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    The fifth annual Know Your Farms Tour will be 1-6 p.m. Sept. 14-15 and will feature 30 farms in nine counties. Vehicle passes are $25 in advance and $30 once the tour starts. One ticket is good for an entire vehicle/van/bus, as well as any cycling groups, and covers both tour days. This is a family-friendly, rain-or-shine event, but no pets are allowed. Volunteers are needed to help with the tour and will receive a free tour pass good for both days.

    Farms in these counties are participating in the tour this year: Cabarrus County, Catawba County, Cleveland County, Gaston County, Iredell County, Lincoln County, Mecklenburg County, Rowan County and Union County. For participating farms, additional details or to register:

Organizers of the fifth annual Know Your Farms Tour, which features 30 farms across nine counties, say the event aims to create connections between the community and local food producers and farmers.

Wes Shi, who founded the tour in 2009 with his sister, said organizers decided to reduce the number of stops on this year’s tour to allow people to visit more of the farms. During the 2012 tour, more than 40 farms participated across 11 counties.

“It was just too many,” Shi said.

But while there are fewer stops, new farms are joining the tour, he said.

“This year, there are seven new farms. (The entire tour will feature) two vineyards pretty close to Charlotte, two alpaca farms, an ostrich farm, two organic dairies and a dedicated bee farm, which is new this year.”

The two-day event, held Sept. 14-15, is a self-guided driving or biking tour. Participants can start anywhere on the tour and visit as many farms as they like. They can talk to farmers, watch the farms in operation and buy their products.

Nearly all the tour stops offer merchandise for sale, and Shi said many people bring coolers along to store food they buy.

Though the number of participating farms has been capped, Shi said, he expects attendance to continue to grow. The first year of the tour included nine stops and drew about 500 visitors; nearly 2,300 participated in last year’s tour.

In addition to help from the 12-person Know Your Farms advisory board, Shi credits the tour’s partners and financial sponsors, which include the N.C. Cooperative Extension, N.C. 10 percent Campaign, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Earth Farms and Harper’s Restaurant Group.

The tour is an arm of the Know Your Farms Community Supported Agriculture program that Shi and his sister founded in 2008. CSAs, or networks of farms and customers who have signed up to receive products regularly, have become popular nationwide: Farms have a dedicated source of revenue while buyers get convenient access to local food.

The Know Your Farms Tour is one of the youngest farm tours offered in the state, Shi said, but it ranks high in attendance and farm participation.

“I feel like the Charlotte area is doing really well,” he said, adding he’s comparing local tour data to numbers from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. “It’s not a competition, but in terms of valuing the tour, we’re holding our own.”

“(The Charlotte area) is often overlooked for what we’re doing with local food. … The tour, to me, stands out as, ‘Hey, look what’s going on: People actually do know about it and do care. This is how the Charlotte area is connecting with farmers.’ ”

Though tour attendance has grown, Shi said, participating farms have decreased in Mecklenburg County. This fall’s tour features only one Mecklenburg farm – East of Eden farm in Huntersville.

“There were more farmers in Mecklenburg County last year,” he said, noting tour dates are decided by the farms interested in participating, and scheduling conflicts often prevent more involvement.

“Sadly, that’s the reality of Mecklenburg County. There just aren’t very many farms,” he said.

Of the remaining Mecklenburg farms, “(Many) feel like they don’t have anything that would be interesting,” Shi said.

Jonathan Bostic, who runs East of Eden, said this is the farm’s second year on the tour. Bostic, 31, went on the farm tour as a visitor years ago and recommends the experience.

“Most people in this area, especially transplant people who didn’t grow up here, are pretty disconnected from farming and agriculture,” he said.

“The farm tour is unique because it allows people to see what small-scale agriculture looks like.”

Bostic’s family has owned farmland in the Huntersville area for generations, he said. His grandfather made his living by farming, mainly with cattle, and his father did to some extent but also did outside work.

Bostic left a career in design and marketing in Atlanta three years ago to return to the farm. He said property taxes necessitate working the land for as much profit as possible.

“If we didn’t do anything with the land, we couldn’t afford it,” he said.

His family’s nearly 100-acre farm has animals on about half the property, Bostic said.

“It wasn’t until I started farming that we integrated other animals besides cows to try to diversify,” he said.

East of Eden now raises heritage poultry and grass-fed beef.

Bostic said a challenge many farms face isn’t necessarily marketing their products but producing enough to be sustainable.

“Small niche farming doesn’t have a problem selling products,” he said. “With farmers markets, enough people want to eat local, fresh food. We have a hard time producing enough to make a living.”

Nicole Mills, of Mills Family Farm in Mooresville, said she and her husband, Bradley, – a food-animal veterinarian with a focus on cattle – have wanted to join the tour for three years. Their farm has been in his family since 1935 and is now a veterinarian-owned and -managed cattle farm, she said.

“Our (motto) is everything local and everything all-natural. … We already have customers from South Carolina and Virginia because we have really good, quality beef products,” Mills said.

Their 200-plus acre farm offers seminars throughout the year, and while they won’t be giving one during the tour, Bradley Mills will be available to answer questions about the beef industry, such as the difference between organic and commercially raised beef.

Mills said she and her husband are both younger than 40 and are among the youngest beef producers in the state. Their farm is part of the Voluntary Farmland Preservation District program, Mills said, which means they’ve agreed not to develop their land for at least 10 years.

Mills said she’s most looking forward to the additional exposure the tour will provide and said all eight of their farm store’s freezers (and three refrigerators) will be stocked full in anticipation.

Mary Roberts, of Windcrest Farms in Monroe, said this is the farm’s fourth year on the tour. It already receives a fair amount of attention because it’s one of the few USDA-certified organic farms and greenhouses in the area, she said, but the tour gives people a chance to see for themselves.

“It’s a great chance to get out and see farms that are not generally open to the public. Farmers take a lot of time to tidy up and get ready to accept visitors,” Roberts said, adding she always takes advantage of the opportunity to visit other area growers and producers.

“Every farm is unique; that’s the fun part of going to different farms. Some are totally unique, like an alpaca farm. That will look completely different than vegetable production,” Roberts said. “Livestock is different from a greenhouse where you do salad greens.

“People may know where their food comes from, but they haven’t seen it. It’s a great opportunity for folks to do that.”

Roberts has been farming commercially on the 14-acre spread for about 10 years and said her experiences with the local farm tour have illustrated changes in food mentality.

“In the last three to four years, I’ve seen a greater awareness supporting the local food system. Organics have definitely seen a stronger interest.”

Part of Windcrest’s business includes growing vegetable transplants for other farmers and home gardeners, another area Roberts said has seen increased popularity.

“Home gardening has exploded in the last couple years,” she said.

Even though Allee Bubba Farms in Concord has been in Wendy Austin-Sellers’ family for more than 100 years, her husband, Bo Sellers, said this is their first year joining the tour.

The couple has been working to transition what was a cattle farm to producing certified organic vegetables, a process that can take three years, he said. Austin-Sellers also works with horses and they breed heritage chickens, among other things, at the state-designated Century Farm.

The couple is also working to make a transition so that one of them works on the farm full-time, and Sellers said they see the tour as way to formalize those efforts.

“We both have farming in our background and wanted to get back to it, to do something we enjoy, instead of spending all our good energy working for someone else,” he said.

Sellers, 50, is an architect and said he learned to farm from his grandparents. But several years ago, he participated in the program at Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm to learn more.

“Being on the farm is a lot more fun than sitting in the office or in the house,” he said, adding he spends the vacations he takes from his day job working on the farm.

Austin-Sellers was laid off from Wells Fargo two years ago, Sellers said, which allowed them to turn part of the former cattle farm into horse boarding and riding lesson opportunity. Her grandparents were also farmers and it was important to the couple to keep the farm in the family, Sellers said.

“When you lose the farm it’s gone forever. … Because we had this thing in the family, we’re trying to make it run,” he said. “Something we have is an asset and we’d like to keep it in the family and be a community benefit.”

During the tour, Sellers said, they plan to have a number of offerings, including riding demonstrations, games such as horseshoes and hors d’oeuvres made with their products and prepared by a local chef.

Shi said he and the advisory team continue to work on ways to connect local farmers with the larger community, and he said more opportunities could be announced soon. In the meantime, he hopes the connections made during the tour will thrive.

“We hope people will continue those through (farmers) markets, food programs like community-supported agriculture or direct visits to the farms,” Shi said. “The tour is a way to get the ball rolling.”

Trenda: 704-358-5089; Twitter: @htrenda
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