On a cold late-winter Saturday in February, the Forsyth Tech Stokes County Center in Walnut Cove hosted more than 30 area farmers for a day of health and safety workshops.
The first-ever Farm Health and Safety Institute featured sessions for farmers on large animal safety, emergency preparedness, personal protection and farm equipmentsafety, including dramatic demonstrations of a tractor rollover and a hay dummy getting caught in the spinning spikes of a power take-off shaft. Given that on a national level farming is now the most dangerous occupation, local safety demonstrations are becoming an important way to help keep farmers safe.
Free health screenings were also available during the day, since farmers are particularly susceptible to skin cancers and diseases related to pesticides and other chemicals used on farms.
The college designed this event, the first of others to come, as a way to begin supporting and building relationships with current farmers with an eye to grooming a pipeline of new, younger farmers. The college is currently seeking funding for the eventual creation of an Agricultural Training Center at its new Stokes County location, which will open in fall 2016.
The need for a new generation of farmers is evident in the statistics. Nearly 60 percent of farmers in NC are age 55 or older. Many of them who used to farm tobacco are being forced to retool their skills as a result of the decline in tobacco production in recent years.
The current buy-local, farm-to-table movement, which is not likely to lose momentum anytime soon, is placing increasing demands on the state’s diminishing agricultural resources. Approximately 250 high school students in Stokes County each year take some type of agriculture course prior to graduation, and the college wants to capture that interest. Forsyth Tech hopes to tap into the rebirth of the agriculture industry by developing a contemporary agricultural curriculum that includes such courses as crop diversification, green-house farming, small acreage farming, marketing, record-keeping, and development of multiple agricultural revenue streams—courses designed to make farming an attractive and sustainable career path.
Forsyth Tech developed the Farm Health and Safety Institute with help from the North Carolina Agrimedicine Institute, North Carolina Cooperative Extension and North Carolina Farm Bureau. The North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund, which helps displaced tobacco farmers find new ways to contribute to a strong agricultural economy in NC, provided funding.