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Crops from Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm will help feed the hungry

Even though funding remains uncertain for the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm, the only certified organic training farm in the Southeast has launched an effort to train farmers and help feed the hungry.

The farm is managed by Concord native Aaron Newton, an author, farmer and the county’s former local food system program coordinator. The Newton family also operates Peachtree Market, a grocery store that specializes in local and regional food.

“Up until a few days before July 1, 2014, the county was proceeding with a budget of nearly $100,000 to operate the farm this year,” Newton said. “Funding was dropped with very little notice – and we’re not asking to reinstate full funding. We’re going back with a request for less than they would have spent on this farm season.”

With that money, the farm will be more than half funded for the year, Newton said, which will allow other opportunities.

“It extends our breathing room to find other projects,” Newton said.

Projects like the Grow Local Give Back campaign, which in this case will allow farmers-in-training to grow sweet potatoes and onions to help support local hunger relief efforts.

Newton said he hopes the effort raises $11,000, which would help grow 11,000 pounds of produce for local hunger relief efforts managed by Cooperative Christian Ministry.

Cabarrus County Commissioners have placed an item on its Feb. 16 agenda to address the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s request for a $25,000 grant to help fund the farm through fiscal 2016. Money from a special projects trust fund, established in 2009, would not effect the county’s general fund.

The CFSA’s Executive Director Roland McReynolds said county funds will match proceeds from a recent fundraiser, cover expenses and help raise 25 percent of the farm’s annual operation budget of $100,000.

Commissioner Lynn Shue said everyone seemed to be in favor of the grant request. Commissioner Liz Poole described Lomax as a great initiative that creates a sustainable local farming economy while helping preserve farmland.

“This initiative has much support in the community and we should continue to support Lomax Farm and local farmers,” she said.

For roughly six years, the 30-acre farm has provided land, equipment and guidance to beginning farmers while strengthening the backbone of the local food movement.

The CFSA took over management from the county in September, following unexpected budget cuts that had almost forced the farm to shut down during the peak growing season in July.

Still, Lomax graduated five farmers in 2014, two farmers-in-training have returned and four other farmers-in-training are expected to join this year. With help from Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers, the CFSA went on to raise $26,000 through a Barnraiser campaign.

Cody Hammel, 21, has been learning to farm at Lomax for seven months.

“Funding the farm is… about investing into our community’s future,” he said. “Farmers that graduate from Lomax are equipped with a distinct set of skills that allow them to better enhance the quality of life in Cabarrus County.”

Hammel said he’s getting a college-level education thanks to Lomax.

“This farm gives me the tools to not only be a successful farmer in my community but it also gives me the ability to be highly educated in the field of agriculture,” Hammel said.

In addition to the fundraising effort, Lomax and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College this spring will launch a partnership that allows agricultural educational opportunities, said Allison Kitfield, the program coordinator for corporate and continuing education at RCCC.

“Next fall, we will be ready to offer an expanded, full-semester course on organic vegetable production, with students hearing from experts in the field as well as participating hands-on in each segment of the curriculum,” Kitfield said.

Tricia Staggers, the lead program manager in the training services department at RCCC, has worked with Newton the past two years about class ideas and logistics. The college’s planned agricultural courses will be in addition to courses, such as worm farming, introduction to Bonsai and square-foot gardening.

“The farm will provide great opportunities – beyond what we can currently provide in the classroom…,” Staggers said. “Having a space where students can plant, tend and harvest their own vegetables, under the supervision and guidance of very knowledgeable instructors will enhance our class offerings and the student experience.”