The Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm was on the brink of disaster last year after Cabarrus County Commissioners voted to abruptly cut the farm’s funding. Farm Manager Aaron Newton recalls they even cut the lights off:
The electrical boxes were literally locked in the off position.
The Lomax Incubator Farm is the only USDA-certified organic training facility in the Southeast. Since 2009, the farm has trained 33 students in organic vegetable cultivation and the business of farming.
At the height of the 2014 growing season, the student farmers had no access to water, coolers, freezers or electricity. The county had been the sole provider of the farm’s $115,000 annual budget, and with no other revenue sources lined up, the future looked bleak.
But Newton and others were determined not to let the Lomax Incubator fall by the wayside. The Carolina Farm Stewardship stepped in to manage the 30-acre farm and the farmer training program, and Cabarrus County native Scott Avett, of the nationally-renowned folk rock band The Avett Brothers, lent his support.
One of the first people to reach out to us was Scott Avett. Scott called me on Sunday and said,”What can I do?” He said he’d like to help a little bit on the funding side but also anything else, so Scott was a big part of the Barnraiser campaign and has been great about raising awareness of what we do.
Together, the groups organized a successful crowd-funding campaign to keep the lights on for 2015, raising $30,175 from nearly 300 donors in November of last year. Twelve months later, Newton says the future looks rosy.
Every month is a little brighter than the month before.
The county, which still owns the Lomax land, partially reversed course. Commissioners agreed to contribute about a quarter of the farm’s operating expenses in return for community college classes taught on site. Looking forward, the Lomax staff are courting corporate investors and exploring the possibility of hosting events to round out their budget. Newton says at this point, the challenge is no longer how to keep the farm afloat, but how to manage growth.
It’s not about whether we’re going to stay open, it’s about the fact that demand is huge. People want what we have to offer, so really, it’s a capacity issue now.
We’re not able to offer all the programming and education that’s being asked of us, which is great that so many people are interested in agriculture and they want to tap in and become a part. How quickly can we grow our capacity to meet that need?
Stakeholders are in the middle of a long-term planning process, evaluating both the programming and the site itself. They will host a series of public meetings in January to get feedback, then present a five-year plan to the Cabarrus Board of Commissioners and the wider public this April.
Newton expects demand for organic farming education will continue to grow as more and more people become interested in the social, environmental and health benefits of small-scale farming. He says the Lomax Incubator Farm is nurturing a growing community of farmers in the region.
You get involved in agriculture and you suddenly are eating better-tasting food and feeling better and looking better, and creating relationships with others like you who share a passion for agriculture, and good food, and farming. It’s all positive feedback loops. Its a wonderful thing to get addicted to and people do. They get hooked for various reasons, but they get hooked and they come back.
We have the facility and the land and the equipment to help them learn how to farm and to start a farming business, but then what they find is the community that develops around the Lomax Farm, this community where they’re learning from each other and sharing resources.
It is starting to become this hub for agriculture in the area focused on small- and medium-scale vegetable and livestock production. I think we’ll see more people moving here.
More broadly, Newton says the community is approaching the critical mass needed to begin building distribution systems to support farming and get the products to consumers. As part of that movement, he and his wife started a grocery store with a fellow Lomax graduate to explore how to get food to consumers outside the farmers market system.
We’re looking at the potential for some sort of food innovation district or food hub that would address issues that are coming up: cold storage, processing, value add. The issues are here already, but now there’s a critical mass of people who can work on those issues and begin to solve them. Lomax has been a big part of that in the direct production, if you will, of farmers, but also the place around which to rally, the catalyst for those kind of people getting together.
You can learn more about the Lomax Incubator Farm here, or follow on Instagram @lomaxfarm.