CONCORD, – Farmers in training at the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm say they received notice from Cabarrus County on Thursday that the power would go off this week and the water would be cut off after Aug. 30, leaving many wondering whether they’ll lose their crops this year.
Angie and Mark Olear stand to lose about $15,000 worth of Jerusalem artichokes that will not be ready for harvest until after the first frost.
“It’s going to destroy us if they shut it down,” Mark Olear said, adding that they use the artichokes grown at the farm to make an artichoke relish. They just recently received word that the new Whole Foods Market opening in Huntersville is interested in stocking their product.
“It’s just disheartening,” said Angie Olear, who owns Crouch’s Gourmet Specialities, Inc.
‘CAN’T AFFORD THIS STUFF’
The Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm lost county funding on June 16 when the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of several last-minute cuts to the fiscal year 2015 budget, which was proposed at $209.7 million by County Manager Mike Downs. That total budget included $114,017 for the farm’s annual operating budget. That amount included the funding for the Food Policy Council. The cuts are effective Tuesday, July 1, and included 11 job cuts across several county programs, including the farm manager position at Lomax.
Commissioner Jason Oesterreich proposed the reduction in the farm budget, stating that the county had spent $400,000 in the last year on the farm. It’s unclear where that number came from, and Oesterreich did not respond to questions about the farm Friday. Commissioner Vice Chairman Larry Burrage and Commissioner Chris Measmer voted for the cuts. Commissioner Chairman Liz Poole and Commissioner Steve Morris voted against them.
Burrage said Friday that the county should not be funding a program like the Lomax farm.
“It’s still government doing something it shouldn’t be doing,” Burrage said. “You could just put each one with them with a different farmer. You’d learn a lot more than working a 10-by-10 plot. The whole thing is that government is too big, too costly, and the people can’t afford this stuff no more.”
Farmers in training at Lomax, which is located of N.C. 49 at 4335 Atando Road, have up to a half-acre to farm, according to those working there. They come up with a business plan that is submitted to and approved by the county. They invest their own money and labor and start building a business. One farmer has purchased an 18-acre tract in Cabarrus County to start farming on a larger scale on his own. He already employs three seasonal workers and hopes to expand. Another said she is ready to start working on her own farm as well.
There are currently 10 farmers in training at Lomax, along with several volunteers and about eight community gardeners who aren’t quite at the full-farming stage yet. Farmers cycle out of the program, making room for others to join.
On Friday, nine people were working the land at Lomax. Seven of them said they planned to launch new businesses because of the program.
The Lomax farm represents economic development for small businesses, farmers there say. Shutting it down means shutting down growing businesses with the potential to create jobs and attract positive attention to Cabarrus County, they say.
Ford Craven, president of the Cabarrus Homebrewers Society, said the society began using a plot on the farm that is unsuitable for most crops because of its slope. But it’s perfect for hops, which are used to make beer, he said.
Craven said the society now could lose about 20 to 30 pounds of certified organic hops that were drawing positive attention to Cabarrus County from across the state. There are only two places in North Carolina where brewers can get certified organic hops, and one of them is in Cabarrus County at the Lomax farm, Craven said. The other is a commercial operation in western North Carolina.
“It’s just an industry that is growing in North Carolina,” Craven said.
Central United Methodist Church in Concord volunteer Dan Barrier said he’s worried the church will not be able to harvest its current crop of cauliflower, yellow squash, zucchini squash, crowder peas, green beans, cucumbers, okra, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant – all of which would be donated to Cooperative Christian Ministry’s food pantries. Last year, the church donated about 1,200 pounds of fresh produce. The church, which expected to exceed that amount this year, will not be able to plant and harvest its fall crops for the food pantry. The church crops have the potential to help hundreds of local families, Barrier said.
FARMERS IN TRAINING
Joe Rowland is an example of why Cabarrus County’s Lomax farm started. It was an effort to create a new, younger generation of farmers as the county’s existing farmers aged out. Rowland said he came to Lomax from Charlotte about four years ago.
“I lived in a Charlotte apartment and wanted to get into agriculture, but I didn’t know a way to do it,” he said. Then he heard about Lomax.
Rowland now owns an 18-acre farm in Cabarrus County and has been building www.golocalncfarms.com, an online farmers market and delivery service for the Charlotte and Piedmont/Triad areas. Rowland said he wishes he had more notice. He’s building toward a completely self-sufficient business model but isn’t quite there yet.
“We’re in the middle of a growing season,” he said. “Thirty days notice seems standard. Sixty to 90 would be better. July is not really a good time for me to stop everything.”
Lynn MacDougall-Flemming, the only female farming mentor onsite, said she’s disappointed with the cuts but is hopeful something good will come out of it. She hopes either the funding is restored or the farm can change the way it operates and possibly be run as a non-profit in the future.
“One of the reasons for this is that our average age of our farmers was 58,” she said. “They’re aging out. A lot of them are in their 70s.
“I think it’s kind of sad,” she said.
Andy Thewlis, Lomax’s newest farmer, moved his family from Charlotte to Cabarrus County about two months ago to pursue his dream of becoming a farmer. He’s disappointed but is trying to stay optimistic that the farm isn’t done yet.
“I grew up in Ohio, and it’s just what I always wanted to do,” he said, adding that he didn’t grow up on a farm and wasn’t sure how to get started. Then he found Lomax.
“And now it’s in peril,” he said.
Doug Crawford, a mentor farmer at the Lomax farm, worked Friday to move his tractor off site because he was worried the county may lock the farm gates, preventing him from retrieving it later. He’s also worried about the farm’s certified organic status and what will happen to his crops as the farm shuts down this summer.
Crawford said the farm affects far more than the farmers working the land. For example, N.C. State University recently conducted a shiitake mushroom growing workshop attended by 80 people at Lomax.
‘LIKE A DEATH SENTENCE’
“You’ve got three rogue commissioners,” Crawford said. “It’s nothing more than a personal vendetta.”
Crawford said farmers and others from the markets where they sell their produce plan to attend the commissioner meeting on July 21 to voice their opinions about the cuts. The cuts were made in a motion after the public hearing on the budget ended, giving local taxpayers and those affected by the cuts no warning and no opportunity to speak about the cuts.
“A simple phone call could have avoided the budget motion from being passed based on false numbers,” said Lomax Farm Manager Aaron Newton, who lost his job to the budget cuts. “The result is new farming businesses scrambling to deal with this last minute development and a church congregation unsure if they will be able to access their 10,000 square foot charity plot after next Monday.”
N.C. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, the lawyer who executed the deed from the Lomax property to the county, said the decision to stop funding the Lomax farm results in the farm's reversion back to the original donors.
It also opens up the county to lawsuits for the farmers' loss of their crops, he said.
"It’s a standard provision in the laws on the books for years," Hartsell said.
Hartsell said the decision also goes against a statewide movement to support local food. The N.C. House of Represenatives passed a bill related to the local food movement last week, he said.
"The local food movement is huge," he said.
Don Boekelheide, who also farms at Lomax, drove up in his pickup truck as Crawford walked to his half-acre of crops Friday. He offered Crawford a stalk of purslane, which has flavorful leaves that can be cooked like spinach or used in salads.
“The biggest problem to me is that this is like a death sentence for this to come this time of year,” Boekelheide said, adding that crops from the larger plots must be harvested, cleaned and chilled for market.
“I think he’s (Oesterreich) trying his best to save money for the public, which is a good thing, but I wish he’d done his homework,” Boekelheide said. “I don’t think he wanted to put a bunch of hard-working farmers out of business.
“To pull the plug on it doesn’t seem like true conservatism by not considering the consequences,” he said. “He’s never met with us.”
Crawford agreed: “They don’t know our story. We are the people. We are the public.”
Boekelheide added, “We are the stakeholders in this experiment that has gotten Cabarrus County great positive publicity.
“We’re all very grateful, but we need a seat at the table for reasoned dialogue,” Boekelheide said.
Contact reporter Karen Cimino Wilson: 704-789-9141.
“I think he’s (Oesterreich) trying his best to save money for the public, which is a good thing, but I wish he’d done his homework. I don’t think he wanted to put a bunch of hard-working farmers out of business. To pull the plug on it doesn’t seem like true conservatism by not considering the consequences.”