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Dirt Works training new generation of family farmers in South Carolina

ST. JOHN’S ISLAND, SC — The average age of a farmer in South Carolina is 59, a figure that has steadily increased with each five-year survey taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And most of the roughly 25,000 farms in the state in the latest survey in 2012 were smaller, family farms, with 60 acres the most common size. So in a few years, who will be growing produce in South Carolina?IMG 6494Nikki Seibert Kelley stands in the seedling room at Dirt Works, a greenhouse constructed of low-hoop plastic. Here seedlings grow until they are transplanted into the fields at the incubator farm. Shown are tomatoes, cucumbers and a variety of vegetables.

Dirt Works, the first farm incubator in South Carolina and the entire Southeast, is growing new farm businesses five at a time and provides support for up to 23 every three years. Dirt Works is also home to the Growing New Farmers program, providing entry-level training for 25 aspiring  farmers a year, as well as apprenticeships with working farms. Growing New Farmers has graduated about 130 participants, several of which are now being incubated at Dirt Works and providing mentoring for the current class of participants.

Nikki Seibert Kelley, director of sustainable agriculture at the spread on St. John’s Island about 20 miles from Charleston, SC, said in an interview here that a survey of graduates of their programs found 70 percent working in the food system, as farmers or in related jobs such as farm managers or farmers’ market managers.

“Even those who decide it’s not for them, I count as a success,” she said, “because that’s why we have the incubator, to find out if they like it.”

Each new farmer from the program — and there have been 10 since 2012 — hires an average of three workers, so the total economic impact is 23 jobs paying above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Dirt Works graduates sell their vegetables to farmers markets, supermarkets and foodservice and restaurant operations in nearby Charleston, Kelley said.

Dirt Works and Kelley both benefit from Limehouse Produce in Charleston.

“Andrea Limehouse is a mentor to me, and Limehouse Produce rents the land to Dirt Works at a reduced rate and buys vegetables from our incubator famers,” Kelley said. “All to help our efforts to bring on a new generation of produce farmers.”

Dirt Works is one key element of the total program of Lowcounty Local First, which encompasses Growing New Farmers (a six-month certificate and apprenticeship program, the three-year Dirt Works Incubator Farm and Farm Land-Match, which helps Dirt Works graduates find and secure land for their farms); Farm Services (monthly training sessions and a computer platform of 275 members to share resources, seek help and post opportunities); and Consumer Education and Outreach, informational materials and events such as Eat Local Month.

At Dirt Works, recruitment for one of the five berths opening up once every three years is like a job interview. First, the certificate and apprenticeship program outlines the dangers and delights of farming with classroom and field training plus field trips and mentor-matching. Then Dirt Works offers a three-year, hands-on experience of organic and sustainable agriculture, enhanced with the harsh reality that agriculture is a business, covering post-harvest care and handling, marketing, pricing and business plans. A $2,000 program fee is increased each year by $1,000.

Leah Twillman, an apprentice to John Warren, a Dirt Works graduate who is now a mentor (and employer), noted, “My experience in the food and beverage world turned out to be an asset at the markets and behind the scenes at restaurants.”

She said she benefits from networking opportunities and choosing which practices to integrate into your own business. “Being at Dirt Works allows me to see many different styles of farming,” added Twillman. “They’re kind of like artists in the way they each have their own approach.”

Kelley, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a master’s in environmental science from the College of Charleston, was one of the first Lowcountry Local First apprentices and was hired by Dirt Works in 2012. Dirt Works and Kelley are growing new farm businesses, five at a time, and raising up a new generation of farmers in South Carolina.