impact.
“I know that years ago in most communities there were custom slaughtering processing facilities that would take your backyard cow and have it dressed for the freezer,” he said. “A lot of that infrastructure now is gone. In Cleveland County several years ago there were community canneries, where you could actually bring your green beans or whatever in and they would process them for you and you would take them home in tin cans. So I don’t know if we will see a resurgence in any of that or not.
“Folks are looking for ways to generate additional income and revenue so there has been a real increased interest in home-based businesses. And a significant portion of those looking to develop new home-based businesses are taking a look at food-based businesses, value-added commodities, where they might make homemade salsas or breads or chow chow. They’re good and tasty and the family liked the recipe so they think, well, if my family likes it I ought to be able to sell this stuff. And then part of Extension’s role is to help walk them through that process of all the food safety regulations and inspections and permits that are required to be able to do that safely and legally.”
McGuinn noted that consumers help a would-be entrepreneur when they take a chance on a new item that may be a little more expensive than mass-produced products. “You’re going to have your high-end commodity or value added products that you may splurge, every once in a while or, she said, “but that still gives the entrepreneur hope to develop his or her idea to get a niche market started.”
There is another avenue that may be worth exploring, Traywick said.
“One of the benefits that this resurgence in farming and niche production has is more benefits than just economic benefits to the farm family. These kinds of activities can be developed further into agri-tourist destinations so that there are more avenues for families who want to connect with farm life and visit farming operations to see how food is grown, and get young kids that might not otherwise have any knowledge or appreciation of where food actually comes from. I know Jan is going to be working this fall to help some of these farming operations take a look at how they might incorporate some entertainment value into their farming operations, actually be a destination point for tourists. There are a lot of issues to overcome there, liability and legal issues, restroom facilities. They are going to have to put some thought and money into providing the necessities for hosting groups.”
The Agritourism Networking Association is a state advocate for connecting people with agriculture.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Web site says,
“Agritourism can be an exciting new enterprise for you. Hay rides, barnyard animals, corn mazes, pick-your-own fruits and vegetables, bird watching, farm roadside stands, fishing, hunting, camping, pumpkin patches, value-added products, flowers — let your imagination take you to your own field of dreams.”
Helping people find their “field of dreams” has always been the ultimate goal of Cooperative Extension. Today the vistas have expanded, but the goal remains the same.
In Part 5: Foothills Connect Business & Technology Center has shown county residents that a new type of farming can open up an unexpected source of revenue for people with small acreages.
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Courier. Copyright owned by The Daily Courier.