Beth Lehman’s farm sits on 30 acres in northwestern Alamance County, some 13 miles from Burlington. She raises heritage breed goats, chickens, ducks, and turkeys; she uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizer and, in an aim to minimize her use of fossil fuels, she weeds and makes rows with hand tools.
“We started our farm with just four chickens,” she recalls. In fact, she still has a rooster from that first batch, hatched back in 2011. She’s admittedly only been working the land for a few years, but the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has connected her with like-minded people and given her invaluable assistance in making her sustainable farming dream a reality.
“I need as much education and mentorship as I can get,” Lehman says.
“The average age of the North Carolina farmer is 58,” CFSA communications and development director Elizabeth Read says. Century farms – plots that have been consistently cultivated for a hundred years or more – are rare, and many of today’s farmers aren’t learning the craft from their parents and grandparents. This is one place the CFSA steps in, closing the gap when new or young organic or sustainable farmers have the drive and the passion, but not generations of experience.
It’s a broad mission. Read explains the many facets of this 35-year-old nonprofit, sitting in the sunlit conference room of the organization’s Pittsboro office. There have been 20 years of farm tours, 29 years of sustainable agriculture conferences, and five years of active farm outreach. And they’re still rolling out new ideas.
One is the Bill Dow Scholarship, named for the late founder of the Carrboro Farmers Market and the first certified organic farmer in the state. This year, Lehman’s a Dow Scholar, meaning she attended CFSA’s annual sustainable agriculture conference for free.
“I applied for the Dow Scholarship at the same time that I gave my notice at work and my husband’s contract was not being renewed,” Lehman says. Being selected was a confidence and morale boost, sure, but it was also nice to not have to worry about the cost.
The Dow Scholarship, like so much of what the CFSA does, relies on donations. “You are sending this specific person and changing their life,” Read says.
Beyond the Dow Scholarship, the CFSA has been working to build a parallel infrastructure through which organic and sustainable farmers can get their produce in restaurants and groceries. The CFSA discovered farmers weren’t growing organic grain because there was no obvious market for it, so they helped set up a flour mill in Asheville. They helped start Eastern Carolina Organics, now a successful food distribution company, and they’re currently running a study on which strains of organic broccoli grow best across North Carolina.
“We conducted a study that showed there was a $2 million consumer demand for organic broccoli in North Carolina,” Read says. “Ninety percent of it is grown in California.”
CFSA works with food systems – a technical term for what happens to a crop between the field and the plate, Read explains. They work with the system when they can, and build a new one when they can’t. And for farmers like Lehman, who are working hard and learning fast, CFSA’s work is essential.
“I know it wouldn’t be possible for small farms to compete with big ag without a group that is dedicated to educating the general public and bringing people together to learn from each other,” she says.