At the end of my first full season working on an organic vegetable farm, one of my employers asked the group of interns if we still wanted to be farmers someday. We all confirmed that we did. “You guys made my day,” he beamed, clearly pleased with our choice. “But just so you know, it would be easier to make your living any other way.”
In the past few years, when sharing that I was apprenticing on organic farms, the question that followed was, “What do you want to do with that?” To reply that I was hoping to have my own farm within a few years seemed too ludicrous even to me. Even as I longed to be a farmer, I doubted my ability to do it. Too expensive, too hard to make a profit, too much work, too hard on the body. I spent time with young farmers and aspiring farmers at dinner parties, excited to be starting this adventure while also listening to them lament about how different their lives were from their friends. They often daydreamed about living a life where they could vacation in the summer, travel when they felt like it, stay out past nine p.m. during the farming season.
Despite the many drawbacks, compromises and unknowns that face me, I have joined the ranks of the new farming face of America. Like many of my mentors, I was raised in a city, have no background in farming and received a liberal arts education. But the local food movement caught my attention from the moment I began college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Triangle area is known for its strong foodie culture, with many excellent farmers’ markets, distinctive local restaurants and a strong community of longtime and up-and-coming sustainable small farms. The first time I stepped foot on a farm, I fell in love.
About seven or eight years on from that fateful first encounter, I am taking another first step. The experiences I had as a farm intern were invaluable; I saw the responsibility of being the primary farmer as a way to take my farming knowledge to the next level. It is now up to me to plan what I grow in the fields, where I grow it, how I raise my plants, what methods of pest management and disease control I use.
The perfect opportunity came when I discovered the Farmer Incubator and Grower (F.I.G.) Project in the mountains of North Carolina at the site of the former Student Farm for Appalachian State University in nearby Boone. I had long yearned to relocate to the mountains, and this area is the perfect blend of college town, rural setting, Appalachian culture and wild beauty. Boone and the surrounding area continue to grow, and the burgeoning local food community has the small town advantage: everyone involved in the movement knows each other.
In February, I left my last farm apprenticeship and moved across the state from the sandy soils of the coastal plain to the sweeping panoramas of the High Country. With my move came the need to make new friends and wider community contacts, find a new job, and get to know the area, all while also trying to begin my business on a budget, purchase many of my supplies for the first time, and adjust to the much colder weather of the High Country.
One of my first steps was to run a month-long campaign on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo where I raised more than $5,000 for my farm supplies this year. Tools like Indiegogo are very valuable to new farmers in this age of social media and online promotion. This winter, another farmer in my area raised more than $25,000 to purchase a tractor using crowd funding. For those of us who don’t own property and haven’t inherited equipment in our family, the costs of these things can be stop a start-up farm before it even starts. Land access, specifically the cost for quality property, is often identified as the biggest barrier to new farmers.
At the F.I.G. Farm, I am renting a 1/2 acre on a six-acre piece of land that I am sharing with two other women farmers. We will be sharing a greenhouse, a barn that includes a pack shed area for washing produce, a walk-in cooler for storing produce, tools we can use, a tractor and tiller. The mentor for the F.I.G. Program this year, Matt Cooper, works the land adjacent to us and all four of us will be collaborating on planting potatoes and winter squash as a group.
There are challenges to working on rented land, and even more unique challenges to sharing land with other people. Our limited greenhouse space already felt cramped before we had even begun to seed most of our crops. I purchased my potting soil as part of a large group order with other area farmers that ended up coming in almost a month after first estimated. A large portion of the land that I will be using was planted with trees for an agroforestry project for Appalachian State University, and the trees must be chopped down before I can plant my spinach and salad mix in these rows.
This season I hope to grow about twenty different vegetables, plus a mix of select culinary and medicinal herbs and some cut flowers. My past experience has been in vegetable production, but I am interested in moving into niche markets like medicinal herb production. I also hope to experiment this season with what grows well at F.I.G. so that I can grow with a focus on my strengths next year. For now, I plan to sell at the Watauga County Farmer’s Market in Boone on Saturdays, certainly the largest market in the area, and on Thursday evenings at the Avery County Farmer’s Market, which is in the tourist town of Banner Elk about 20 miles from Boone.
I am also offering CSA shares, but limiting to five shares every other week over 20 weeks so that I know I’ll have the produce and variety. CSA is a great way to make lasting relationships with people in your community, so I am also offering a market share program where customers pay a certain amount at the beginning of the season that can be redeemed at the market with the opportunity for customers to choose items to be set aside for them ahead of market day.
In the coming weeks I have a lot ahead of me. I plan to buy a truck both for personal use and business purposes, expand the publicity of my CSA program, and begin seeding many crops in the greenhouse, as well as planting some out to the field. I hope that using work parties with friends and community members will help me get a lot of the work done more quickly. I am excited to be contributing to the Rodale Institute and I hope that, as I go along, my experiences and efforts can serve as inspiration to someone else who, like me, is dying to try to be a farmer but can’t quite believe it is possible.
Caroline Hampton is a first year farmer, growing vegetables, herbs and flowers at the Octopus Garden in Valle Crucis, NC. A North Carolina native, Caroline grew up in Raleigh and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an Environmental Studies degree. Caroline enjoys writing, playing banjo, and hiking in the NC mountains. Her favorite vegetable is the carrot.