by Angie Lavezzo, CFSA Communications Coordinator | Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021 –
“A lot of people couldn’t jump into this and immediately support themselves, let alone a family,” says Matthew Oates, a 2021 Farmer in Training, (FiT) at CFSA’s Elma C.Lomax Research and Education Farm. Learning to farm at Lomax allows for experimentation and a place for new farmers to train while not being financially on the hook for a mortgage payment, setting up infrastructure, or debt for farm equipment. Lomax offers a safe place for folks new to farming to learn what works and what doesn’t.
In 2019, Matthew looked into what it takes to be a farmer. He was frustrated with his day job in a “big ag” research facility, surrounded by plants, but lacking the autonomy to cultivate anything of his own. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in earth and environmental studies, he was living in Salinas, CA. When Covid hit, Matthew moved with his girlfriend, Jessica, to live in North Carolina to be closer to family. He continued to feel the pull towards farming. While visiting local farmers markets, Matthew talked to as many growers as he could, asking questions about the realities and logistics of farming.
At market, a farmer who had previously attended a workshop at Lomax pointed Matthew towards talking with Dylan Alexander, Lomax’s farm coordinator.
Lomax offers a safe place for folks new to farming to learn what works and what doesn’t.
After several volunteer days beneath the summer sun in 2020, Matthew saw the support and guidance available to new farmers at Lomax firsthand. Shortly thereafter, he applied for and was accepted to, the farm’s FiT program. His farm journey at Lomax began in late January of 2021.
As part of the infrastructure that Lomax provides, all FiTs are able to get a jump on the growing season by starting their seeds in the heated greenhouse. As early as February, Matthew was in there seeding cool-season crops like broccoli and lettuce. At Lomax’s plant sale in the spring, he sold some of his plant starts. It was his first market ever. Just think: the guy who couldn’t cultivate a thing a few years prior was selling plants he seeded and cared for to seasoned gardeners and farmers!
The connections with other Lomax growers led him to share booth space at a market with another FiT, Shelly Stamper, of Shell Belle Farm. Shelly helped him get his feet wet by sharing her experience of the ins and outs of market selling. As any farmer will tell you, it’s not just seeding, sowing, and harvesting; farming requires excellent business savviness. In sharing booth space with another Lomax FiT who has been at it for longer, Matthew was able to get real-world experience. Not long after, Matthew branched out on his own with a stall at the Novant Health farmers market on Tuesdays, at the Huntersville farmers market on Saturdays, and a pop-up in his driveway at home once a week. Selling at market was helpful in knowing what people were looking for and wanted. His customers were so supportive, they bought his inventory out most days. “I learned that I should start more next year because I could sell more.” Matthew, who has named his operation Wild Oates Farm, rents ¼ acre at Lomax Farm and intends to stay for two or three more seasons.
Fast-forwarding to the present, Matthew is at the farm, working on his plot every week, learning how to embrace the experience and cycles of understanding how a farm works.
“I feel thankful that this opportunity exists for people like me to give farming a go. Part of many people’s Lomax journey is discovering if farming is for them or not.”
Follow Matthew’s farm journey on his Instagram, here. If you want to support beginning farmers like Matthew and make a donation to support Lomax’s Farmer in Training program, you can do so here.To read more about Lomax’s research projects, food donation partnerships, educational events, and volunteer opportunities visit their homepage here.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Oates.