FAISON — Like many people contemplating retirement, Abigail Beltran knew she was ready for a change in both lifestyle and location when she left behind a 38-year career in nursing and social work. Unlike most who leave the workforce, however, the 73 year-old Puerto Rican native already had another career mapped out in her mind— owner and operator of a small, self-sufficient rural farm.
“After I retired I decided to follow my passion, I wanted a place where I could work to give my children a reason to come home,” remembered Beltran, during an interview at her home on Lake Artesia Road in Faison. “This is a big leap of faith but I was very unhappy living in the city; I felt the pull of the land.”
Beltran is a member of the Whitaker Small Farm Group, an organization that works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach to help gain assistance for women and minority farmers throughout eastern North Carolina. Established in 2006, the group helps small farmers, often with limited resources, turn dormant land into a source of income.
Beltran said she first became aware of the group after moving to her current home 11 years ago. Having previously lived in New York, Michigan and, most recently, Alexandria, Virginia, Beltran sad she was looking for a place that would allow her the room and solitude to begin a new life.
Despite a lack of experience, Beltran said she was drawn to farming. “I don’t come from an agricultural background. I had no education in permaculture,” she stated, referring to the approach to agriculture she aspires to, wherein each element supports and feeds other elements, creating a virtually self-sustaining environment into which humans fit as an integral part.
Beltran said her desire to learn about agriculture goes beyond a simple, return-to-basics whim.
“I’m a firm believer that America is in a lot of trouble. If the problem in Europe gets worse, it’s going to get very hard for us,” she remarked. “If our supplies from overseas get cut off, there’s not going to be enough food to feed the entire country. It’s not going to be easy. When hunger hits, I want to be ready to step up to the plate.”
As a site to inaugurate her untested plans, Beltran said her new home proved somewhat less than ideal. When she first set eyes on the overgrown 7.3-acre lot, she remembered, the land’s three remaining structures—a mobile home, a barn, and a small house—were in advanced states of disrepair. “The only other things out here were three pecan tree. My sons made trips down here and helped me make all the repairs.”
After securing the mobile home as her living quarters, Beltran began making plans for the surrounding land. “I started by planting trees,” she said, pointing out that the land, in addition to nine new pecan trees, is now host to apple, Asian pear, persimmon, and apricot stock as well.
Looking for any information that could help with her new endeavor, Beltran said she decided to take a class being offered by the Whitaker Small Farm Group through Sampson Community College. When the college was unable to provide space for the class, Beltran offered the group the use of the newly-built greenhouse on her property in Faison. When the group offered to lease the building, Beltran said she ”leaped at the chance.”
According to Charles Whitaker, director of Whitaker Small Farm Group, the classes are designed to teach small farmers who are generally under-served by federal assistance programs how to better take advantage of the available resources. “Women and minorities aren’t participating in programs. We reach out to these groups to provide some level of training to increase their income.”
Whitaker, who previously spent 38 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said his motivation for starting the program was simple “I know there are a lot of people, particularly women, who own land that is not productive. Many of these small farmers have no equipment to till land, and also lack a basic understanding about new technology. I want to teach them how to change that, how to make their land productive.”
Although small farmers may lack resources, said Whitaker, there are still opportunities for successful crop production. “We teach them techniques like seeding and how to grow plants in trays. We show them how to sell their plants at a time when the market is not saturated with that particular crop. One of the answers is going to be growing niche crops and selling locally.”
Whitaker said it is his hope that the farmers will take their new knowledge back to their communities, where it will be disseminated among other growers.
During a recent meeting at the Agricultural Extension Office in Kenansville, Whitaker said representatives from the state Office of Financial Assistance, Rural Development Agency, Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, as well as the head manager for the N.C. A&T State University farm program were on hand to help guide participants through the often-confusing maze of grants and other forms of subsidies currently available.
“There’s money out there for low income housing; for help with storm damage repairs; for planting trees,” emphasized Whitaker. “But you have to sign up. Otherwise, it’s just setting there not helping anyone.”
According to Beltran, the classes at her home have proven popular beyond what she could have imagined. “We had about 100 at the last meeting. I’ve met all kinds of interesting people,” she remarked.
“Abigail’s place is a good location,” said Whitaker. “It’s the right size to appeal to women minority farmers. They can see that they can do this with their own farm as well.”
Having recently graduated from Whitaker’s six-month program, titled “Hands-on Training for Small Farmers and Women in Agriculture” Beltran now serves as a volunteer for the group, helping spread the word outside of her own community. “I do what I can,” she commented.
Beltran also serves as treasurer of the N.C. Small Family Farm Cooperative, a group that formed out of the training classes in October 2010. Whitaker said the co-op is a way to market the food grown by its members and currently includes 10 families. The group, which meets monthly, includes members from Duplin, Sampson, Pender, and Wake counties, while other counties may be included in the near future.
As other outlets for their crops, Whitaker said the group is also looking at sites in Raleigh as well as the farmer’s market in Wilmington.
While walking her property last week, Beltran stopped to talk with Nathan Pittman, a member of Whitaker’s group and the Cooperative’s production officer, as he took a break from tilling up a small, grass covered plot behind Beltran’s orchard. Beltran said the newly-turned land would be used for planting winter crops, including onions, beets, and lettuce. “We want to have something growing at all times of the year,” she stated.
According to Beltran, Pittman has been one of the saving graces of her upstart farm. “He’s always there when I need him,” said Beltran. “He’s totally immersed in what goes on.”
The owner of a small farm in Magnolia, Pittman said he’s been working the land “ever since I can remember.” Having met Beltran through Whitaker’s group, Pittman said he’s glad to lend a hand in any way he can. “The Lord has blessed us, it’s a nice thing we’ve got going here.”
Pointing to a row of guinea hens flocking around the tilled soil, Pittman pointed out one of the advantages of small farming. “See the way they’re eating the worms where it’s been turned up. I don’t use any pesticides or herbicides. You wouldn’t see that in most fields because the soil would have been chemicalized to death.”
While Pittman said he is dedicated to helping his fellow farmers, he believes the future of the vocation among African-American growers is in jeopardy.
“It would be nice to get more young people involved, but they’re not interested,” commented Pittman. “We need more young farmers; ones who actually do the work and not just read about it in a book. There’s a whole lot of information in the ground that you can’t get from a book: what time to plant, when to harvest; these things mean a lot. All that is going to be gone.”
That lack of interest, said Whitaker, was among the reasons he formed the Small Farm Group. “African-American farmers don’t have replacements to take over farms; the numbers are way down. We need more 19-40 year olds in production agriculture.”
Whitaker said he believes the problem lies mainly in the lack of economic prospects. “They have seen their fathers involved and seen the money is not coming in; it’s a matter of vision and perception.”
Talk of the future leads Beltran to discuss her own plans for herself and her family. Standing beside the large greenhouse on the western edge of her property, Beltran said the heated building would allow her to grow tomatoes and other warm weather crops throughout the winter.
Pointing to an overgrown field adjacent to the greenhouse, Beltran said she plans, in the near future, to add goats to the menagerie of chickens and guinea hens already roaming her property. “That way we can have cheese and milk to add to the eggs,” she said, smiling at the thought.
Beltran said her ultimate goal is to bring her two sons, currently living in Kentucky and Florida, to live with her to help tend the land she’s worked for nearly a decade, cultivating it, one tree, one plant at a time, into the vision she dreamed of during her days as a city dweller.
“I had a masters degree, I worked for years and made it on my own. None of that did it for me. I may not have a lot out here, but I think I have a lot. I go to bed satisfied, and that is what life is all about.”
Beltran said she believes the change has had additional benefits as well.
“My grandma died when she was 120. I think I’m going to outlive her. I don’t get sick; I’m a vegetarian; I haven’t been to the doctor in years. This is the legacy I want to leave to my children.”
Reaching up to inspect the limbs of a pear tree in her front yard, Beltran said, despite the constant work, she wouldn’t trade her new life for a more typical retirement.
“Sometimes, when the light is right, when I’m here by myself, I swear this is paradise, warts and all.”