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NC State Extension

Acquiring Skills and Knowledge

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New farmers can face a steep learning curve when they are just starting out. Experienced farmers often start new enterprises that require additional technical knowledge and experience. The point is, for many farmers, acquiring new knowledge and skills is a constant goal as they strive to keep up with the latest production methods and technology to “farm smarter” and increase sustainability.

Farmers can receive one-on-one technical advice from agents, field staff, and agronomists employed by North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Soil & Water Conservation, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS). These consultations are usually done on-farm and often focus on a specific production issue (pest or disease problem, erosion, soil testing, etc.) but can also provide general guidance for the farmer about business planning, marketing, and much more.

In addition to this individual guidance, there are many opportunities for farmers to acquire skills and knowledge on particular topic areas, often in great depth depending on the program. This article highlights sources of educational training through a variety of methods from group settings to solo learning.

Agent speaking to crowd during field day

North Carolina Cooperative Extension

In every county, agriculture agents working for North Carolina Cooperative Extension offer assistance to farmers. Agriculture Agents work for the land grant universities (NC State University and N.C. A&T State University) and help disseminate research-based information from these institutions. The number and type of Agent varies according to the scope and type of agriculture in the County. For example, rural counties where agriculture is a significant part of the local economy may have more than one Agriculture Agent, each with a different focus area (livestock, vegetables, field crops, etc.). Some counties have one Agriculture agent who handles all the different commodities. 

Agriculture agents offer educational programs such as workshops and webinars and also share information through emails, newsletters, websites, and social media. These educational programs cover a wide array of topics from production to business planning to marketing. Agents also offer individual consultation to farmers through farm visits, phone calls, emails, and other direct communication. Farmers are encouraged to establish a relationship with their appropriate agent to benefit from educational programming, resources, and networking opportunities. Each of North Carolina’s 100 counties has its own North Carolina Cooperative Extension office.

NC Farm School

The NC Farm School is a four-month program conducted by North Carolina Cooperative Extension that focuses on providing new and transitioning farmers with the essentials of farm business planning. Instructors are Cooperative Extension Agriculture agents, Extension specialists, and local farmers. Eight bi-weekly classroom sessions are combined with six farm field days, culminating in visits to participants’ farms to offer individual assistance. By the end of the farm school each participant should have drafted a farm business plan. The Farm School is offered annually in a different geographic region of the state. 

Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) was formed in 1994 as a partnership between the state’s two land-grant universities, North Carolina State University (NC State) and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T), and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) which provided a physical base for research and demonstration projects at the 2,000 acre Cherry Research Farm in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Today CEFS has grown into a nationally recognized leader in research, extension, and education in sustainable agriculture and community-based food systems. In addition to the work that occurs at the research farm, CEFS does educational programming and outreach throughout the state and also offers internships and apprenticeships. The extensive CEFS website has a multimedia resource library and information about all of the programs that CEFS offers.

NC Choices is an initiative of CEFS in collaboration with N.C. Cooperative Extension. NC Choices focuses on the local, niche, and pasture-based meat supply chain to promote sustainable food systems in North Carolina. NC Choices provides information, technical assistance, educational programming, and networking opportunities for farmers, extension agents, meat processors, buyers, distributors, and consumers.

The bi-annual Carolina Meat Conference is the largest gathering of pastured meat-makers in the U.S. The conference brings together farmers, chefs, butchers, and industry leaders for two days of hands-on training, networking, and business assistance.

For farmers considering adding meat production as an enterprise, NC Choices has partnered with Extension to develop excellent videos and production tools on pastured poultry, small ruminants, beef and pork that cover nutrition, management, animal health, and farm infrastructure.

CEFS also has an Apprenticeship Program that pairs students, beginner farmers, food entrepreneurs, and veterans with experienced mentors.

Community College Agriculture Programs

North Carolina has several community colleges that offer classes, workshops, and degrees in agriculture.

  • Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) Sustainable Agriculture Program
    The Pittsboro campus of CCCC has a sustainable agriculture program that offers both non-credit courses (often taught by farmers) as well as a degree in Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Sustainable Agriculture. The on-campus certified organic farm serves as a year-round teaching lab for students of all ages. The hands-on non-credit classes focus on organic vegetable production, livestock production, cut flowers, farm mechanics, and much more. The AAS degree program prepares students for jobs in a variety of food and sustainability fields, including farm management, farm advocacy and education, and wholesale and retail produce marketing.
  • Rowan-Cabarrus Community College Agripreneur Academy & Network
    Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury, NC offers sustainable agriculture classes in topics like greenhouse management, season extension, soil health, marketing and agribusiness. Classes are held at the Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord, NC. The Agripreneur Network convenes farmers, agribusiness owners, processors, restaurateurs, and others for regular meetings to identify needs, share information, and foster collaboration.
  • Surry Community College Agricultural Science Program
    Surry Community College in Dobson, NC offers programs in Horticulture and Animal Science. They offer a Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture that focuses on the production of food crops, row crops, and specialty crops like cut flowers and industrial hemp. The college has fields, greenhouses, high tunnels, and hydroponic facilities to facilitate hands-on learning opportunities. The college also offers a certificate or diploma in Animal Science and utilizes both on-campus facilities as well as partnerships with local farms for hands-on instruction.
  • Lenoir Community College Sustainable Agriculture Program
    Lenoir Community College in Kinston, NC offers a range of opportunities for education in sustainable agriculture, from the 12 credit Sustainable Agriculture Certificate to the 68 credit AAS in Sustainable Agriculture.

Non-Profit Organizations that Educate Farmers

Carolina Farm Stewardship Association

Founded in 1979, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) is the oldest and largest sustainable agriculture organization in the southeast. The non-profit organization serves North and South Carolina, educating both farmers and consumers about organic agriculture and advocating for fair farm and food policies. CFSA offers technical assistance to member farmers on organic certification, high tunnel production, Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), and more. CFSA also conducts the annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference, the Piedmont Farm Tour, the Organic Commodities and Livestock Conference, and additional workshops and webinars throughout the year. They manage the certified organic Lomax Research & Education Farm in Concord, NC which offers educational programs for students, farmers, and the general public. Ongoing research studies at Lomax address organic production techniques.

Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)

Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) is a nonprofit based in Asheville that has served the Southern Appalachian region since the mid-1990s. The organization educates both farmers and consumers through their Local Food Campaign and works to build both demand for local farm products as well as farmers’ capacity to increase supply and access market opportunities. Examples of programs include an annual Local Food Guide, Farm Tour, and Business of Farming Conference. ASAP also operates the Asheville City Market.

Organic Grower School

Since 1993 the Organic Growers School has offered hands-on training, workshops, and their workshops and conferences attract participants from across the southern region. OGS also offers several intensive farmer-to-farmer training programs for farmers in western North Carolina including the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) and the Farm Beginnings program.

Incubator Farms

Beginner farmers can benefit from hands-on training at an incubator farm where they can have access to land, equipment, and production infrastructure such as high tunnels, coolers, etc. 

The Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord, NC is a certified organic research and education farm managed by CFSA. They offer education programs for students, workshops for farmers and the general public, and business incubation through the Farmers-in Training program.

Breeze Farm in Hurdle Mills, NC – contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Orange County office for more information.

Commodity Associations

Farmers wishing to expand their knowledge about a particular enterprise can often find help from commodity organizations if they exist for the specific enterprise of interest. These commodity organizations often offer in-person workshops, conferences and trainings that offer valuable research-based information as well as networking opportunities. 

Some examples of commodity organizations:

Other Supporting Organizations

There are many state, regional, and national organizations that provide educational programs for farmers through workshops, conferences, webinars, websites, videos, podcasts, etc.

Additional Learning Opportunities

In addition to all of the sources for educational programs mentioned above, motivated farmers can find many useful fact sheets, publications, and websites on-line. For example, NC State Extension’s Growing Small Farms website has curated hundreds of on-line resources organized by topic. 

For aspiring farmers who have not yet started their own farm, one of the best ways to acquire new knowledge and skills is to spend time working at a farm or even multiple farms. This time spent working for experienced farmers can be extremely valuable. For farmers who are planning to sell directly to consumers, it’s also helpful to visit different farmers’ markets to see and learn about the different products, when they are in season, and how they are displayed and promoted.

There are many books, farmer podcasts, and how-to YouTube videos that offer guidance on various aspects of farming and are especially useful for “how to” videos on very specific tasks. Growing for Market is an excellent popular national magazine published monthly for market growers of food, flowers, and plants that many growers consider a very useful resource.

Acquiring skills and knowledge about farming is an ongoing process, but organizations across the state are here to offer support. Whether you are interested in taking a course, needing one-on-one technical assistance, or looking for an online resource, support organizations are available to help you.