For those who want to get into farming, there might be a picture that some folks entertain. It’s a picture of quiet pastures and gentle rows of vegetables lined side by side with mooing, cooing and crowing.
It’s Old McDonald’s Farm. But that doesn’t really exist. The reality is more along the lines of a lot of hard work that includes bending, lifting, carrying and long hours and a whole lot of patience — or perhaps faith.
“Everything I’ve got is wore out to a frazzle, including me,” says Pasquotank County farmer Bob Brothers.
Brothers, 48, is what you call a small farmer. The catch phrase these days is micro farming.
Brothers grows on a small spread and sells produce directly to restaurants locally and in Virginia. He also sells at a Hampton Roads area farmer’s market.
And as if that wasn’t enough, he’s launching into a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. That’s a program where clients pay the farmer a flat fee each month and he delivers a box of fresh produce weekly.
All of that is in an effort to make a living off the land. It’s hard work, and it’s work that is in Brothers’ blood.
These days a lot of folks are interested in micro-farming, or at the very least growing their own vegetable garden, according to Pasquotank County Agricultural Extension agent Tom Campbell. He says where the phone calls he once received might have been all about ornamental gardens, or a combination of produce and ornamental, these days it’s almost exclusivly for tips on growing your own food.
Campbell says that since the economy went south back in 2008, folks have been desperate to grow their own food in an effort to save money.
“But they don’t know how to do it,” he says.
The State of North Carolina has conducted a study that shows $35 billion is spent by Tar Heel residents each year on food. The North Carolina Agriculture Extension Agency, based on that fact, devised a plan that it hopes will help turn the economy in North Carolina’s favor. Campbell says there is a campaign afoot to encourage residents to spend 10 percent of their food budget on locally grown foods from local sources, such as farmer’s markets.
“That would be $3.5 billion annually,” says Campbell of the money that would potentially be spent at home. “This would help raise our economy and bring it back to healthy standards.”
Campbell’s goal, therefore, is perhaps two-fold. He wants to educate the public on the importance of buying produce locally and he wants to ensure that there are local growers who can provide that produce.
There are growers locally like Brothers who will provide produce. Brothers’s family used to sell through its own produce stand but they shut that down three years ago, he says. The sales to restaurants is a commercial venture that helps pay the bills, but perhaps it’s the CSA that could turn the tide of local produce purchasing.
It’s important to point out that the Downtown Waterfront Market does provide a source for local produce. However, a CSA has the potential to provide year-round, seasonal produce whereas the farmer’s market happens mid-spring through early fall.
When you buy into a CSA, you essentially enter into a contract with the farmer agreeing to receive whatever he or she is growing this season. Buy paying a flat, monthly fee, you are paying the farmer to simply farm.
“I don’t know how well it’s going to work in Elizabeth City,” says Brothers. “It takes a lot of planning.”
Brothers already has clients lined up. He says, however, he will start small and see how it goes from there. This year he will supply fresh, weekly produce to 20 families.
“I’m just scared of biting off more than I can chew at one time,” says Brothers.
If supporting a local farming economy is a part of the economic growth equation, Campbell points out that agritourism has the potential to be a piece of the puzzle.
At an extension presentation last Monday night, he offered up two North Carolina farms that have introduced tours to its list of moneymaking ideas. These farms not only grow produce, they also offer a chance to work the farm, pet animals and participate in a variety of other activities.
Locally, in Pasquotank County, there isn’t anything like this available. The last time anyone had a farming operation such as this was Luther’s Greenhouse in Weeksville.
“Most of the time families came on the weekends and schools came on
the weekdays,” recalls Holly Luther, who ran the operation along with her husband Bob.
Luther’s Greenhouses began as a smaller operation, more a hobby, explained Luther. Eventually, along with her husband, the family opened a pumpkin patch and then a strawberry patch. That was in 1996 and was followed by a milo maze, a petting zoo, wagon rides and tours of the greenhouse operations.
“We had schools calling wanting to know if we could do tours,” recalls Luther. “That happened for several years and we decided we wanted to do something more formal … .”
The Luthers operated seven covered acres and 10 acres outside of the protection of a greenhouse. Ninety-five percent of what they sold was wholesale, and 15 percent was retail.
It was rewarding work, but it was a lot of work. They got out of the business because it was labor-intensive running the growing the operation. Luther says she and her husband would have preferred to make it a destination for families, “but there was so much to do.”
That’s the reality of farming, it’s hard work. Brothers says if he hadn’t already owned all of the acreage and the farming equipment, he would have likely done something else to make a living.
“I’d hate to borrow money and have to do it,” he says.
Campbell recommends that folks who are starting out and would eventually like to make a living at it go in with cautious optimism. While he’s all for the idea of someone running a micro-farm, start slowly he says.
“You need a sincere desire to do it,” says Campbell. “Determination; lots of work. Secondly, you need time and money and you need physical and mental ability and then you need to know what to do and that is where the extension comes in.”
There is a need in the area for more locally grown produce. Some of it might not be as simple as growing squash for sale, and that is also where the extension service comes in handy. Campbell can talk to you about what to grow, what will sell and where your markets are located.
Brothers, for example, knows that he’s best served by selling his produce to restaurants and the Portsmouth, Va., farmer’s market. He says that is a large market and the farmers who sell there are offering different produce and not competing with one another for the sale of zucchini or cucumbers and such.
So yeah, it’s hard work and it’s not as glamorous, but if you’re like Bob Brothers, and you get the soil under your finger nails it might be hard to wash it away.