Growing up, Stephanie Morrison spent summers and holidays helping her grandparents raise hogs, feed chickens, and grow crops on their farm near Goldsboro.
She imagines they would be surprised to see her today, as an entrepreneurial farmer who is building a business through the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Incubator Farm program, now in its second year.
Morrison, 31, of Durham, worked for the Autism Society of North Carolina for nearly seven years until she decided to turn her home garden into a real business. She started Simple Living Farm in 2013 after becoming one of Inter-Faith’s first incubator farmers.
“I have learned the difference between a hobby and an actual business,” Morrison said. “When I first started, it seemed fun and cute, but then the weather got hot, and the farm got real.”
Morrison’s Simple Living Farm is one of six tiny incubator farms at Inter-Faith’s Teaching Farm on Tryon Road in Raleigh. The farms look like large backyard gardens; each one is about 2,100 square feet and takes up less than one quarter of an acre. Some have three long rows, others have four shorter ones.
The Teaching Farm is spread over nine acres belonging to MacNair Country Acres, which Inter-Faith uses through a partnership established by Caroline MacNair Carl, who died in 2012.
Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is a nonprofit organization that “pioneers innovative, transformative solutions designed to end hunger in our community,” according to its website.
Its incubator program was started in 2013 as a way to teach people how to grow food and earn a living from it, said Jill Bullard, Inter-Faith’s founder and CEO.
It initially attracted gardeners who simply wanted to learn how to grow better produce, said Kay Coleman, manager of the Teaching Farm.
“People have no idea how difficult farming is until they come out here and try it,” Coleman said. “We consider the incubator farmers we have today as agriculture entrepreneurs.”
Bullard views the Incubator program as a way for nontraditional farmers to see agriculture as a viable option to expand a business. Incubator farms are emerging as a pathway for fledgling farmers to gain access to land, learn organic farming methods and develop business plans geared to farm management.
“It can be a side business, or it can be a primary business,” she said. “North Carolina needs family farmers, and we need food.”
Inter-Faith’s Incubator program is among a handful of other similar farms scattered across North Carolina, including the Raleigh City Farm, the Breeze Incubator Farm in Orange County, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. State University, the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm in Cabarrus County, and Maverick Farms in Valle Crucis.
The program also offers classes on marketing and social media, and provides resources from N.C. State’s Cooperative Extension Program and Wake Tech’s small-business programs to teach business management skills.
Funding for the Incubator Farm is included in the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s general budget, and is generated through grants and gifts from donors, Bullard said.
In 2014, Inter-Faith had $14,549,997 in support and revenue, including $11,504,854 in contributions of food, equipment and in-kind services, $2,275,094 in donations and $621,761 in grants, according to its annual report. Its operating expenses were $14,469,140, including $766,620 used for its nutrition, farm and garden program services, which includes funding for the teaching farm and incubator program.
To apply for the three-year program, farmers state their reasons and goals for farming, and they promise to keep their plots well maintained, clear of weeds, and free of chemicals.
There is no cost to participate, but in exchange for their plot of land, compost, starter seeds, a drip hose for watering, the use of tools, and classes on farming and business practices, the farmers promise to volunteer three hours a week on the Teaching Farm or at its small produce stand.
Farmers can grow and sell any produce or flowers they want. This summer’s harvest has yielded tomatoes, eggplant, okra, corn, peppers, squash, flowers and herbs.
Morrison will rotate out of the three-year incubator program in 2016, and she plans to move forward with her business.
She has established Simple Living Farm as a limited liability corporation, developed a business plan and is investigating low-interest loan programs from banks that specialize in lending to farmers.
“I’m not really interested in being a market farmer, but I would like to get a homestead with five acres or less and starting a teaching farm,” she said.
Dustin Crouch, 31, joined the Incubator farm program in January, and has since established N.C. Regrown farm. He earns about $50 to $100 per week selling produce to a variety of vendors and local restaurants, including Lucky 32 in Cary.
Russell Shinn, executive chef at Lucky 32, buys as much produce as he can get from the Inter-Faith Teaching Farm and the Incubator farmers.
Shinn met Crouch last spring when he and his brother walked into the restaurant carrying a bag of radishes.
“They gave me samples and described their farm,” Shinn said. He bought the radishes, and now buys all the okra Crouch can grow as well as other produce.
He estimates Lucky 32 spends $250 to $350 per week on produce grown at the Inter-Faith Farm.
Lynn Alker, 59, grows flowers on the plot she calls Lot 7. Her goal is to continue to build her floral business. She already sells to two florists, and regularly sets up shop at farmers markets and sells flowers at the Teaching Farm’s produce stand.
Along with creating business opportunities, the Incubator Farm program fits with Inter-Faith’s mission to pioneer strategies for ending hunger, Bullard says.
“If we are going to grow food security within the seven counties we serve, and throughout North Carolina, we have to have people who are prepared to go forward in farming, and this is a small way to accomplish that,” she said. “You cannot cure hunger without food. You can’t have food without farms, and you can’t have farms without farmers.”
Teri Saylor: email@example.com, @terisaylor