Feature: Community Partnerships

a man standing in a field with an overturned tractor

A New Crop

A hay dummy wrapped in white plastic – proxy for a farm worker – gets shredded in an instant by a spinning power takeoff shaft transferring power from a tractor to another piece of equipment. A few minutes later, the ground rumbles when a tractor is tipped over, crushing a hay dummy sitting behind the steering wheel.

Both “accidents” were simulated demonstrations that took place during Forsyth Tech’s first-ever Farm Health and Safety Institute Day. The one-day workshop, held in February at the Stokes County Center in Walnut Cove, featured sessions for more than 30 area farmers on large animal safety, emergency preparedness, personal protection and farm equipment safety.

a group of men standing in a field two men standing near a moving tractor

Risky Business

Adapting to farmers’ needs, Forsyth Tech brought in front-line agricultural experts from across the state for the day-long event. “We designed this workshop – the first of a series on a variety of topics – to bring together local farmers. Our objectives were to help increase safety awareness and provide advice,” says Ann Watts, senior director of Forsyth Tech’s Off-Campus Centers. “Over the long run, we want to build relationships with farmers, listen to what they need and offer them the training they seek.”

Safety is a constant concern in farming, which, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is the country’s most dangerous occupation. To complicate matters, North Carolina has many small farms with 10 or fewer employees. Exempt from national safety standards set by OSHA, they’re more dangerous than large, regulated farms.

According to Stokes County resident Karen Hill who, along with her husband Benny, owns and operates BD Hill Farms, a small beef-cattle operation, small farmers need support.

“Benny and I attended Forsyth Tech’s Farm Institute Day in February,” says Ms. Hill. “It’s good to be reminded of safety, especially when it comes to the proper use of pesticides and safe handling of equipment. We know many people who have been injured in tractor rollovers and other farm machinery accidents,” she adds.

Another major issue facing the state’s agricultural sector is its aging workforce. The average age of a farmer in North Carolina is now 59, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, compounded by the fact that the number of farmers overall is dwindling. Forsyth Tech would like to help fill the gap by training future farmers. “As a community college, we’re nimble,” Ann points out. “We have the ability to respond quickly to the economic development needs of our community and get new continuing education classes up and running in very short order.”

Growing Interest

High-school students in Stokes County already demonstrate an interest in agriculture as a career. “About 250 high school students each year take some type of agriculture course, such as horticulture, greenhouse farming, small animal production or crop production,” emphasizes Ann. To attract them, Forsyth Tech is seeking funds to create an Agriculture Training Center in Stokes County.

In the interim, Forsyth Tech will continue to respond to local farmers’ needs with informational workshops. “We received great feedback from the farmers who attended our Farm Institute Day,” Ann says. “Based on its success, we’ve already started developing some of the classes farmers have requested.”

In April, the college offered a Goat Forages Seminar to capitalize on the growing interest in goat farming. These animals are more susceptible to disease than other farm animals, so the class was geared toward introducing prospective and current goat farmers to preventive care. Later this year, the college will offer a hands-on farm equipment repair class.

Both classes are examples of continuing education curricula Forsyth Tech is developing to prepare a new generation of farmers.

SIDE BAR

Field of Dreams

Forsyth Tech’s Farm Health and Safety Institute Day was part of a longer-term vision for developing an Agriculture Training Center at the college’s Stokes County campus. The February workshop was the first step in developing a comprehensive, state-of-the-art agricultural continuing education curriculum.

To aid in financing the Center, the college is seeking funding from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund, which helps tobacco farmers diversify. Courses will range from crop diversification, greenhouse farming and small-acreage farming to classes on marketing, recordkeeping and developing multiple agricultural revenue streams. Forsyth Tech is working closely with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Agencies in both Forsyth and Stokes counties to provide training opportunities that are not currently offered by the N.C. Extension services.

By training farmers in the latest agricultural techniques and providing them with business skills, Forsyth Tech will give them the tools they need to produce more for less – the formula for success in today’s agricultural economy. According to Stokes County farmer Karen Hill, “If young people don’t have a parent or grandparent who is already running a farm, it’s hard to get started. Young farmers need all the support they can get.” The hope is that the Agriculture Training Center will increase interest in the field and develop a continuing source of income for the residents of Stokes and the surrounding counties.