Nonprofit Grows Important New Crop: Farmers

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Gina Perez works with Fiddle Farms, one of five farms participating in Dirt Works. Photo: Lowcountry Local First

Gina Perez works with Fiddle Farms, one of five farms participating in Dirt Works. Photo: Lowcountry Local First

Written by Clint Williams, Mother Nature Network

Before you can grow food, you need to grow farmers. Growing farmers — like seedlings in a greenhouse — is the mission of Dirt Works Incubator Farm near Charleston, S.C. The 10-acre parcel on Walnut Hill Plantation on Johns Island is the keystone of the Growing New Farmers Program of Lowcountry Local First and is funded by USDA-Rural Development.

Farmers are something of an endangered breed. The average age of America’s farmers is 57, and one-quarter of American farmers are 65 or older. The trend is even grayer in South Carolina, says Nikki Seibert, the sustainable agriculture program director at Lowcountry Local First, a nonprofit dedicated to promotion and development of the local economy.

“We’re trying to lower the barriers to farming,” says Seibert.

An apprentice program started in 2010 has trained 80 people in farming practices — and business practices — specific to the climate of coastal Carolina. Some of those apprentices are now part of the first class at Dirt Works, a three-year program.

The 10 acres is divided into plots of one to two acres for up to six farmers and a one-acre community garden, or teaching plot, for apprentices, students and the public. All the produce grown on the teaching plot goes to local food banks.

The five farmers now part of the program pay $2,000 a year for the plot and access to a packing shed, walk-in cooler, tools and equipment such as a tractor.

“Access to the packing shed, cooler, irrigation, inexpensive land, and tractor are all huge costs to have covered,” says John Warren (right), one of the partners in Spade and Clover Gardens. Warren is a graduate of Lowcountry Local First’s Growing New Farmers Program and current member of Dirt Works.

“Also, the ability to bounce ideas around with a bunch of young farmers with a lot of energy with an experimental edge is huge,” Warren says.

The farmers also get help with developing a business plan and marketing plan, says Seibert. The incubator gives each farmer three years to develop the skills in the field and in the marketplace to make it on their own.

Dirt Works farmers are growing 39 different fruits and vegetables, as well as cut flowers. Many of the crops are heirloom vegetables and “high dollar crops that consumers can’t find at the grocery store,” says Seibert.

At Spade and Clover, “We also harvest vegetable crops in all stages of their development such as flowering kale or green tomatoes so as to extend the potential for each crop and disturb the land less,” says Warren.

Farmers work together to sell their produce and flowers at local restaurants and farmers markets.

The project also hopes to nudge a shift in the culture toward small-scale sustainable farming and local food production, Seibert says.

“We already seeing local food become an expectation in restaurants,” she says.

Check out the farm in this fly-over video below:

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