Recently the 6th installment of the Growing New Farmers Program, including a Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture from The College of Charleston and optional Apprenticeship came to a close and we successfully graduated 24 participants. Twenty four individuals with the curiosity and desire to learn what it means to be a farmer in the Lowcountry, who were willing to participate in classes, field trips, and hands on experiences on their path to becoming the food system leaders and farmers of tomorrow. During their graduation ceremony, every single one of them said it changed their life and the way they think about their relationship to food and farming. Some of them began their career as farmers before they even graduated, making our entire staff very proud!

When I came in to the program in July I recognized it was important to give our students something that they could have ownership over and success with, and that this could be the type of thing that encouraged someone to move forward in the face of the many current road signs saying “turn back”. This, coupled with solid education grounded in expertise and practice, became my approach as program manager. Towards this aim we designed a skills driven, project-based learning experience that engaged our participants in the planning of a vegetable farm for a hypothetical 6-week farmer’s market stand. The 6-week plan included crop planning, financial planning, and marketing which was conducted by collaborative groups and will culminate in an actual one day farm market stand to be held at our 2nd annual Buy Local Block Party on Saturday, November 21, 2015 at 1630 Meeting Street. The stand will feature fall greens (kale, chard, bok choy, lettuce), value added products like loofah, edible flowers, as well as produce from all of our Dirt Works Incubator Farmers: Compost in My Shoe (peppers), Rooting Down Farms (sweet potatoes), and Spade and Clover (ginger and turmeric).

The participants actually seeded, transplanted, and harvested all of the crops they planned for during their work days on Dirt Works Incubator Farm. The crop planning group estimated yield, planned spacing, and chose high valued crops to grow in a season extension high tunnel. The financial group predicted profit and losses based on our production. The marketing group designed the market stand, conducted social media pushes and incorporated value added products to be sold in the wake of post-flood crop loss. Together they presented their work to mentor farmers, board members, sponsors, staff, and community members over an outstanding farmer’s potluck this past Monday and they certainly look forward to sharing the experience with the public at the market stand on Saturday!


Below, Laura Mewbourne, a recent Growing New Farmers Apprenticeship graduate and advocate for women and minorities in farming, shares her experience with the program and farm market stand project:

Six months ago, faced with a move back to my much-beloved Charleston, I scanned the employment ads and mulled my options. After more than a decade of working in education, the safe and expected decision was obvious. I was very good at what I did. The positions I held in the past were incredibly rewarding and challenging. They could also be incredibly stressful. Long hours often meant foregoing exercise or cooking a decent meal. Many of my offices were windowless; one was even a small converted closet. I spent long hours staring at a computer screen. My vision deteriorated rapidly during the first five years of my career until one optometrist eventually dubbed me an “extreme myope.” It sounded like some sort of bacteria.

As I walked across campus, I would occasionally pass landscapers and feel a little wistful. I knew the labor was hard yet couldn’t help wishing to spend my days outside. I always dismissed the thoughts immediately.

There are farmers and avid gardeners peppering my family tree, yet agriculture was never an option for me. I don’t mean that I begged my parents to allow me to farm and they refused. I mean it never crossed my mind or anyone else’s that farming would be something I could do, much less something I WANTED to do. There was a clique of future farmers in my high school (I’m totally not kidding). I looked nothing like them and didn’t enjoy mud riding, so I was pretty sure I was supposed to go through a traditional four-year undergraduate program and major in English. And that’s what I did.

As I grew older, my beliefs and knowledge of the world changed. My values evolved, including what felt like an ever-increasing need to support my community. I also spent a lot of time and energy evaluating the ethics of eating and made very calculated decisions to support those beliefs. As I thought about applying for jobs again, a part of me felt unsure about the right direction. Changing careers didn’t seem unreasonable, but a drastic leap into agriculture seemed insane. A desire to be outside and contribute to local food production was all well and good, but I lacked some fundamental education, connections within the farming community, and any knowledge of how someone would start a farming enterprise. My daydream of escaping an office seemed impossible, and it might as well have been– until I stumbled across information about the Growing New Farmers Program through Lowcountry Local First.

The Growing New Farmers Program pairs real world farming experience with classroom-based instruction to provide a comprehensive overview of the logistics of agriculture. As drastic as my decision to change careers was, other students came to the program already having had some experience with growing produce.

“I did this program to get the certificate and to learn more about a bigger scale operation of a farm since I’ve been on a larger garden scale. I wanted to learn about the soil, pest management and tips to help with all of that”, says Sean Murray.

“I think it’s a really good course for beginners, and I think it helped me get more confident in what I did know. I ended up knowing more than I thought I did and it will allow me to use the knowledge and teachings to hopefully have a very successful farm.”

The Growing New Farmers participants represent a diversity of backgrounds and interests. Some are focused on owning their own businesses. Others have dreams of resurrecting a family farm. Others want to make food production more environmentally sustainable. Not everyone will be interested in starting their own farms, but all will have a much more solid understanding of the complexities involved in sustainable food production, enabling them to be knowledgeable advocates.

Photo Sep 16, 9 07 14 AM
The farming community nationally and locally tends to be tight-knit, so meeting area farmers to hear their perspectives and see their farms in operation was another critical component of our experience. We were also given the opportunity to apprentice at area farms, allowing us an even greater glimpse into the day-to-day realities of farm life through personal interaction with a farming mentor. These relationships have had a powerful influence on both the mentors and their apprentices.

John Warren of Spade and Clover acknowledges that farming requires a wide variety of skills and that there is no single path that works for everybody.

“I think there is a vast range of ways to farm profitably and I hope that the program empowers potential new farmers to accept their particular idiosyncrasies and temperaments and to jump into the market.”

At the heart of it, he recognizes that the Growing New Farmers Program is addressing a very specific need in the Lowcountry. There is a constant clamor for local produce, and yet farming is such a daunting profession. It can be incredibly intimidating to embark upon such a risky new business.

“Charleston is so hungry for produce right now that if you grow something there is little doubt that it will sell for a fair price. We have a supply problem in Charleston right now. I want the apprentices to understand this and to not be afraid to enter the market,” says Warren.

Other mentors see their relationship with their mentors as more of an obligation but one in which the mentor stands to benefit as much as the apprentice.IMAG3480

Jim Martin of Compost in My Shoe says, “The mentor-apprentice experience is the most relevant way to be reminded of education and the value to both parties. Having a stake in the future of farming is not only a responsibility for us all but rewarding. New ideas, fresh perspectives, these always make me realize that we all have the potential to keep reframing where we are whether in farming or life, after all it is all the same. On a very personal level, it re-energizes me. Working with Jerrah [Kohn] has been fun, challenging and everything I want the program to be.”

For many GNF students, this is a beginning rather than an ending. I can see my own business plans taking shape, despite what seemed like incredibly long odds just six months ago. Understanding why Americans eat the way they do—how that happened over centuries and how it is changing today—can be overwhelming, particularly when you think about the necessity and demands upon the local small farmer. But making better decisions for ourselves, our bodies, our families, and our communities is not impossible. It just happens slowly—one new farmer at a time.

Photo credits: Nikki Seibert Kelley and Brian Wheat
Brian Wheat
Growing New Farmers Program Manager