To hear Michael Merrill talk about "getting certified" is like listening to someone speak about getting religion. Merrill took his first steps toward becoming a certified organic farmer last month; he hopes to have the certification paper in hand in about six weeks.
Merrill, 49, is hoping that this crucial piece of paper will prove to be his salvation -- a stamp of approval guaranteeing higher prices for the vegetables grown on his Little Sandy Mush farm -- helping put food on the table for his wife and three young sons.
Although he has worked the land since he was 13, Merrill says he feels as though he's just beginning. You can hear his enthusiasm, even over the phone lines: "I'm just now starting to learn something; I'll be able to start farming and using my skills to make a living."
Merrill learned about the benefits of organic certification as one of 58 students in the new Successful Mountain Farm Options class being offered at A-B Tech's Madison campus. The course is a collaborative effort involving the college, Mountain Partners in Agriculture, the state Cooperative Extension Service and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.
The response to the class has been overwhelming, according to Skye Myrick, the college's director of occupational training programs. "We were hoping to get about 15 students, and 64 signed up," she reports. And more than a dozen names are already on a waiting list for the next session.
This class isn't just for working farmers, however, and only about 20 percent of the students grow tobacco, says Myrick. The students, she notes, are a diverse group, ranging in age from 19 to 70; about half the class is female. Most students come from Madison County, but others hail from Transylvania, Mitchell, Yancey and Haywood.
Class Coordinator Jim Smith says he feels there is a good mix of people, including those who are already farming, those who have land and want to farm, and those who would like to farm but don't yet own land.
Some participants raise more traditional products, such as tobacco, Christmas trees and livestock, but many are interested in less conventional crops like herbs, aloe, ginseng, cut flowers or organic fruits and vegetables. One woman raises angora goats and sells hand-knit mohair socks.
"Everyone is trying to educate themselves about products they can make a living off of -- and, at the same time, be closer to the land," Myrick notes.
Most of the would-be farmers don't yet know what to grow. "One of the class objectives is to decide what might be appropriate, and that's not easy to answer," Smith concedes.
Another goal of the class, continues Smith, is myth-busting. One prevalent myth is that you need a large farm to make good money.
According to statistics from the N.C. Department of Agriculture, the average size of the state's farms grew from 172 acres in 1992 to 185 acres in 1997. But much smaller farms can still be successful, stresses Smith.
"You can be very productive on two to 10 acres," he proclaims, adding, "In some cases, you can be just as successful on small lots, using what's called intensive farming to get more production." Intensive farming uses such practices as crop rotation, composting and cover-cropping to create what Smith calls a building-up process, as opposed to systems that may actually wear down the soil.
Another myth is the idea that small, family farms are no longer needed and that markets are scarce. As Merrill has discovered, there are established markets out there -- if you have the right product.
He found that out the hard way, by trying to sell snap peas: No one knew what they were. Merrill says he hadn't researched the market beforehand, having chosen to grow them just because he wanted to.
The farmers and would-be farmers in the class are looking for market niches -- and ways to hang onto their land, observes Smith. The demand for organic produce is growing, and both Smith and Merrill underscore the importance of promoting locally grown products.
Buying local, Smith asserts, "strengthens the connection between farmers and consumers. You get fresher, more nutritional food -- whether grown traditionally or organically. This is how farms will survive."
Small, local growers can sell their produce at tailgate markets, the WNC Farmers Market and through Carolina Organic Growers, a co-op that includes 20 organic farmers. "There is still a very high demand for products," notes Smith, "And a need for more farmers."
What is not a myth, however, is the belief that the total number of farms is decreasing. According to NCDA statistics, the state lost about 5 percent of its farms between 1992 and 1997.
One of the main reasons, says Gary Gumz, project coordinator of Mountain Partners in Agriculture, is increased sprawl and development. Smith agrees, noting that, "With every new highway, we lose thousands of acres of farmland."
Another reason for the decline, Gumz reports, is that fewer new people are taking up farming. The average age of farmers is 57 to 60 and climbing, he notes.
"Clearly, much of the agricultural contribution to the local economy is threatened," he observes, stressing that the uncertain future of burley tobacco looms large in this equation.
The tobacco connection
Between 1992 and 1997, the number of North Carolina farms growing tobacco has declined by more than 30 percent, according to NCDA figures.
But Madison County remains the state's top burley-tobacco producer, and Buncombe ranks second.
Many local folks, says Myrick, aren't yet willing to totally abandon the crop that has supported families here for more than 100 years. But, she adds, "with the tobacco industry under scrutiny, people are looking for more-sustainable options, in addition to tobacco."
Dr. Connie Buckner, director of the Madison campus, agrees. In the wake of the recent tobacco settlement, she notes, tobacco companies have raised cigarette prices. If that sparks a decline in sales, there could be a reduced demand for burley, which is used in cigarettes.
Certain specialty crops, Gumz confirms, can yield returns equal to or better than those offered by tobacco. And one aim of the A-B Tech class, says Smith, is to let growers know about those options.
Buckner, who was in on the preliminary meetings about the class, believes it is filling a need in the community. "Hopefully, we'll be able to get more traditional farmers involved -- it only takes a few to pull in others," she observes.
A community of farmers
Michael Merrill, for one, is doing his part to spread the word, speaking out to anyone who'll listen. Farmers, he says, tend to struggle in silence, and ridicule is more common than support for new ideas.
But Merrill, undeterred, is even talking about organizing a cooperative for local growers. "I'm not keeping quiet about it anymore," he asserts.
And Smith agrees that farmers need to break out of their solitary mode, declaring, "The sense of community which has been lost is being restored, as farmers work together."