Back to school, back to the land
In North Carolina, community college students learn how to become small-scale farmers with an affordable, two-year program combining classroom and field experience

By Benton Smith
September 15, 2005
Reprinted with permission from Growing for Market, a monthly newsletter for small-scale vegetable and flower farmers. Since 1992, GFM has provided a forum for sharing ideas and information among direct market farmers. To learn more, visit

Alternative crops 101: Robin Kohanowich, Program coordinator, left, helps student Heather Lester, inoculate a shiitake log while, mushroom specialist Dr. Omon, looks on. The experiment is part of an Organic Crop Production - alternative crops class.

In the heart of central North Carolina, there is a unique, two-year sustainable agriculture program where students can practice farming on campus at the program's land lab. Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) started offering sustainable agriculture as an associate in applied science degree program in 2002, and since then it has become a harvest ground for future farmers interested in organic vegetable production.

At the Chatham County campus of CCCC, in Pittsboro, N.C., students in the sustainable agriculture program acquire the skills and knowledge they need to manage a profitable, environmentally sound, community-based small farm or agricultural business for about $600 a semester.

Curriculum courses in the four-semester program teach students the fundamentals of sustainable agriculture by focusing on crop production and farm business management. Students receive practical training on the campus land lab where they can farm all year long. In the classroom, students complete a business plan to help them prepare for entrepreneurial success. Each student also learns about the field by doing an agricultural internship in marketing and farming.

Program core courses at CCCC include: basic farm maintenance, biological pest management, plant science, soil science and a small business course. While many students who finish the program begin their own farming business, graduates also qualify for employment in sustainable agriculture fields like horticultural and livestock operations, wholesale and retail management, nursery operations and environmental and agricultural education.

One thing that makes the program so conducive to learning is the on-campus land lab, managed by Doug Jones. Jones, who spent 28 years farming vegetables before joining CCCC in 2002, operates and manages the land lab as a working farm "so students can experience something similar to a real farm."

Jones said when he was getting started as a farmer he had to make things up as he went along. "I wish this program had existed when I started out farming," Jones said. "I would have advanced much quicker if I could have taken some of these classes. I was really excited when I found out about the sustainable farming program."

According to Jones, a successful farmer must be familiar with countless varieties of produce. Around 200 varieties of vegetables are planted on the CCCC land lab. "We're testing out a lot of stuff that originated in other parts of the world—a lot of crops that are coming out of Asia, eastern Europe, South America and Africa," Jones said. "The gene pool is kind of moving all over the earth right now and people are adopting crops from other areas."

Jones said having such a variety allows for a more diverse diet. "People can feel more satisfied eating a local diet as opposed to buying all of their food out of the supermarket."

At CCCC, sustainable agriculture students also experiment with biological controls as organic alternatives to pesticides. "That's a lot closer to the way things are balanced in nature," Jones said. "Every organism has a predator in nature; every organism has other organisms that it likes to eat. We can utilize some of those natural food chains to help control some of our pests here.

"There are not many programs in the whole country like this," Jones said. "It's a combination of hands-on learning and classroom-type learning and it's really a great way to train people to become good, successful farmers."

A new hobby, a new career, or a new way of life

Neighborhood watch: As part of their training, Sustainable Farming students visit area farms. Sustainable Cut Flower instructor Leah Cook, (way) back left, takes students through the hoop house at her Wild Hare Farm. All photos by: Dave Anderson, CCCC ag student.

Shiloh Avery, a certificate graduate of the program, runs her own small farm, Shiloh's Garden, in White Cross, N.C. She agrees that CCCC provides the exact combination of class and land work potential farmers need. "It is the most practical thing you can do if you need to build your skills and you want to farm," Avery said. "Everything is very hands-on with a good dose of classroom science background."

Avery believes CCCC was a better place for her to learn than a university. "I knew that I didn't want to go to graduate school where I would sit around in a classroom and talk about farming, but that I wanted to actually farm," she said. "A community college sounded like the perfect mix of hands-on experience and classroom learning."

"I knew that I didn't want to go to graduate school where I would sit around in a classroom and talk about farming, but that I wanted to actually farm."

- Shiloh Avery, graduate

Now that Avery is maintaining her own farm, where she grows and sells chemical-free vegetables and flowers, she knows her experience at CCCC was worthwhile. "Everything I do agriculturally, I owe to the program," she said. "I got my first small farm labor job through the school's apprenticeship program where I learned everything else there was to know about sustainable agriculture. I still ask questions to my teachers from the program, and I still use all the resources provided to me through the program. The fact that I am farming now is all due to their program."

Not only did CCCC prepare Avery to succeed, it also prepared her to do something she loves. "I love marketing something that I absolutely believe in," she said. "I love being able to look someone in the eye and tell them that what I have to sell them is good for them and the earth."

Sustainable agriculture is good for the environment; that is why so many nature-savvy students take the classes. Charles and Linda Gupton, a married couple who decided to start their own farm, took sustainable courses at CCCC and now feel more connected to the earth in their new profession. "We love being able to do work that keeps us in touch with the natural environment on a daily basis," Linda Gupton said.

The Guptons now run their own farm, Shiloh Farm & Retreat, in Franklin County near Louisburg, N.C. Applying the knowledge they acquired at CCCC, the couple only sells produce grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Both husband and wife took courses in farm construction, vegetable production, cut flower production, herb production and even small engine/tractor repair at the college. "The classes helped us explore different options for what we could grow on our land and we've put all the info to use as we've grown vegetables, flowers and a few herbs for our CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] and farmers' market stand," Mrs. Gupton said.

"The program has played a significant part in the success of our farm," she said. "Not only has the information learned in class been valuable, but the networking with other students, instructors and staff at CCCC has given us invaluable contacts. There's always someone to call who's willing to help when we have a question."

Linda Gupton says the CCCC staff is not only helpful, but also committed to the sustainable farming cause. "Everyone is passionate about reviving small-scale farms and taking care of the natural resources we have," she said. "The staff is always seeking feedback on how to make the program better and constantly recruiting incredible instructors to share their knowledge and experience."

Foreign exchange: "We're testing out a lot of stuff that originated in other parts of the world—a lot of crops that are coming out of Asia, eastern Europe, South America and Africa," says Jones. Above: fall crops and peppers followed by hemp sesbania.
The sustainable agriculture program is filled with students like Avery and the Guptons, who believe in growing things organically. Chris Stonehouse, a student in the certificate program, says she loves it—even though she had no prior farming experience. When Stonehouse and her husband moved into their first house, she started gardening. The more time she spent in her new-found hobby, the more interested she became in organic produce. Stonehouse started doing some research on the subject and found out about the sustainable agriculture program at CCCC. That's when she decided to make a career move. "My hope is to have a small market garden and do a small CSA subscription service where people would agree to get a share of the produce."

Cheryl McNeill, also a certificate student, hopes to learn from the program and start a self-sufficient farm for her and her husband, Gil, who is also taking sustainable classes at the college. "I'm learning everything about growing food," she said. "It's becoming part of my real bank of knowledge. It's not feeling like something I just learned. It's starting to feel like something I just know."

For more information on the sustainable agriculture program at CCCC, visit:
or contact program coordinator Robin Kohanowich at 919-542-6495.

Certificate student Amy Rouse agrees that taking CCCC sustainable courses can be a life-changing experience. "When you get closer to the earth on one level, you have to take it to all areas of your life," she said. "I'm trying to get away from industrial medicine, industrial food—the whole thing. I'm trying to figure out what I can do to heal and feed myself."