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Central Carolina - Green Central - grows new farmers

Click to enlarge Central Carolina - Green Central - grows new farmers

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Mary Beth Bardin, of Moncure, has the hens' undivided attention as she delivers their lunch at Central ... (more)

Click to enlarge Central Carolina - Green Central - grows new farmers

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Farmer Shiloh Avery works among the cabbages at Tumbling Shoals Farm. Avery and her husband, Jason ... (more)

Click to enlarge Central Carolina - Green Central - grows new farmers

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Hilary Heckler, of Pittsboro, manages the five-acre student farm for Central Carolina Community College's ... (more)

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Hilary Heckler (left), of Pittsboro, and Mary Beth Bardin, of Moncure, enjoy the flock of hens at ... (more)

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Mary Beth Bardin, of Moncure, plucks out weeds from the arugula crop growing in the plastic-walled ... (more)

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Lettuce plants and onion bulbs are planted in the ground at Central Carolina Community College's 15-acre ... (more)

03.16.2009College General

PITTSBORO - Mary Beth Bardin looked up from the row of onion bulbs she was planting and smiled.

"Agriculture is an important part of North Carolina and I'm interested in the state's food and public health," she said as she covered the bulbs with the clay dirt.

Bardin was on her knees at the five-acre sustainable agriculture student farm at Central Carolina Community College's Chatham County Campus, applying farming methods she has learned in the program.

Bardin, a Moncure resident, already has a bachelor's degree in journalism and English from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and works on farm issues at the N.C. Farm Transition Network. Making the connection between sustainable farming and public health is where her heart is, and that brought her to the college's sustainable agriculture program.

Central Carolina Community College is known as "Green Central" because of its extensive sustainability programs, including fuels, agriculture and building/renewable energy. Ecotourism will start soon and a 'natural chef' culinary arts program is planned.

Since 1996, the college has been a leader in sustainable agriculture education. In 2002, it was the first community college in the nation to offer an Associate of Applied Science in Sustainable Agriculture. It also offers certificates in sustainable vegetable production, sustainable livestock production, and agricultural sustainability, all at the Chatham Campus.

At the heart of sustainable agriculture is the commitment to preserve and improve environmental, public, and community health.

"People throughout the country are realizing the importance of developing local food systems and training our next generation of farmers," said Jim Riddle, Organic Outreach Coordinator at the University of Minnesota, who is familiar with Central Carolina Community College's programs. "The college has been at the forefront in this area, long before it became popular. The sustainability programs at the college help protect land and water resources; provide safe, healthy and abundant food; preserve the area's rich cultural heritage; and provide economic development opportunities. These efforts are needed now, more than ever."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "2007 Census of Agriculture," North Carolina lost about 600,000 acres of farmland to development between 2002 and 2007. The average age of farmers increased to about 57 years.

Sustainable agriculture can help to slow or reverse these trends as it attracts younger people into farming on more, but smaller farms. One of these is Shiloh Avery. She and her husband, Jason Roerhig, are owners of Tumbling Shoals Farm, a transitional organic farm near Miller's Creek, N.C. Avery, who is the full-time farmer, prepared for her career by completing most of the sustainable agriculture classes offered by Central Carolina Community College.

"I didn't come from a farming background," she said. "I can say that I owe my entire farm to the college and the contacts I made there. I learned everything I know about sustainable farming from them. I'm a big cheerleader for the college's sustainable agriculture program."

Avery said that younger people are attracted to sustainable farming for a variety of reasons. The food produced is healthier. It uses little or no chemicals, which benefits the environment, workers and consumers. It is socially responsible, providing fair wages and healthy working conditions for workers. Sustainable farms are local businesses - money spent at and by them benefits the local area. It's also important that sustainable farming is financially viable - farmers can make a living.

In 2007, Avery and her husband bought a former 15-acre hay field that became Tumbling Shoals Farm. Only 2.5 acres is in cultivation this year, but they are raising 150 different varieties of produce, flowers, and fruits. Avery said they expect to gross about $20,000 per acre. The first year, with just one acre under cultivation, they did better than that. The farm operates a community supported agriculture program (CSA) that provides produce to members. It also sells at farmers' markets and to restaurants.

Central Carolina's sustainable agriculture students gain entrepreneurial and technical expertise to develop and manage a profitable, environmentally sound, community-based small farm or agricultural business, according to Robin Kohanowich, program coordinator. It also serves individuals interested in starting or improving home gardens.

Erik Walton, of Pittsboro, is a student in the college's permaculture class, learning how to create self-sustaining ecosystems by relying on renewable resources.

"I have my degree in geography from the University of Illinois, but I wanted to learn how to do sustainable farming," he said. "While living in Illinois, I searched the Internet for a program and found Central Carolina's. I moved here in 2006 to enroll. To me, most importantly, we're learning how to treat the soil with respect. If people don't learn how to do this, they'll ruin the land for future generations, damage workers and consumers, and ruin the water."

The college's sustainable agriculture programs have succeeded so well because of community-wide collaboration among the college, farmers, government agencies, and nonprofits, said Dr. Karen Allen, the college's Chatham County provost. Supporters and partnerships include local sustainable farmers, N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, RAFI-USA, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, R.E.A.L. Enterprises, two land-grant universities - N.C. State and N.C. A&T, and other organizations.

Allen credits organic farmer Harvey Harman, of Bear Creek, with starting the sustainable agriculture classes at the college in the spring of 1996. About the same time, residents of Chatham County were concerned about preserving farmland and open space in spite of the growing population. Sustainable agriculture offers a viable option to the loss of farmland. The Chatham County Board of Commissioners encouraged the sustainable movement by funding the first N.C. Cooperative Extension agent for organic and sustainable agriculture in the state.

The programs have proven so popular that the college has been awarded a Skill-Up Grant from the N.C. Tobacco Fund to expand sustainable agriculture to its West Harnett Center in Harnett County.

"Central Carolina's sustainable agriculture classes and productive land laboratory are an example of workforce and entrepreneurial training which colleges and universities throughout the state and nation should duplicate," said U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, of North Carolina. "The college's efforts have helped to make small family farms profitable again."

For more information on Central Carolina Community College's sustainable agriculture programs, contact Kohanowich at (919) 542-6495, ext. 229, or, or visit the college's web site,, click on "Programs of Study" and then "Sustainable Agriculture" for curriculum programs. For current continuing education classes, click on "Continuing Education" on the home page, then "Schedule" and then "Continuing Education Schedule -Sustainable Farming and Building." For information on the new classes at the West Harnett Center, call (910) 498-1210.