By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
HANCEVILLE — When the first students show up to get their hands dirty in its hands-on outdoor classroom next spring, Wallace State Community College’s new Small Farmer Training Program will be ready for them.
With a full year’s worth of student-free tweaking and preparation under its belt, the innovative new program, under the leadership of local farmer and trained agronomist Travis Kress, will take on its inaugural class next March just in time for students to get in on the ground floor of the planting season.
Growing, harvesting, branding and selling: it’s the reason the small farmer program — one of the only such offerings in the country — was established. It’s for people who want to learn how to turn their land into a source of income and enjoyment. It assumes nothing about students’ prior experience. It targets not only high school-age teens, but retirees and empty-nesters.
In short, it’s for everyone who’s willing to get their hands dirty on the way to making a little — perhaps even a lot — of money.
“We’re going to concentrate on the ‘hands on’ aspect of the farm: how you grow it; how you sell it; how you market it,” Kress, part of a Cullman County family with deep and continuing roots in farming, explains. “We’re going in-depth. We’re gonna have the classroom lectures, yes — but then we’re going to go outside, and we’re going to put that knowledge on the ground.”
Students who complete the program will be awarded a certificate in small farming, as well as the opportunity to apply some of the credits they’ve earned toward an associate’s degree in Horticulture. In the process, they’ll come away with a core of knowledge that can help them start up their own small farms, or manage existing ones.
Kress said momentum for a program of this kind comes, in part, from the generational divide that separates those who once farmed local land as a way of life, and their descendants — professionals who inherit their family land but haven’t necessarily inherited their parents’ or grandparents’ “heritage” skills: a green thumb, an understanding of weather, soil, plants, seasons and equipment, a sense for agribusiness.
“I really feel there’re a lot of people in Cullman who grew up on grandpa’s farm; mom and dad’s farm — and then went to college got a degree and into professional positions where farming wasn’t part of their lives anymore.
“Well, some of them may be retiring at 50, and they’re looking at their family farm — 40 acres; 100 acres — and they’re at a crossroads. The land has sentimental value; plus it’s good land to use. People may want to use that land but they don’t know how. That’s where wee come in.”
Can a small farmer really make money?
“Absolutely,” says Kress, who along with his wife, grows and markets strawberries, peaches, and other produce on his own 40-acre, retail-facing farm. “I feel that you can make a living on 10 acres or less. I really believe that 5-10 acres, if it’s managed right and you’re dedicated to the purpose and the cause, can make a living to support you and your family.
“But,” he adds, “you’ve got to be committed to it. Small acreage requires more intensive management. And you have to be willing to work.”
Situated in one of the South’s — and the nations’ — most robust agricultural communities, Wallace State and Cullman County offer an extended outdoor classroom that can’t be duplicated from scratch,” Kress says.
“There are only two colleges that are close to offering something like this that I know of: one is Michigan State; the other is Central Carolina. There’s no other campus in the country — certainly not in Alabama — that can do what Wallace State is about to do, with all the resources we have just within a 10-mile radius of here.
“Cullman’s number-one in agriculture in the state, and that translates into real benefits for a program like ours. We’re surrounded not only by great farmers, but by great resources: the Agriplex; the Agricultural Research Station. No one can mimic what we’re gonna do, at the speed we’re gonna be able to do it.”
To learn more about Wallace State Community College’s new Small Farmer Training Program, visit wallacestate.edu/programs/technical-division/farmer-training or contact Kress by phone at 256-352-8115, or by email at email@example.com.