For the most part, Robin Kohanowich keeps her office at Central Carolina Community College tidy. But leaning conspicuously against one wall is a plastic pipe full of dirt.
The pipe is cut in half, cross-section style. "That's called a soil profile," she says. "You take a core of the soil, and then it's fixed with glue so it stays like that. It gives you an idea of what your topsoil looks like."
Kohanowich is a teacher and coordinator of the Pittsboro college's Sustainable Farming Program. The dirt was taken from the program's five-acre "land lab" in 1997. Soon she'll collect another profile from the same spot, "and hopefully the new sample will show what we've done," Kohanowich says. "We should now have more high-quality topsoil, looser and with more organic matter in it."
That's a key objective of the program: to teach farmers how to improve the land they work, rather than simply drain its nutrients. Launched in 1995 as a one-year continuing education program that awards certificates to students, the Sustainable Farming Program this fall will also begin granting associate's degrees. When it does, it will be the only such program in the state focused on sustainable agriculture.
During the last few years, hundreds of students have taken the program's specialized classes, which offer hands-on instruction in topics ranging from soil science to biological pest management to greenhouse design and crop marketing. Sponsoring institutions include the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, the Rural Economic Development Center, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, N.C. Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning, and the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service
What's unique about the program is that it targets first-time farmers--folks who want to try their hand at agriculture but who have no family history of working the land. That was the case with Jay Hamm, a 29-year-old, Chapel Hill-based natural builder and organic farmer who learned his trades from the program, which he completed in 1998.
"I wanted to empower myself and learn some basic skills for producing food," Hamm says. "I searched high and low, everywhere across the nation, and couldn't find anything like this." Based on what he learned at the college, Hamm's become a regular at the Carrboro Farmer's Market, selling vegetables and flowers he grows at a friend's farm.
Farmers like Hamm probably wouldn't exist without the Sustainable Farming Program. And even those who grew up on farms are becoming a rare breed. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 300,000 fewer farmers today than there were in 1979. For decades, the number of working farms has been in steady decline, as large growers squeeze out smaller ones.
Debbie Roos, Chatham County extension agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, says the Pittsboro program is one of the reasons the county is bucking the national trend among farmers to "get big or get out." In Chatham the number of small farms is actually rising slightly, she says. "It's a real mecca for sustainable agriculture."
The program at Central Carolina, current and former participants say, has demonstrated the benefits of practicing small-scale, organic growing. Those benefits include more crop diversity and fewer pesticides. In addition, locally grown food cuts out the middleman and keeps dollars circulating in the local economy, rather than sending them off to absentee corporations.
During the last decade, farmers markets catering to organic tastes have sprung up in several local communities, and many area restaurants are now buying direct from local farms.
The entire Triangle stands to gain from small-farming successes in rural areas, Kohanowich says. "People are getting many advantages from this," she says. "They're getting the freshest food they can get, grown by good stewards of the land." Land that's put to use for growing, Kohanowich notes, helps preserve green spaces against impinging development.
But sustainable farming isn't just about feel-good growing techniques, program leaders say. It's also about making enough money to survive on a farm income. Even for farmers who have cultivated the best of growing methods, land and equipment costs can still be prohibitive. To stay afloat financially, small growers of the future will have to be business savvy and seize some of the market share from big corporations.
"This kind of agriculture is a form of economic development," Kohanowich says. "Sustainability, like we sometimes say, is a three-legged stool. There's economic profitability, there's environmental stewardship, and there's social responsibility. And if a farmer isn't profitable, the other two things necessarily can't be considered."