Incubator Farm Project Cultivates Farmers and Community

Incubator Farm Project Cultivates Farmers and Community

Spearheaded by NCAT Southeast’s Luke Freeman, the Woolsey Farm Project is a collaboration between NCAT, Cobblestone Farms, and the City of Fayetteville, Arkansas. It is supported by an EPA Environmental Education Award. We’re a few months into the project now, and we thought it was time for an update on this exciting program!

Background and Overview

The Woolsey Incubator Farm Project is complex and ambitious. It wouldn’t be possible without our great partners and supportive community. Our aim is to educate Northwest Arkansas K-12 students and adults of all ages about sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation. We want to demonstrate the effect of local food systems on the environment. We also want to illustrate the role that sustainable agriculture can play in environmental stewardship. Following is a list of goals we hope to accomplish with the help of our partners.

  • Train and support five incubator farmers as they start and grow their farm businesses.
  • Train farmers and prospective farmers on sustainable agriculture practices. NCAT staff will host a series of four practical skills trainings at Cobblestone Farms and the Woolsey Incubator Farm.
  • Educate members of the community on the environmental benefits of wetland prairie and native plants. First, Illinois River Watershed Partnership (IRWP) will lead a passive restoration of two acres of wetland prairie at the Woolsey Farm. IRWP will then lead a prairie walk at the property. Finally, they’ll post signage on the property to educate visitors about how wetland prairie and native plants affect the ecosystem.
  • Teach primary-level students about local agriculture, environmental stewardship, and local food systems. Classes will take educational field trips to Cobblestone Farms and the Woolsey Incubator Farm.
  • Educate high school students through field trips to Cobblestone Farms and the Woolsey Incubator Farm.

Incubating Farmers

Project partners and incubator farmers breaking ground at incubator plots.
Woolsey Incubator Farm project partners and two of the program’s first incubator farmers break ground at the Cobblestone Farms incubator plots.

Creating an incubator farm is key to accomplishing our goals— it will be the home base for our educational activities. We are working closely with the City of Fayetteville to prepare the city-owned historic Woolsey Farm site to house the incubator farm. When it’s established, the Woolsey Incubator Farm will educate hundreds of farmers, students, and adults for years to come. Cobblestone Farms generously provided plots for our first incubator farmers until the Woolsey Farm property is ready.

Once we had the incubator farm plots in place at Cobblestone, it was time to find farmers! So in February, the project partners met to review applications and select the first three incubator farmers. The group selected Homayoon Abdullah, Watata Mwenda, and Jenni Vaughan as the first incubator farmers in the program.

Both Homayoon and Watata are refugees who came to Fayetteville with support from Canopy NWA, a local refugee resettlement organization. Homayoon grew up on a farm in Afghanistan where they grew wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, and onions. Watata is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he grew vegetables, beans, sweet potatoes, rice, corn, and cassava. Jenni Vaughan is an Arkansas native with extensive farm experience, but was not in a position to purchase or lease land.

Off and Growing

Our next step was to conduct an orientation with the incubator farmers in March at Cobblestone Farms. Luke met with both Homayoon and Watata individually to review their crop plans. He also provided recommendations on planting dates, plot layout, fertilizer, irrigation supplies, and potential markets.

In April, farmers Jenni, Homayoon, and Watata began growing produce in their quarter-acre incubator plots. They also received technical assistance and support from Luke and Cobblestone Farms Manager Sam Doty. They’ve learned about organic fertilizers, practices for weed control, organic pest control, and conserving water with a drip irrigation system.

Throughout the summer, Jenni grew organic salad greens, cabbage, broccoli, radishes, turnips, kale, chard, and herbs. She also grew edible flowers and cut flowers. She marketed her products to local restaurants, grocery stores, a farmers market, and through an eight-member CSA. Similarly, Homayoon raised a variety of vegetables: organic radishes, turnips, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. He has sold these at a farmers market and donated to refugee families in need. In contrast, Watata’s family planted their entire ¼ acre plot to tomatoes. They’ve sold to a produce stand, a natural foods grocery store, and at a farmers market. Additionally, they had a great opportunity to sell tomatoes to a local ketchup company for processing.

Luke and fellow NCAT staffer Robyn Metzger arranged for the farmers to set up a market at a local church. The market, held on Sunday mornings, began on June 30. It’s been a great way for the incubator farmers to sell their produce and learn about direct marketing. Moreover, this farmers market has introduced hundreds of church members to the incubator farm project.

Other Project Activities

On June 13, NCAT hosted the first farm production workshop at Cobblestone Farm, called “Putting your Land to Work.” The workshop focused on farm site selection and selecting the right enterprises for your farm’s specific land characteristics. Twenty-one farmers attended the workshop, including incubator farmer Homayoon. Luke, along with NCAT Horticulture Specialist Guy Ames and Southeast Regional Director Margo Hale, presented to the group. They shared farm site considerations for vegetables, fruit, livestock, and poultry. The group also toured the Cobblestone Farms site. Luke, Margo, and Guy talked about organic practices for weed control, pest management and soil health. They also discussed drip irrigation, low-impact livestock management, conservation, and environmental stewardship on farms.

Later in June, Canopy NWA held a vegetable gardening workshop for the refugee community at Cobblestone Farms. Forty-three people from refugee families attended. In addition, eight high school students and 12 community members served as volunteers for the event. One interpreter attended as well. The Executive Director of Cobblestone Farms, Laura Brewer, conducted a demonstration on tomato planting. She provided plants and other resources so that families living in apartments could start their own container gardens. Following Laura’s talk, Watata and Homayoon gave the attendees a tour of their farm plots. They discussed organic farming practices and the psychological benefits of gardening, including stress relief. It was a great workshop and we were thrilled that so many attended.

Sweet Farm Neighbors

And finally, one more exciting aspect of this project is our resident honeybees! The local nonprofit Ozark Slow Food is supporting a cooperative of beekeepers who have placed hives at the incubator farm plots. The Northwest Arkansas Queen Breeding Cooperative (NWAQBC) hopes to improve the genetic stock of honey bees in Northwest Arkansas. To that end, NWAQBC founding member Ed Levi demonstrated queen breeding for eight prospective beekeepers on June 15. Not only are the bees providing pollination services for the incubator farm plots, they’re also producing delicious local honey!

Looking Ahead

As the harvest season winds down, we’ll help the incubator farmers prepare their plots for winter, including sowing cover crops. NCAT staff will host a fall workshop at Cobblestone Farms. We’ll also open another round of applications to add two more incubator farmers. Stay tuned to this blog and follow our Facebook page for more on the workshop and incubator farmer application period! We’ll also be sure to share more updates on our current incubator farmers.

More Information

Whether you’re a beginning farmer or have years of experience, check out the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture website! There are hundreds of resources on sustainable agriculture topics. You’ll find publications, videos, online courses, webinars, podcasts, and much more. And if you’d like an agriculture specialist to provide a one-on-one consultation, call 1-800-346-9140 or email your questions to askanag@ncat.org.

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