It's a quarter after five and Ross Mickens has already made the nearly 40-minute commute from Cary to Hurdle Mills for his second job. He scatters hay between rows of crops with his wife, Jillian.
"For my day job, I'm mostly in my office," says Ross, who works as an electrical engineer. With the rest of his time, he runs Open Door Farm, which he and Jillian began earlier this year on the W.C. Breeze Family Farm property north of Hillsborough. "At the end of the day, you can come out in the sun and get dirty. It's a great balance."
The search for harmony started years ago at the Mickenses' home in Cary. "We have an insane backyard. We call it a backyard farm," Jillian explains. After three years of intense gardening there, the couple wanted to increase their scale of production. But with no land of their own, they didn't know how.
"The biggest barrier to new farmers is access to land. It's ridiculous; it's too high-risk," says Jillian. "If you go in and buy a whole farm and don't know what you're doing and it all goes under, you're in bad shape. We could never take that risk. We just don't have the money."
But the Mickenses found the PLANT (People Learning Agriculture Now for Tomorrow) @ Breeze Farm Enterprise Incubator program, an eight-week series of workshops that encourages beginning and experienced farmers to engage in small, sustainable farming. After the workshops the Mickenses, like several enrollees, started farming on the Breeze land.
The intent, says Noah Ranells, agricultural economic development coordinator for Orange County, is to "consider how diversification of farms can happen" as North Carolina continues to shift from a reliance on tobacco production to other crops. It's also about attracting a new generation of growers: The average age of farmers in North Carolina is nearly 60.
At the end of PLANT, farmers can submit a business plan, making them eligible to lease a quarter-acre plot at Breeze, a 269-acre property given to North Carolina State University by Colonel William H. Breeze and his family. Available for up to three years, a quarter-acre plot rents for a mere $150 per year.
"It's a very affordable lease," says Will Cramer, who was a member of the first PLANT class in 2008 and now co-owns Ever Laughter Farm in Hillsborough. "If you can grow anything, you'll be able to pay it off very quickly." But Cramer sees value in Breeze well beyond the cost of the soil itself, emphasizing as major benefits shared access to "irrigation setup, fencing and some equipment."
David Heeks, a 2009 PLANT alum and owner of Heeks Farm, agrees. After working on farms in New York and Texas, he was ready to farm on his own when he moved to Durham a few years ago with his family, but he didn't have the land or the capital to do so. "When we got here, we were renting a house on Clarendon Street in Durham right behind Watts Grocery. We didn't even have a hose."
Heeks enrolled in the PLANT program and about eight weeks later, he launched his farm on the Breeze property. "For very little money, I was able to start farming," Heeks says. "It's not so much that they're offering a good rate, it's that I didn't have to spend money on irrigation or major soil amendments. It was already pH ready-to-go and fertilized. I didn't have to buy heavy equipment because all of that was already there."
Heeks spent two years at Breeze before leasing his own land in Rougemont. He credits his time on the incubator property as having given him the chance to save for the items he knew he would later have to buy, such as deer fencing and irrigation supplies. Heeks could do all of that and more, he said, without relying on "a huge bank loan." Yet, the program doesn't solve all of the expenses. "I still don't own a tractor," Heeks adds.
Beyond land and financial opportunities, Cramer also names "the knowledge and the support of being around other starting farmers" as an asset of Breeze. The Mickenses agree.
For example, they learned to combat pests by drawing on lessons they learned at a workshop, led by Dr. Mark Abney from the N.C. State Department of Entomology. But the Mickenses also rely on advice from their neighbors at the farm, including the property's mentor farmer, Allan Green, who also runs Woodcrest Farm in Hillsborough.
"I wander over when Allan's there and say, 'What do I do about these squash bugs?' So it's great to have a lot of people here," Jillian says.
Like any program, however, Breeze has its challenges. For instance, the farm has no facility to clean or store goods. "They're in the process of building a wash station, which is going to be so great because right now we harvest everything and then truck it back to Cary to process it there," Jillian says.
Multiple groups are collaborating to ensure the program's growth. In particular, the annual Farm to Fork picnic, sponsored by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), the Breeze Farm Incubator, Slow Food Triangle and the N.C. Agricultural Foundation, raises funds for farmer training programs offered by Breeze and CEFS. According to Mark Overbay of Slow Food Triangle, this year's picnic, held recently on an open field at Breeze, collected $23,694 to split between the two entities.
The event showcased dozens of the area's finest chefs, artisan producers and farmers working together to create dishes for the fundraiser. Among them was Cramer, representing Ever Laughter with his farming partner, Sam Hummel. They stood in the shade under a white pop-up tent while cooks from Six Plates Wine Bar assembled panzanella using ingredients from their farm: Swiss chard, scallions, basil, tomatoes, chives, garlic and bacon lardons—foods that, though sourced from a few miles away, were set into motion years ago in a field at Breeze, just across the road.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Learning the ropes at Breeze Farm."