Jillian and Ross Mickens sit perched on a wayward assembly of sagging hay bales, plopped between the short, straight rows of the small rectangular plots on their forty-three acre farm in Orange County.
It’s not yet eight on this Friday morning, but the Mickenses are already nearing their third full hour in the fields. Ross has been riding a red tractor, pulling an elaborate contraption that cuts rows into the ground and instantly rolls a tight sheet of shiny black plastic over the surface. Jillian walks behind him, using hand signals or, if he’s not looking, hoarse yells to warn him that the machine has misfired again. This happens about every ten feet. Jillian reaches down, pulls a clod of grass or a root from beneath the weed-thwarting tarp, pitches it to the side, and motions him ahead.
If all goes well, rows of eggplant, sweet potato, and squash will soon push through holes in the plastic. But for now, already covered in dirt and flush with the sun before many have begun the daily commute, Ross and Jillian seem content to stop and talk about, surprisingly, social media and streaming tutorialsthe farmer in Winston-Salem who taught them about overhead sprinklers or the Maryland man who has offered some tips on kale production.
“I talk to people all across the country through Instagram about farming,” Jillian says, smiling and blinking in the sunshine. “I don’t know how people farmed without YouTube. ‘How do you plow?’ Go to YouTube.”
The Mickenses are thirty-two-year-old high school sweethearts, together since they met in the lunchroom of their rural North Carolina school nearly two decades ago. They both graduated from N.C. State, after which Jillian earned a master’s degree as a dietician from UNC and Ross took a job as a computer engineer. After his early tasks in the fields, Ross still drives an hour into Research Triangle Park to work at Lenovo. Jillian stays home and runs the place with two part-time employees.
This is the couple’s second year of working on what they call “Open Door Farm,” an abandoned parcel that once boasted rows of tobacco and wheat and that they found online. Since 2014, they’ve bulldozed saplings and cut into grassy expanses, restored a tiny farmhouse and even found a sprightly country dog, Charlie. Every day is an adventure, a learning exercise in both teamwork and problem solving.
“This is not like buying a house in the suburbs, where they just turn over every few years,” says Ross. “You’re here for a while.”
The Mickenses are not only in the process of rebuilding one quiet, isolated farm, tucked from plain sight by a long driveway and a tall row of trees. They are also participating in a much larger process of adding youth and energy back into agriculture, a profession that U.S. Department of Agriculture studies continue to say is aging toward extinction.
The pair had some help joining these ranks, too. In 2012, they attended a ten-week workshop at the “Breeze Farm Enterprise Incubator,” a program that guides aspiring farmers through the basics of small-scale sustainable agriculture. For the next three years, they worked a small plot at Breeze Farm, acquiring new skills in the field while learning how to take their yield to market.
At N.C. State, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, or CEFS, uses a farm in Goldsboro to nurture apprentices and interns in hopes that they, too, will become farmers. The agrarian equivalent of urban incubators like American Underground or HQ Raleigh, these spaces are rebuilding a farming infrastructure one small business at a time. By and large, for the last decade, they both have found funding through Farm to Fork, a one-day, three-hour, high-priced benefit where the wave of new local growers aligns with some of the region’s best chefs.
“We write grants through projects we do and research that we do, but the way we fund working with young people as apprentices and interns to teach them how to farm is all through that picnic,” says Nancy Creamer, the CEFS director for nearly twenty years. CEFS has done essential work across the state not only in improving methods of sustainable food production but also in distribution and access.
“If you didn’t grow up on a farm or have inherited land or inherited equipment, there’s almost no way to get into agriculture, unless it has this added value, like organic or sustainable systems,” she says. “This event is about growing farmers, bringing young people in and giving them the skills to farm.”
More than 250 students have passed through the program. Not all of them become farmers, Creamer admits, but that’s part of the planto allow people to experiment, to mess up, to determine if this is what they want to do. CEFS donates its crops rather than sells them, so the focus is on learning, not producing.
“You have to be able to make a bunch of mistakes, or you’re going to lose your shirt. These programs allow people to mess up without risking their financial lives,” says Creamer. “We can allow students to practice. If they set up a cultivator and take out half of the plants, that’s not a big deal to us.”
No matter how much information they can glean from podcasts and email exchanges, the Mickenses agree that such hands-on, interactive experience is essential. They talk, for instance, about one day adding cows to their expansive property. But Jillian admits she’s never interacted with a cow, never even touched one. They’d have to ask for advice, perhaps from some neighbors who raise cattle.
“But how do you do that? They’re not on the Internet, so now we have to schedule something and drive over there and talk to them,” Ross says, laughing. “It’s not like sitting in your pajamas at midnight, asking, ‘How do you plant your potatoes?’”
Jillian interjects: “I’m sure there’s a cow video on YouTube.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Crop Management”