Registration resumes soon for a Clemson University program that shows the ins and outs of starting a farm, and there’s already a waiting list.
“The demand is just growing,” said Diana M. Vossbrinck, assistant program director of the S.C. New and Beginning Farmer Program. “We already have a long waiting list of people who are waiting to apply; at least 50.”
The program, established in 2010 through Clemson’s public service activities division, offers information on financing and marketing, as well as the expertise of extension agents and veteran farmers. It’s open to any state resident 18 or older with less than a decade of farming experience.
“Women are probably at or over 50 percent of our applicants and we get all age groups – from just out of high school to retirees … and all kinds of ethnic groups. It’s really exciting to see the diversity of people who are interested in farming.”
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Small farms don’t typically produce enough of anything to draw the attention of grocery stores and other large buyers. Local food sourcing and farm-to-table eateries like Summa Joe’s in Anderson and 1826 Bistro on the Green in Pendleton stir some demand, but success largely depends on do-it-yourself marketing, toting bushels to multiple farmers’ markets every week, calling on restaurant owners and generating strong word-of-mouth.
The Vdovichenko family emigrated from Russia nearly two decades ago and later settled just north of Anderson. Vladimir, his wife Lydia and their children do all of the promotion to sell the honey and candles they produce on their Concord Road bee farm, and Vladimir works at the Michelin plant to shore up the farm and family finances.
The Vdovichenko Bee Farm is a way of life and 17-year-old son Vitaly said the family accepts that nothing is assured, other than hard work and financial risk.
“It’s been passed down,” he said. “I’m a fourth generation beekeeper and it’s what our family has done forever. … There’s a lot of investment involved. I hate to say it’s gambling, but you really don’t know how well the bees are going to produce every year.”
Nancy Walker and her husband William, a physician at AnMed Health Center, sell grass-fed beef and pork out of the Walker Century Farms Market on his family’s homestead, located midway between Liberty and Anderson off S.C. 81.
“We opened our market about four years ago,” said Nancy, a retired geneticist and Clemson faculty member. “Before that, we were selling to my husband’s doctor friends. They started coming back for more because the beef was so good.”
The Walkers had some knowledge of raising cattle before they got started, and the land has been in his family for more than 100 years. They were able to subsidize the operation from the outset while they built up a customer base and learned the business.
Even with those advantages at the outset, it hasn’t been easy.
“You’ve got to have that commitment, that follow through and passion,” Nancy said. “You should probably start by finding a farmer who will take you on as an intern or helper. That way, you get the exposure you need to know if it’s right for you.”
The Clemson program shows farmers how to access what Vossbrinck calls “a vast amount” of state and federal financial help available, while also educating them on all the ways to lose money on farming.
“How do you get into this and do it in a way that’s financially responsible for your family,” said Vossbrinck. “We don’t want to have people losing their ... savings or getting into debt that they can’t possibly recover from.”
And it’s not all hayrides and fresh air, either.
“There is this wonderful, bucolic, romantic notion people have” said Nancy. “But the reality is that it’s a lot of hard work. Do you want to be out weeding a vegetable patch at 3 in the afternoon on a day like that?” — referring to Tuesday’s muggy conditions and mid-90s temperatures.
Program applicants fill out extensive questionnaires, and a facilitator runs a class each session to challenge students and their motivations.
“We have had students who changed their minds, but we consider that a success,” said Vossbrinck. “Sometimes people are just hobbyists who enjoy their gardens.”
For more information
Classes will meet every two weeks at Clemson's Sandhill Research and Education Center in Columbia, and there are seminars hosted around the state.
Application forms will be available at www.scnewfarmer.org by the end of June.
About 80 students will be accepted this year. There will be an October-to-January class for people who are curious about farming, and an October-to-May class for others who already have land and some idea of the kind of farming they want to do.