Hodges Family Farm (www.hodgesfarmnc.com), located off Rocky River Road in north-east Charlotte, North Carolina, has been owned and operated by the Hodges family since 1905, and is listed on both the National and North Carolina State Historic Registries. The Hodges family is currently in its ninth generation of farming in Mecklenburg County, dating back to the early 1700s. Initially a subsistence farming operation with livestock and crops of vegetables, feed grasses, and cotton, the 187-acre Farm transitioned to a primarily dairy operation in the 1930s, and remained so until 1999. It has since continued operating as a working farm – raising a variety of fruits, vegetables, feed grasses, and livestock, which are sold direct-to-consumer via produce stands on the property – but expanded its operations to include agritourism, education, therapy horses, and special events (including its month-long October Pumpkin Patch, which attracts several thousand visitors each year). Recently, the Farm’s offerings have also included cross-country foot races, obstacle course-based events, and a special events venue in its renovated 1932 Barn. The Farm is currently operated by Connor Newman and Kim Hodges Schoch, two of the great-grandchildren of Eugene Wilson Hodges, the original owner of the current farmland.
Connor Michael Newman (Farm Operations Manager) was born on October 25, 1986, in Clyde, North Carolina. He grew up helping his uncle Frankie Hodges, Connor’s immediate predecessor as the Farm Operations Manager, at the Farm. Prior to joining the Farm full-time in 2015, Connor worked for ten years as Farm Interpretation Manager at Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, North Carolina. He is currently pursuing a degree in Environmental Science from University of Phoenix.
Kimberly Hodges Schoch (Assistant Farm Operations Manager) was born on April 1, 1991, in Durham, North Carolina. She grew up spending significant time at the Farm and other farms, focusing primarily on horses. She earned a B.S. degree in Animal Science in 2014 from N.C. State University, with a concentration in equine science. Prior to joining the Farm full-time in 2015, Kim raised and bred horses in Kentucky and Australia.
|0:01:02||Kim Hodges Schoch (“Kim”) introduces herself and provides biographical information|
|0:02:42||Connor Newman (“Connor”) introduces himself and provides biographical information|
|0:05:52||Connor discusses the history of the Hodges family, its farming heritage dating back to the early 1700s, and the Hodges Family Farm|
|0:06:47||Connor discusses changes at the Farm and its crops, including the transition to dairy farming during the 1930s|
|0:08:32||Connor discusses current operations of the Farm, diversification of its crops and distribution, and its move toward educational farming, agritourism, and event hosting as additional revenue sources|
|0:09:22||Kim discusses the Farm’s past horse therapy program and the care of retiring horses|
|0:10:47||Connor discusses the small labor force that operates the Farm, including “barn rat” volunteers|
|0:12:07||Connor discusses the Farm’s educational mission and activities|
|0:13:07||Connor details the expanding use of the Farm for various special events ranging from foot races to weddings, including their two-fold utility for financially supporting the Farm’s agricultural operations and for integrating the Farm more intimately with the community|
|0:15:27||Connor and Kim discuss the effect of Charlotte’s urban sprawl on the Farm’s operations, and the benefit of the Farm’s proximity to urban children who otherwise have few opportunities for farming experiences|
|0:17:37||Kim details the Farm’s educational program, including specific elements of its curriculum|
|0:19:47||Conner discusses their efforts and challenges to getting integrated into the “farm to table” scene and distribution channels beyond direct to consumer|
|0:20:47||Connor discusses the availability of support and educational resources from various state and local organizations|
|0:21:52||Conner discusses crop loss, risk mitigation, operational expenses, and the need for diversification and strategic agriculture|
|0:23:07||Connor discusses the impact of weather and climate change on crops, farm operations, and agricultural techniques|
|0:24:52||Connor discusses the impact of technology on farming|
|0:26:17||Connor discusses local support from aging farmers, and the Farm’s place as one of the last larger-scale farming operations in Mecklenburg County|
|0:27:52||Kim discusses support provided by older local farmers, the rise of urban farming, and efforts to maximize both high density production from smaller plots of land and the involvement of younger generations in agriculture|
|0:29:22||Kim discusses how she and Connor are still learning about farming and the more helpful educational resources they have found|
|0:29:57||Connor discusses a local greenhouse company as an example of the growing movement to develop new farming models and dynamics|
|0:31:07||Connor discusses the differences between the primitive farming he did while employed at Historic Latta Plantation and the farming methods used at the Farm|
|0:32:25||Connor discusses how the shrinking agriculture scene in the surrounding community reduces available educational opportunities for farmers|
|0:33:07||Kim discusses the farming community, including the desire of local farmers to help each succeed to ensure future overall success of farming, as opposed to uncooperative competition|
|0:34:47||Connor discusses resources missing from the local community that could help the Farm and farmers in general|
|0:35:25||Connor offers an example of the need for readily-available specific training by discussing the intricacies of harvesting tomatoes|
|0:36:07||Connor and Kim discuss the limited number of qualified individuals and regulatory officials to provide appropriate training, inspections, licensures, and certifications for farming operations|
|0:38:12||Connor discusses the challenges of the organic licensure, certification, and labelling processes|
|0:40:27||Connor discusses future plans for the Farm, including development of better proper ecological practices and strategies|
|0:41:57||Connor discusses livestock raised on the Farm|
|0:43:07||Kim offers agricultural advice for people wishing to pursue agriculture as a hobby or profession|
|0:45:22||Connor discusses his ongoing environmental science studies and their relation to the success of the Farm|
|0:46:42||Kim discusses what the general public does not understand about farming|
|0:48:17||Connor discusses what the general public does not understand about farming|
|0:49:17||Kim discusses the general public’s misperceptions as to traditional farming practices, particularly as to raising livestock|
|0:50:52||Connor discusses the Farm’s efforts to implement and support good sustainable farming techniques as a model, especially for smaller operations|
>> Tommy: All right, well so my name is Tommy Warlick and I’m here with Tom Grover from the UNCC History Department and we are working on the oral history project called the Queens Garden Oral Histories of the Piedmont Food Shed. Today is March 12, 2019, it’s about 1 pm and we are at the Hodges Family Farm just off Rocky River Road East here in the outskirts of Mecklenburg County I guess it is.
And we’re here with Connor Newman and Kim Hodges-
>> Kim: Schoch.
>> Tommy: Schoch, I knew I was gonna mess that up.
>> Kim: [LAUGH]
>> Tommy: And we are here to talk about the history of the Hodges Family Farm. So, I’m gonna ask each of you, if you don’t mind Kim, I’ll start with you, just tell us your name and tell us a little bit about your background as far as farming and agriculture goes.
>> Kim: Well, I’m Kimberly Hodges Schoch and I was actually born in Durham, North Carolina. My father is a Hodges he was Frank’s son so, he was the youngest son out of the seven siblings, so his name is Charles Hodges. And he is a mechanical engineering in the aerospace industry, so we lived in Durham where his job was.
And we moved out to Colorado when I was in middle school and I started riding horses when I was out in Colorado, so that was about when I was 12 or so. And we came back to North Carolina a couple years later and I continued riding horses cuz I really fell in love with it.
I loved being out in the barn and doing barn chores and caring for the animals. All the way through college where I went to NC State for Animal Science and I got a four year degree there. During that time I had an internship in Kentucky for six months learning to care for broodmares and their babies, their foals, and I completed my degree and I moved to Australia in 2014.
And I was there for ten months, working out of broodmare, a facility there called Darley Stud. And after that concluded I came back home to United States and I was looking for a job and we needed some help on the farm after my uncle passed, and then I came out here, so I went from horses to just everyday farming.
I’ve learned most of what I know now from Connor, from my dad, from the internet, [LAUGH] from trial and error, and that’s where I’m at today.
>> Tommy: Well that’s great, Connor how about you?
>> Connor: Okay, I’m Connor Newman, my mother is Hodges, so she’s one of the siblings.
She’s obviously were cousins so her dad and my mom are siblings. And I guess, I was born actually in Clint in North Carolina and then my dad was in the military, so we lived in Germany for a few years came back and have been in Charlotte, North Carolina ever since then.
So I’ve kind of grown up around the farm and mostly just coming out here as a kid and wandering around and occasionally helping with chores. As I got a little bit older I’d come out and help Frank Junior with the hay, my uncle who passed away, stuff like that.
And in 2004 I started working at Historic Latta Plantation started off as a farmhand. They had about four cleared acres, living history farm where they grow cotton and plowed with mules and all that kind of stuff and I did that for 11 years, eventually becoming the farm interpretation manager.
It was my job to make farming relatable to the public, so I developed programs and did school groups and all that kind of thing as well as taking care of the animals and planting cotton by hand and all that kind of good stuff. [COUGH] Then I came out here in 2014, late 2014 my uncle said that he was looking towards retirement, his son was I think 16 at the time, 17 at the time, he was wanting to spend a little more time with him, as we’ve come to find, farming is quite time consuming.
So he was wanting to retire, step back a little bit, and he asked me if I’d be interested, and he had asked me for years, I don’t know why but I said, at that time, yes. And I quit my job and came out here, and four months later, he passed away of a heart attack.
So ever since then, and like Kim said, we both just kind of happen to be at a transitional point and both ended up out here. And like she said, through trial and error and lots of YouTube videos and a lot of the other old farmers around here, it’s still true that farming communities kind of stick together.
And a lot of these guys came out and helped us not kill ourselves on the equipment and cuz like I said plowed with mules and I don’t know that Kim did much tractor work before came out here. But mules can hurt you but a tractor will just chew you up and spit you out, won’t even feel bad about it.
>> Tommy: So Hodges Family Farm has been around more than 100 years now and it’s been in the same family the whole time, right?
>> Connor: Yes.
>> Tommy: And you’re fourth generation?
>> Connor: We are the ninth generation.
>> Tommy: The ninth generation.
>> Connor: The ninth generation. Now her dad is actually the one that’s done a lot with the genealogy and we can get you in contact with him as far as getting the finer point to that figured out, but to the best of my knowledge, we’re the ninth generation to work this farm on this land in this area.
The Hodges been here since I think early 1700s. We have some family records going back to around Circa Revolutionary War, but we’re actually registered as a centennial farm, cuz that’s the most solid records are, so pre-Civil War.
>> Tommy: So, centennial meaning it’s been around for 100-
>> Connor: Correct
>> Tommy: Years or so.
>> Connor: Yeah.
>> Tommy: And it’s been always in this location?
>> Connor: For 100 years, yes, it’s been on this farm.
>> Tommy: So tell me a little bit about the farm and what’s it been raising over the years and sort of how that’s changed.
>> Connor: [COUGH] Well, 100 years ago this would’ve been like most farms in North Carolina a subsistence farm.
It was the family and they did things like raising hogs, they raised some cotton, they raised some corn, a little bit of everything, basically the meaning of subsistence, they would, everything they needed, they got off the farm. As it progressed a little bit, they started selling some of their wares, baling some of their own cotton and selling that in town.
And then around [COUGH] in the early 1900’s, it would’ve been probably by the 1920’s that my grandfather and his brother that way would have been his father at the time they started getting into dairy. And then by the 30s and 40s my grandfather and his brother Buck Hodges started being dairymen and earnest, and it was a dairy farm until 1999.
After my grandfather had passed away and her uncle Frank sold the heard, with the blessing of the family is just dairy farming is 24, 7, its you are on-call the time no vacations, it’s a lot to keep up with. So sold the herd in 99 and that’s when Frankie started getting into Horses in summer camps and things like that, that kind of got our foot in the door as far as the agritourism.
And it’s just kind of progressed from there.
>> Tommy: So it was your grandfather and his brother that started the dairy?
>> Connor: Yes.
>> Tommy: Okay, what were their names?
>> Connor: Buck Hodges and Frank Hodges Senior.
>> Tommy: Senior, okay, so that was Frankie’s?
>> Connor: Frankie’s father, correct.
>> Tommy: So what does the farm raise today?
>> Connor: Today, up until the last year or so, it’s primarily been hay and pumpkins. But in the last year, we’ve started going towards the, I guess you might call it the farm to table scene, or the direct to consumer market, where we’re raising vegetables. We just put in a small greenhouse, a market garden.
We’re doing many different varieties of pumpkins. We’re set up to plant those, but now we’re doing more edibles and things like that. We’re raising beef cattle, hogs, chickens. Kind of going back to the old ways, where it’s diversified a little bit.
>> Tommy: Now, can you do, you do primarily horses, are you doing horses here, or training, or racing, or?
>> Kim: No, not anymore. Horses are very time-consuming, and all the horses we have on the property are retired. They were what Frank Junior used for therapeutic riding programs, and lessons and things like that, but they are all a little bit too old to really use in a sustained lesson program.
It’s kind to let them retire now. They’ve had a full life. So while I do oversee the care of the horses, my mom actually is the primary caregiver of them right now. She feeds them and gives them medication that they need, and we put hay in for them if they need it.
But my primary goal is to actually support production of produce and meat right now, because that’s what’s gonna be bringing in the income. So that can entail helping fix fences, and machinery, and digging. I have foam all over my hands from something I was doing earlier, some insulation installation.
And so, it’s really anything that needs to be done, we’re doing. Our job titles are kinda blurred. Obviously, Connor’s still the manager, so he has our general direction. And we follow his direction, but that could mean that one day I’m cleaning a stall, the next day I’m replacing something on the tractor, the next day I’m painting a fence, or sitting down and doing the taxes.
So we just have a lot of diversification within our job roles.
>> Tommy: So you said we. So how many folks work here on the farm on a regular basis?
>> Connor: Two full-time employees, Kim and myself.
>> Tommy: Two of you, okay.
>> Connor: Yep. We have some help that comes out.
We’ve got a guy working with us right now, kind of on loan from the National Guard. He deploys in late summer, so we’ve got him for a little while. He’s got a biology degree and has some experience in greenhouse, so he’s out here working with us on some of the vegetable production, and also just, you know, he’s a hard worker.
And he just inherited some land from his grandfather in the Dominican Republic, and is planning to go back there and farm. So he’s wanting to get some experience. So we’re kind of working together on that. And then a couple of kids, actually from UNC Charlotte, come out here on a regular basis and help us out around the farm.
>> Tommy: I saw on your website that you solicit volunteers to come out and help as well?
>> Connor: We do, we do. We have volunteers come out and help us with harvest, with taking care of chores. A lot of times with the horses. That’s really where the volunteer program came from.
Was what my uncle called barn rats, where they would come in, and in exchange for riding time, they would clean stalls, pick feet, groom the horses, that kind of thing.
>> Tommy: So Frankie started this concept of sort of educational farming.
>> Connor: Mm-hm.
>> Tommy: What other educational aspects of the educational farming are you pursuing, or that you guys regularly do?
>> Connor: I mean, right now we’re doing, we do a lot of school groups, we do several thousand children in October, that’s our biggest month. We’re looking into expanding throughout most of the year, but right now, October is still our biggest event We do a small event in spring, a little bit during the summer, things like that.
But October is our pumpkin patch, and you know, we might have 6 or 8,000 kids and teachers out here, and then 10 to 20,000 people just general public, come out here and pick pumpkins, and watch demonstrations, and things like that.
>> Tommy: Now, would that be over the course of October?
>> Connor: Over the course of October, yes.
>> Tommy: Wow, that’s a lot of folks.
>> Connor: Yeah, it is. And it technically starts the last week of September, so there’s a couple extra days in there. But it’s a lot to pack into roughly a month.
>> Tommy: Well, then I’ve seen you.
We’re sitting right now in the bridal suite of the 1932 barn that you guys have renovated as an events facility.
>> Connor: Mm-hm.
>> Tommy: You do mud runs. I see you’re doing a lot of other kind of opportunities. Where are these ideas coming from? What’s driving these different uses of this facility?
>> Connor: Well, a lot of people approach us. Now, Kim’s dad, Charles Hodges, is the business manager, so a lot of times he finds some of these people that wanna come in, and there’s kind of a process. We wanna make sure that it’s a good fit for our property.
It’s just a two-lane road out here, so we have kind of, over trial and error, figured out what our road capacity is. Cuz we don’t wanna upset our neighbors. We try and be good neighbors, in the community, so. Sometimes there’ll be two or three events a year, sometimes four to six events a year, and a lot of times, they’ll approach us looking for a place close to a urban center, but enough land to actually put in, like, an obstacle course race.
We work with Savage Race every year, and they bring out about 3 or 4,000 people. I’d say that’s about the top end of what we like to have out here.
>> Tommy: So tell me, those are sort of unique things. I mean, are those opportunities necessary to keep the operation going?
Or are you just coming up with new and interesting ways to use the facility?
>> Connor: It’s a little bit of both. I mean, definitely, the income from the leases or rentals pay the bills, and that kind of thing. We still have to stay in agricultural production, and that’s our primary goal.
Just for good stewardship of the land, and also as far as the government’s concerned, us being a farm. So agriculture is our primary occupation, but yeah, it’s a great way to integrate with the community. We have a lot of neighbors come in, and they really enjoy being able to run around the farm, and get a little bit dirty, and watch the cows and horses as they run a race, or after parties, they typically do it one of our ten acre fields.
They kinda get a good view after their run. So, it’s a little bit of everything. Community building, income, and they’re just fun.
>> Tommy: Well now, your farmland is literally split by Rocky River Road, right? So you’ve got acreage on both sides of the road?
>> Connor: Yes.
>> Tommy: Okay, and you’re talking about the community, the community’s really come to you.
I mean, this was more of a rural part of the county for a long time, wasn’t it?
>> Connor: Mm-hm.
>> Tommy: And now you’re sort of starting to get hemmed in by some residential areas, and-
>> Connor: Yeah.
>> Tommy: How is that impacting what you guys do, and how you can use your farm the way you would like to use it?
>> Kim: We can’t play ball in the streets anymore. [LAUGH] We used to be able to be out in the Rocky River Road playing ball, and say, car, and get out of the road, but definitely can’t do that anymore. [LAUGH].
>> Connor: Yeah, not so much. Yeah, I mean, increased traffic.
That kind of thing. Really, it, I mean there’s lots of ways that it’s impacted. For one thing, we’re a part of, we’re subject to a lot of the things that you have to, Charlotte Code and that kind of thing. We can’t have a bonfire bigger than three by three feet because that’s what on the Charlotte code.
Even though we’re Mecklenburg County, we’re not Charlotte were part of their extra jurisdictual area. So yeah, a few little odds and ends like that but honestly, it’s business as usual, different technology, different people, but we’re doing the same thing here that we’ve been doing for 200 years.
>> Kim: I think it’s also beneficial because a lot of urban children don’t get to see a lot of wide open spaces so if they do come out to visit us they may have never seen a goat before.
They may have never see what a barn is or a tractor up close or where their food comes from. So it helps reinforce the fact that we do need barns to keep feeding them and might encourage them to do some urban growing too. Some of the techniques that we use out here can translate pretty well to an urban environment to encourage people to grow their own food.
Yes we sell food but we also want to give them an experience that can enrich their lives with.
>> Tommy: That’s really great. Tell me how do you work with kids to get them to grasp these lessons cuz I mean that’s, they’re watching TV, they’re on the Internet. How are to reaching out to them and getting them to understand this?
>> Kim: Well, our main education program that we do in October is actually like a five rotation experience for children and we are working with younger children now. We’d like to expand into older grades and stuff like that, but typically third grade and younger are what we’re doing. We have rotation.
So the first one will be the animal barn experience. They get to walk around and see the animals. Ask them what the animals provide for the community and talk about how we have to care for the animals and what to feed them and where they live and what their names are so they can become familiar with them.
We do pests and pollinators so they can become familiar with different bugs and things like that, what helps the pumpkins grow or what hurts the pumpkins or why we need some of these pests or pollinators to help us. We pick a pumpkin, so that’s fairly straight forward. They get to go down to the patch, see where the pumpkins are growing, see the vines, the flowers and start to understand companion crops, cuz we plant things other than pumpkins in there to help the pumpkins.
And we have how the pumpkin grows, so we have another instructor going about how it starts from a seed and it goes to a seedling to a vine to a flower to a pumpkin, and then they get to plant their own pumpkin. So, we have a little seed and a cup of dirt, we talk about what’s important, what they need.
They need sunlight and soil and water and space. And so, they’ll put a little seed in a little solo cup, we send it home with them, and in the classroom teachers can let it sprout and so they can see how long it takes to germinate and things like that.
So we try to encourage them to ask questions during this. This takes about an hour and a half so it’s a very immersive experience about what plants and crops are. And then they still can go back to the classroom and continue they’re learning too.
>> Tommy: That’s great. Now switching gears on you, you mentioned the farm to table aspect of it and you guys getting back to more broader crop ranges, how did you get that going again?
That certainly started almost from scratch I guess and in setting up this distribution networks at all, how do you go about getting back on it?
>> Connor: Well, to be quite honest, we’re still working on it. Primarily what we’re doing now is the produce that we’re growing is sold on farm.
We haven’t really started distributing to any restaurants or, really, anywhere else, it’s pretty much we grow it here and we sell it here. That’s how we’ve done the pumpkin patch. So, and this will be the first year. Like I said, we just put in a greenhouse. We’ve just put in a market garden.
So, this will be the first year that we’re really growing a lot of produce, raising the meat and eggs, and that kind of thing. So, we’re gonna start with what we know on farm sales and then we’ll explain from there.
>> Connor: So, yeah, right now it’s [NOISE] kind of in the beginning.
>> Tommy: Are there organizations that you can work with that can help you get your produce into these restaurants or in these channels?
>> Connor: Sure. Yeah, there’s the extension office is always willing to help and the extension office works with NC State and they have a lot of programs trying to connect farms and producers with the community.
And there’s actually an app that I believe is in the trial stages right now. They’re only a few counties in North Carolina, but it’s visitnc.com. And that’s what they’re trying to do, is they’re trying to create an interface that people are used to in a form of an application on your phone or your tablet and you type in what you’re looking for and it tells you where you can buy it local and fresh.
And it’s just the whole purpose of it is to connect farmers with the community.
>> Tommy: So run an operation like this it got to be pretty big. And you mentioned that you have a business manager. How do you manage and mitigate the losses or risks associated with crop losses or just expenses in general?
>> Connor: Well, that’s one of the things that drove us to become more diversified. It’s kinda like if you’re gonna put together a stock investment portfolio, you don’t just put everything, all your eggs in one basket, you diversify and that’s essentially what we’re doing just on the farm. So if we are growing tomatoes and squash, and onions, and hay, and pigs, and cows you know if we have, we had some crazy weather last couple of years.
Last year we lost over seven acres of pumpkins. But we grew 21 different varieties, so some that didn’t do so well when it was inundated with rain and then when we had a several week dry spell. We lost some pumpkins in both of those weather events but since we grew so many different kinds, and at the time we were also growing strawberries, and that kind of thing.
You know, when one thing doesn’t do well, when one door shuts, kind of a window opens and we just kinda, that’s our business plan, is diversify. As you asked a little bit ago, that’s also why we do the programs in advance. It keeps us relevant in the community.
Keeps us on people’s mind and it’s also a diversified revenue stream.
>> Tommy: So how does the weather impact what you guys do grow? I mean, you’re spread out amongst various things. Are there things you just won’t do anymore because of the weather? Or things that you’re starting to experiment with now because the weather’s changing a bit?
>> Connor: Well, one of the things that we do now is we don’t do any tillage anymore. And so we used to, to try and break some weed and pest cycles over the winter. Every time it would freeze we would till the fields and that the theory behind that is you’re bringing up the eggs that the squash for moths are laying in the soil and your bringing those up to where they’ll freeze.
You’re bringing up wheat seeds, and they’ll germinate in the sunlight and then they’ll freeze, and you know, things like that. And well, that’s common practice, but if we had done that this past winter and then had record rainfall, we would’ve lost topsoil, nutrients, we would’ve muddied up the waterways.
So that’s one thing we’ve done and it was kind of something we decided to do and it’s just been proving itself over and over again. Again, keeping the ground covered, stops erosion, it keeps the ground moist during drought times. Usually you’re gonna see about a 5 to 10 degree difference in the summertime.
The ground’s gonna be 5 to 10 degrees cooler if you’ve got it covered. And the opposite in the wintertime. When I took measurements out here and the ground was 39 degrees when it was 25 degrees outside. So it makes a big difference. So that’s one of our main kinda tenants out here, is keep the ground covered.
>> Tommy: I know you mentioned earlier talking about technology and how that’s changed. I know you’ve been kicking around the farm here since you where little. How’s the technology changed that you’ve seen? How does that impact of what you do here on a daily basis?
>> Connor: Well, for one thing, one of the things that Kim pointed out is we have YouTube now.
And I know that might sound silly, but there’s been a lot of times when I’m out there on the tractor. And I can’t find somebody that knows how to work on a 1985 Ford 7610 and I’ll look it up on YouTube. And I’m able to sit out there in the field and instead of having to drive across town to the only tractor dealer left in Charlotte I can look it up on YouTube, fix it myself, and I’m back to work.
So I’m not losing half a day out in the field. So I’d say social media is a great way for us to connect with people. It’s a great way for us to see what other farms are doing and to share our ideas with them and get ideas from them as well for our farm [COUGH].
Yeah, I’ll even say things like Amazon. So a lot of your online stuff. I can go on Amazon now, and since we are near a hub, I can order parts that I need. I can order my solar-powered chicken coop door that opens first thing in the morning, and closes when it gets dark on Amazon and it’s here tomorrow.
It saves us a lot of time and when you are working on something this big with just a couple of people, time ends up being one of your most valuable commodities. So technology has allowed us to save a lot of time.
>> Tommy: So what’s the farming community like in this area of Charlotte?
What has been your experience of the farming community here?.
>> Connor: To be honest, a lot of the farmers, and now we have a cousin across the road, second cousin, and he raises Charolais beef cows and hay and compost. And he does a little bit of everything like a lot of farmers do.
But other than that we’re some of the last ones in the community. When I first started out here, I went to the extension office trying to figure out how to do the soil samples and that kind of thing. And at first they are giving me an explanation of how to do it in a yard.
And I said, no, not a yard, I need to sample 57 acres. And all of a sudden they perk up and I am the first person that is asked about something over a quarter acre lot in five years. So before I know it I am surrounded by five or six master gardeners and a couple of extension agents asking what we are doing, explaining to me how to takethe samples and things like that.
So there is not a whole lot left in Charlotte, but you go to the surrounding areas and there’s still some, not a lot of young people. I think the average age of a farmer in, I think, the United States is about 65. So a lot of them are kinda getting towards that retirement age.
But there are a few of us, there are just are a few younger people.
>> Tommy: Well, I was gonna ask you, how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?
>> Connor: 32.
>> Tommy: Okay, cuz I thought you are p pretty oung for this kind of an operation.
>> Connor: [LAUGH]
>> Tommy: I wanna ask you cuz it’s-
>> Kim: I’m 28 [INAUDIBLE].
>> Tommy: Okay. [LAUGH]
>> Kim: [LAUGH] But what’s also encouraging is while a lot of the larger farmers or farms are generally run by older farmers. We’ve come to find that there is a new kind of wave of, like I said earlier, urban farmers that have five acres or so.
That are kind of inspired by some of the same people that we are about this no-till in holistic farming. Those are just some top words that you’ll see if you Google. And have small operations with high intensity outputs which is kind of what we’re trying to mimic with our market garden which is a third of an acre.
But we’re trying to really get a lot produced on a third of acre using the companion crops and no-till agriculture and things like that. Just last week we went and bought a few hogs from a guy who was probably around our age. He had hogs, he had chickens, he had geese, he had all kinds of things.
So some of the farmers are aging out, but then there’s another community kind of rising up to meet that small but highly productive farm. So we’re kinda trying to merge those two things. Have our sizable farm, but still have high intensity outputs from smaller areas, if that makes sense.
>> Tommy: Now you mentioned that, so that’s sort of a different class of farming now, this urban farming going on.
>> Kim: Right.
>> Tommy: Are you in communication with those types of folks or they reaching out to you to get some ideas or they learn it from you how to do things?
>> Kim: I don’t think we’re teachers at this point so much as learners. So there’s a few big names out there that we draw inspiration from like Gay Brown. And we read a lot of books [LAUGH] to continue learning and seeing what people have been doing. And I see there’s Joel Salatin, there’s, I don’t know, David Montgomery is a good one.
And anyways [LAUGH] we are trying to find something that works that can keep us relevant in the community and that’s just seems to be one of them.
>> Connor: And also people that we got our greenhouse from.
>> Kim: Sure.
>> Connor: They’re kind of a classic part of this movement, they’re around our age.
I think they’re just a little bit older than I am. But they started in their solarium on the back of their house. And actually they tell a good story about a farm tour coming through and they signed up for it. And ended up having a farm tour come through their solarium because that was their farm, that’s where they produced.
And then they bought this greenhouse and then they expanded to a larger greenhouse and we bought their own greenhouse. And so Kim makes an excellent point. That is where you’re gonna see this come to life, it’s maybe a different iteration than the classic, a 100, 200, 300 acre farm producing corn and cows.
But there is a movement coming up, or at least there seems to be, we hope there is.
>> Tommy: So, Connor, you had a sort of a unique experience of going from old-time farming, if you will, with the mule, over that plantation to a little bit more mechanized operation here.
What are some of the challenges and options that you’ve incurred as you’ve confront through that transition?
>> Connor: Well, initially it all seemed alien to me. As we kinda came into our stride, I started realizing that a lot of the techniques that we practise there. I mean we composed out there, out here I tried to reinvent the wheel reading all these books on compost.
And really it’s essentially the same thing we’re doing at Atlanta. Just instead of turning it by hand I’m out there turning it with the tractor. And instead of one big pile we do it in a wind road to increase surface area and get more oxygen to it, things like that.
So that might be a good way to describe it. Is knowing when and when not to reinvent the wheel and how to apply those. When I need to do a little more research and when I need to just kinda trust our guts and go with what we know.
That way we don’t spend all of our time on YouTube and reading books, although we do spend a lot [LAUGH].
>> Tommy: So you mentioned co-ops, I mean You guys are doing a class tomorrow, I think you said, for continuing education. Are there enough of those around that can deal with the questions and issues that you’ve got to be helpful to you?
>> Connor: There are, there’s a lot of that coming up. We went to a meat marketing conference not too long ago that dealt primarily with organic and grass-fed beef and pork and chicken and that kind of thing and we got to listen to a panel. And we actually did a question and answer portion of the seminar where we got to talk to a panel of people that have been doing it for say five years or more and had kind of built successful businesses.
And we just sat in a gymnasium for a couple hours and got the list of questions and there were things like that that pop up all over the place. Sometimes we have to travel a little bit to find it as I said, there’s not a whole lot of agriculture in Charlotte but an hour, two hours outside.
And we can usually find something.
>> Kim: And it’s encouraging cuz the community wants to see the community move forward too. Farming isn’t a competition. We’re competing against record-breaking rain or drought, or something like that. Farmers on a whole wanna see other farmers do well, because that’s how we’re gonna feed people is that everyone succeeds.
So, more often than not, they’re very receptive to teaching or saying this is how they’ve done it and like helping us if we have questions. One of the biggest resources we had while we’re out here and still have is that there’s some old-timey farmers that run this Stumptown Tractor Club.
So they come out in October and have this exhibition of their big old tractors and steam engines and things like that, and Joe Ferguson he’s the president of it, lives down the street. We still have one of his tedders out here that we use sometimes, he is more than happy to answer any questions, or talk over something with us, or help us work through something, or show us how this machine is run.
Cuz some of the machines that we still have are 40 or 50 years old. And he’s got experience with those for 40 or 50 years, and he’s happy to come help us if we have a question. So we are very much supported by the community, still. Not only Charlotte as a community but the community of older farmers wanting to see us do well.
So it’s very encouraging.
>> Tommy: So what kind of resources are not available to you here that would help your operations that are not really available here in the Charlotte region, that are holding back farming, if you will.
>> Connor: A perfect example is our FSMA training that we’re going for tomorrow.
>> Tommy: I’m not familiar with that.
>> Connor: FSMA is F-S-M-A, it’s the Food Safety Modernization Act. It’s coming down the pipeline and it starts affecting small farms in 2020-2021 based on gross income, what you’re producing, all that kind of thing. And it’s just kind of, a lot of it’s common sense.
We joke because the guidance is a whole lot of words about just basically don’t soil your vegetables and then sell them to people. But I mean there are finer points, like a lot of people don’t realize when you pick tomatoes out of the field before you wash them you need to bring them to the same temperature or a lower temperature than the water you’re washing them in.
Because they’ve got a permeable skin, anything on that skin from the field, whether it’s bird droppings or what have you, will get sucked into that tomato. Same thing with eggs. So there are some finer points that you really do need somebody that knows what they’re talking about to explain it to you.
It’s not necessarily common sense. And the closest FSMA training that we could find is in Salisbury, so tomorrow morning we’re gonna get here early and be up in Salisbury at 8 o’clock in the morning. So it’d be nice if it was at the extension office, which is 12 minutes down the road.
But right now, we would probably be the only ones in the class and, yeah, the lady that runs up that training program, she services North Carolina, so she’s got 100 hundred counties to worry about. And that’s something you see a lot too, same thing with the state veterinarian.
He came by and showed us how to tag our hogs, and that kinda thing, and he was leaving here to go to Wilmington. And then leaving there to go up to Jackson County, so all over the place. I mean these guys are putting some miles on their vehicles.
>> Kim: I think there’s only one man certified for egg grading from the USDA in North Carolina.
>> Connor: Yeah, we did an egg grading course.
>> Kim: And we did an egg grading course with them. And so he came in and he services the entire state, just one man.
>> Tommy: So do you have to make an appoint with him to come and grade your eggs or is he just showing you how to do it?
>> Kim: The class was, he had other, he had a, what was her name? He had an assistant with him. She was actually teaching the class. He was just there for the finer points. If we had questions about the USDA was concerned with or not. You do not have to have your eggs USDA certified to sell them, if you are under five thousand dollars, don’t quote me on that I’m not sure if that’s correct.
>> Connor: Once you surpass 30 dozen eggs a week, then you have to grade your eggs. You can do it yourself, and they suggest training. And it’s kinda one of those things if somebody whistle blows on you that you’re selling dirty eggs or something like that, the gentleman that Candice is talking about it is a USDA compliance officer.
And he comes down, inspects your operation and he can shut it down, make you go take further training, issue a fine, that kind of thing.
>> Tommy: So you mentioned the organic farming. Are you guys starting, you’re starting to go that way, is there a particular training you’ve gotta do to get that certification, or to have your products deemed as appropriately organic, or anything like that?
I’m just not familiar with that.
>> Connor: Well yeah organic, the privilege of labeling your produce, or beef, or what have you. Organic is basically a licensure or a certification that you get from the USDA and you do have to go through a process. You have to have a certifying agent come out and inspect your property, inspect your, you have to have a best management practices plan out there.
So you say how you take care of your crops, how you handle disease outbreak or something like that. How you would quarantine certain foodstuffs to keep public health intact and all that kind of thing. Just basically it’s a lot of paperwork and you have to show that you’re using all organic methods.
Now that’s another thing that is in short supply. I think there’s something like 13 or 16 certified agents in the US. So the closest one we could find- well, Clemson, South Carolina is a certifying agent, the university, but they only serve South Carolina. So the next closest one for us was Pennsylvania.
So we would have to pay for an inspector to come down here and inspect our, whatever we want certified organic. And you keep it up annually, you get inspected annually, you pay a fee to the certified agency, that kind of thing. We’ve considered it and right now it’s also a three year probation to get into the program.
So we have to keep records of managing our property and our produce, anything we are producing on the farm organically, and then we have them come inspect. They look through our records. They say you’re doing this right, you’re doing this wrong. They do some soil samples to make sure that we say we haven’t sprayed in three years.
We really haven’t sprayed in three years, that kinda thing. And if you pass all that, then you can put USDA Certified Organic And I call her auto purpose.
>> Tommy: So you guys have done a lot of things right now.
>> Connor: [LAUGH]
>> Tommy: I mean a lot, where do you see the operations in five years?
Where are you aiming for right now?
>> Connor: Well, we just want to get, the things that we’re working on right now. We want to get those stabilized and then kind of expand them. So right now we’re working on getting about 20 to 25 hogs, something like that. And the type of farming we’re doing, whether you call them regenerative, or sustainable, or organic is based a lot on synergies and ecology.
So you run cows through a pasture first, and then you run sheep through the pasture because they eat different plants and are affected by different parasites than cows are. And then you run pigs through there because they’ll go through and kind of disturb the roots and get the pasture going again, and then you leave it fallow for a little while.
So what we’ve tried to do is kind of look at what makes sense from an ecologic perspective, to take advantage of the ecological niches that we have on the farm. And that’s what we’ve kinda used to guide, okay, we’re gonna use grains and legumes in this field. And then we’re gonna follow that by different livestock.
And that’s kinda how we’ve set up our baseline of what species and cultivars of crops we want to use. Starting off small, kind of starting off slow, and then we’re gonna try and build that. Like expand by 10% every year.
>> Tommy: So we’ve currently got beef cattle, chickens, pigs, what other livestock do we have?
>> Connor: We’ve got some other livestock, they’re mainly for educational groups. We do sheep, because we teach kids about wool and where textiles come from and that kind of thing. We’ve got a small flock of chicken separate from the other chickens, they are show chickens. We talked the kids about the eggs and that kind of thing, we’ve got a couple of goats, and that’s kind of probably a whole another level from when I work it.
We basically had a representation of all the animals you would find on a working farm. So we’ve kind of replicated that here and we have our core group of animals goats, pigs, chicken, sheep, couple of miniature horse and donkey, and stuff like that. Yeah, something that the kids can relate to look at one or two of them, they really kind of get something out of their visit.
>> Tommy: So, you guys really had a steep learning curve, and it’s really sort of hit hard and fast. What kind of advice would you have for somebody that was trying to get in agriculture right now or thinking about getting into farming on a little bit more than just a casual basis?
>> Connor: Kim, you want to take one?
>> Kim: [LAUGH]
>> Connor: I feel like I’ve been talking too much.
>> Kim: I would say read a lot, and learn as much as you can on the books. Don’t do everything by the books, it’s not gonna be the same on your farm as it would be on whomever’s farm you’re reading about.
But research the kind of farm that you would like to do and kinda have your in goal in mind when you start. So be able to plan for what you would like to happen. So like how we would love to grow food for the community and people can come and pick baskets, gather and go home and cook a meal.
Do you want to sell directly to the public? Do you want to do wholesale? Do you want to do CSAs? Stuff like that, and research different methods. I like that we’ve researched into how to do things ecologically. Connor’s doing it an environmental science degree right now, he’s working on that to help learn how everything works cohesively and plan for the future.
Because if you farm intensively on a crop and you just take everything from the land it’s not gonna sustain itself. You’re gonna over-farm it and then you’re gonna have to move on. They’re not making more land out there. What’s here is here, and so learn to care about what you have.
And if you have a backyard that’s only like 500 square feet, you probably can do something out of there. There’s a whole different branch our culture hydroponics, things like that, so you kind of have to focus a little bit about what you want in the future and make a tree, branch out from there.
You can get bogged down by a little stuff very easily. And we know that everyday, everyday we’re like, we need to clean this up, we need to do this and then we’re like, okay. Pull back, what do we need to do right now to further our plan for the future instead of cleaning up this stuff that’s been sitting here for 30 years.
Well, yes, we need to do that but we also needed to focus on this vehicle to sell eggs in September. So things like that.
>> Tommy: So where are you working on your Gardenal Science degree?
>> Connor: University of Phoenix.
>> Tommy: Really?
>> Connor: Yeah, it’s about the only way I can do it.
I like the way they set up their program. They’ve got over 20 years of online class experience. Made sense for me cuz I’ve got a two-year-old at home so so I do this and then play with him for a little bit and then do my classes. And yeah, it’s started at Central Piedmont years ago and got half a degree.
At that time, I thought I wanted to be a physical therapist. So I took some of the biology and stuff like that that actually tied into this. And environmental science degree hit all the points I was looking for. It focuses a lot on agriculture because that’s where a lot of it, where one person controls a large amount of environment is in agriculture, or just a few people.
And it goes into how ecology works, and we can apply that directly to our fields and I should be graduating in, I believe, in 2020.
>> Tommy: Congratulations, that’s fantastic.
>> Connor: Thank you.
>> Tommy: So, since you’re doing educational farming for folks, what are some of the misperceptions or the confusions that you see people have when they come out here and listen to you talk and the light bulb goes on?
What don’t they understand about farming?
>> Kim: It’s not just picking the vegetables, [LAUGH] a lot goes on behind the scenes, not only do we raise the pumpkins and the plant them and stuff, but we’re fixing fences. We have to, sometimes your own engineer like these [INAUDIBLE] aren’t made anymore.
How do we make it work? Or, we don’t just take the winter off. We have plumbing projects, we have electrical, there’s always coding being updated. And so we are trying to keep everything safe and up-to-date and fix things, [LAUGH], and sometimes things come up that you don’t even think about.
Like, the veterinary needs to come out because your horse stepped on a nail or something like that. If they see a lame horse, it’s probably not because we neglect them but we’re working on making them better. And it’s just you might see things and go they must be doing that wrong or they must not care about this cuz it needs new paint or something.
But that costs a lot of money too, and they think yeah, well, this land and this equipment and stuff like that, they must be rich.
>> Connor: [LAUGH]
>> Kim: While there’s a lot of money tied up in that land and those buildings and those machineries, and we’re sometimes barely scraping by.
So I think that’s a big misconception, is that if they see you have this big farm they just automatically assume that you have endless streams of revenue coming in. Or you can just sit back and drive your BMW to the beach. And during the summer when you need a harvest, to take care of pests and things like that, so.
I know that people think farmers are hard workers They just don’t always see the inputs that it takes to run the farm as well.
>> Connor: And I’d say that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize too is it’s difficult to conceive a scale that you’re working on.
And I’m not talking about super farms. I’m talking about even for your backyard garden. A lot of people don’t realize well most vegetables need an inch [INAUDIBLE] right but what does that mean well that’s that translates to every square 100 feet about 62 gallons once a week. So you got to think about, what does that translate to to an acre which is 43,560, square feet.
Yeah, that’s a lot of water and then people here numbers like that and I assume you’re wasting it but what you’re actually doing is storing that water in the plants. It transpires out of the plants, goes back into the atmosphere. So people were either shocked, or underwhelmed, or overwhelmed and there’s just not a lot of realistic perspective or our perception of scape when it comes to agriculture
>> Kim: And I also want to say conventional farmers like people are so upset about some of the traditional practices, and while we don’t use a lot of them but farmers aren’t trying to hurt their animals, they’re not trying to treat them badly. If you treat your animals poorly they’re not going to produce well for you as a farmer or it makes it sound like it’s the bottom line, it’s not.
I mean I can’t count the number of times Connor or I have been out here in the middle of the night with a sick pig, or a sick goat or taking lambs home and putting diapers on them so they don’t poop all over your house. We do truly care about our animals, yes, they might be meat production animals or, but we want them to be the happiest that they can be when they’re here.
So we do produce meat products, but we also very much care about our cows and our pigs our chickens and everything like that. So we for example, we just got 200 chickens and every single one of the ones that didn’t make it cuz chickens are very fragile when they’re babies and you’re gonna lose a few.
And every single one I was sad about as I had to take it out and care about it, and I’m a little soft hearted. [LAUGH] But I think that also makes me compassionate and good with the animals because I’m more perceptive as to if they need help or if they need something done for them so, that as well.
>> Tommy: Why not jump around a lot on you guys? Are there any questions that I did not ask you that I should have asked you or anything else you like, you care to share with us?
>> Connor: I mean, honestly, I think you hit most of the main points, what sets us apart from maybe your typical farm or what you see on TV as a farm are the methods that we use.
The fact that we are trying to show other people. Like Kim pointed out, yes, there’s gonna be competition within any market, especially with similar goods and methods. But a lot of people that are apart of this movement, they want there to be more sustainable farms, rather than one centralized hog farm, in the flat lands of North Carolina that has thousands of hogs in it.
It makes more sense you’re gonna get fresher food, better nutrients [INAUDIBLE] and it’s gonna be better for the land and animals if you have more small operations. So just that’s the kind of thing that anybody that’s part of that movement is wanting people to realize, is support small farms whether it’s ours or not when you can.
And I think we really I think we touched on just about every aspect of that.
>> Tommy: Well, I can’t thank you enough for your time. We really appreciate it. One last question I have abuse is there anybody that you can think of that we all reach out to and, and speak with on these types of issues with regard to chat and the Greater Charlotte area?
>> Connor: I would suggest maybe talking to Lucky Leaf Gardens, they’re the ones that we got the.
>> Tommy: Lucky Leaf?
>> Connor: Lucky Leaf, yeah, Mark and Kate, and I’ve forgotten their last name. But they’re the ones we bought our greenhouse from, and they have a neat story, they’ve been very successful in what they’re doing, they’re passionate about what they’re doing and they kinda, they do everything organically.
I don’t think they’re certified organic. I could be wrong about that but they care about what they’re doing and I’d be proud to call them colleagues.
>> Connor: I can’t think of anybody else off the top of the head.
>> Kim: If you want to talk to like the old school, kind of side of things maybe Anson at Feed Mill, Bevel Feed Mill.
>> Connor: Sure, Anson Eves.
>> Tommy: Anson Eves?
>> Connor: Yes, he works at.
>> Tommy: Is he from Midland?
>> Connor: Yeah, do you know him?
>> Tommy: I know his sister, sister used to work for me, his sister Carla is a lawyer.
>> Kim: Okay.
>> Tommy: She used to work for me so.
>> Kim: But he works he distributes green and stuff and he does horses cows stuff and his family as you probably know and farmland out there.
>> Tommy: I completely forgot about ants, and that’s great, I’ll have to give him a call.
>> Connor: We work with a lot, and you can ask him about Connor and his crazy cover crop questions.
I’m calling him all the time and asking him. Cuz like Kim said, don’t just take everything you read for gospel, cuz it’s not always gonna work in your environment. So when we read something from [INAUDIBLE] or something that some practice that a farmer in North Dakota is using, I call Anson and I say, hey, do you have any experience with this crop?
He’s and that kind of stuff so with this grow here what’s your experience with this? He’s been doing it for a long time, he’s dad a farmer.
>> Tommy: Yeah.
>> Connor: Yeah, as you know, and he’s always willing to share information. So I call Anson maybe more than he would like, but he’s a good, good source of information.
>> Tommy: [INAUDIBLE] You take care of the equipment, Air Force.