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WHO WILL BE NEXT FARM GENERATION?
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WHO WILL BE NEXT FARM GENERATION?

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Even in rural counties like Rockingham, no one's beating down the door to get into farming. Who or what is new in local farming?

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It's no wonder Rockingham County's Farmer's Home Administration office has received no applications for its loan program for new farmers.

``New farmers? I don't know one,' says Scott Shoulars, Rockingham County's cooperative extension service director.About the only farmers today are the sons and daughters of farmers - families that have farmed for generations, agriculture experts say. Few choose farming as a business start-up because the necessary land and equipment purchases make it almost cost-prohibitive. The long hours, hard work and scarce labor make it even less inviting.

But farming does have some new faces, Shoulars and others in agriculture say. A very few are young and trying new kinds of farming. A few more are old farmers, switching from traditional, more dependable crops like tobacco to the more risky fruits and vegetables.

A few who are blazing trails in farming in Rockingham County speak here about why they farm and what their challenges are.

Webster Irving does what some in his business call ``alternative farming.' He grows trees on his Stoneville farm: Holly trees, crepe myrtles, flowering pear and cherry trees are among the nurseryman's crop. His customers are landscape companies and garden centers, in the Piedmont and as far away as Maryland.

At age 29, Irving already has owned his own tree farm for four years. He - and anyone with fewer than 10 years in farming - is what the federal government considers a ``new farmer.'

As new farmers go, Irving is lucky. The fence that keeps so many from farming - money for land and equipment - gave way in his case.

He inherited 20 farm acres from his father, an electrical contractor. And in January, Irving qualified for an $86,000 federal loan to buy a nearby 95-acre parcel. The loan - offered through the county's Farmer's Home Administration office - was designed strictly for new and young farmers. Irving paid $10,000 down for the land and has 40 years to repay the balance at 6.5 percent.

The government is shaping more and more loan packages to attract new farmers. The farm population isn't only diminishing, it's aging. The average age of area farmers today is 55 to 60, up from 48 in 1964, agriculture agents say. That's of grave concern to planners who wonder who will be the next generation of farmers.

Irving says he chose farming so he could be his own boss and because he loves trees. Armed with horticulture degrees from N.C. State and Appalachian State universities and six years' experience in landscaping, he gradually started growing his own nursery stock on his father's land.

In the four years he has been farming, cash flow has been the biggest problem, he says. ``In the nursery business, you make a big investment, and it's a long, long time before you see a return.'

Irving works six days a week year-round. During winter, he works in greenhouses. In warm weather, he plants, prunes and harvests up to 12 hours a day. He puts every cent he makes back into his operation.

``Farming definitely isn't the kind of thing you look at and say, 'That's interesting; I think I'll try it,' ' he says. ``You have to want to farm. No one's going to get rich doing this, and it's a lot of work.

``I have no regrets because it's a way of life, not just a job.'

D. L. Tuttle of Stoneville, like his father and grandfather before him, says he has farmed since he was born. But two years ago, Tuttle made an unusual move: He sold his tobacco allotment and started raising fruits and vegetables exclusively.

``No, I don't know of anyone that's quit tobacco,' says Tuttle, 58. ``My son asked me why I was when I planted my first crop of strawberries. I told him, 'The government will eventually defeat tobacco.' It's been coming for 15 years.'

Tuttle's hours are longer and his crop less profitable and more vulnerable to bad weather than his tobacco was.

He says he has worked harder in the last two years than in his last 20 with tobacco. His season is 12 months long, not six as with tobacco. Last summer he spent 18-hour days in the field, tending his 40-or-so acres of assorted berries, melons, peaches, tomatoes, sweet corn and other vegetables.

Still, he says he's convinced he's doing the right thing.

``There's so much new technology,' he says. ``You'd be amazed what farmers are doing around the state with horticulture. It's just a matter of being open to trying something new.'

This year, Tuttle is trying a production technique new to North Carolina. He has planted his strawberries on raised, plastic-covered beds, lined with irrigation hoses. The plastic cover will extend his berry crop from May to June, he says.

The produce grower also has high hopes for the proposed regional Farmer's Market in Greensboro, scheduled to open in 1995. The market will serve 17 counties and provide what growers like Tuttle lack most: a place to sell their produce.

Is the conversion worth it? He wonders sometimes.

``It's been total cash outflow since October,' Tuttle says. ``I won't know until September if I made any profit. I told my wife, 'If I don't make some money this year, I'm going to think about a big land sale.' '

Garland McCollum, 35, owns and manages a 1,000-sow farm near Wentworth. It's Rockingham County's largest hog farm - profitable enough to support a family without a second income. It also places McCollum in one of the state's fastest growing industries.

McCollum says land was his ``foot in' to farming: He inherited 400 acres once farmed by his great-grandfather. But his job looks little like his great-grandfather's: McCollum spends more time with a computer - recording, planning and projecting - than he does with his hogs.

``I'm really more an information and people manager,' McCollum says. ``That's the way it is for a lot of farms large enough to be commercial.'

A former agriculture teacher, McCollum taught the same principles to his students in Surry County and at Reidsville Senior High. ``A farmer today should be more valuable managing than driving a tractor,' he says. ``He can pay someone else to drive a tractor.'

The Madison native moved from teaching to farming six years ago because too few Reidsville High students wanted to take agriculture classes. McCollum found himself teaching shop classes instead, so he left and started farming.

The size of McCollum's farm, and its contract with agribusiness giant Cargill Inc., distinguish McCollum's farm from traditional Piedmont farms.

``The contract has allowed us to be much larger than we could have as an independent producer,' McCollum says. Contracting is a new trend, he adds, and accounts for North Carolina's recent move from the nation's seventh largest hog producer to the No. 2 spot, behind Iowa.

McCollum, who bought 500 sows last year to double the size of his farm, represents another state trend: Farms are getting larger.

North Carolina's farm population has dwindled from about 59,300 farms in 1987 to about 55,000 in 1994, agriculture planners say. Yet the number of acres farmed has held relatively steady. That's because small farms no longer generate enough income to be profitable.

McCollum has $1 million invested in his hog farm. He received a large loan from a cooperative farm lending agency to build the six barns for his hog business.

``Some farmers look down at contracting,' he says. ``Independent producers are scared of where it may put them in 10 years. But it allows me to raise hogs on a scale that I can actually make a living. Otherwise, I'd have to work a second job to survive. Raising hogs is what I want to do.'

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