Ellery Locklear started selling watermelons in high school. He got an old tractor running and used an acre of his family’s land to create a business for himself — hawking the summer fruits from the back of his pickup truck.
Since then, Locklear, now 41, has grown his Pembroke farming business to 100 acres and six greenhouses. He still grows watermelons — strawberries provide his biggest profit now — and he produces a variety of other crops like tomatoes and sweet corn with the help of three year-round employees, as well as seasonal workers.
What started as a hobby turned into work. When Locklear wanted to sharpen his business skills, he turned to the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub, a business incubator located at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke that offers a variety of farming techniques and business management programs for agricultural entrepreneurs.
“When I had kids, I started to think that if they want to take over the farm one day, I want to leave them a business that works,” said Locklear, father to 4-year-old Alyssa and 2-year-old Nathaniel. “I’m starting to think about the next generation.”
In 2020, Locklear took the Hub’s “Tilling the Soil” class, a free, 10-week night course offered each winter and fall through a partnership with the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC). The course teaches agricultural business management principles, helping participants create viable business plans.
Locklear credits the class with bettering his record keeping and employee management. His next goal is to create a business website.
Locklear is just one local farmer aided by the Hub, which is expanding its offerings with the development of the AgHealth Demo Farm, a 15-acre site off Deep Branch Road in Pembroke. It will offer hands-on agricultural trainings and workshops.
Ed Hunt came to the Hub in 2018 through a grant from Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust to develop agriculture businesses and jobs around agriculture in the region. He serves as the Hub’s KBR sustainability coordinator.
The demo farm’s acres sit mostly empty now, but when Hunt looks over them, he sees the future — future farming demonstrations, cutting-edge research and jobs.
Because in Southeastern North Carolina, business still grows in the ground, but not necessarily your granddaddy’s crops. The Hub’s demo farm represents just one part of UNCP’s deepening commitment to the region’s changing agricultural needs, specifically a push toward sustainable agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines sustainable agriculture as agricultural practices intended to protect the environment, expand the Earth’s natural resource base, and maintain and improve soil fertility.
A renewed interest in locally sourced food, from collards to chickens, has produced a demand for sustainable agriculture, creating new opportunities for farm workers pushed out of row crop work by increasing mechanization and capital costs a generation ago, Hunt said.
“What we need is more farmers. You’re outside, you’re your own boss. The farming field’s wide open. You can make it whatever you want it to be,” Hunt said.
The demo farm will provide trainings and research on sustainable farming techniques — from plasticulture demonstrations to poultry disease research, Hunt said.
Besides the professional training programs at the Hub, UNCP currently offers a minor in sustainable agriculture and established a bachelor’s degree in biology with an agricultural science emphasis during the 2019-20 academic year. The university’s faculty, staff and students also use local farms for research and training.
“I think one of the things we do really well is respond to the needs of the region,” said Jodi Phelps, UNCP’s chief communications and marketing officer, who noted the long history of farming in Southeastern North Carolina.
According to recent statistics from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer services, nearly half of Robeson County’s land is used for agriculture.
Like Locklear, many of the students and professionals served by UNCP’s agricultural programs come from family farms they want to keep economically viable.
Others want to start new businesses entirely.
Roderick McMillan called the Hub essential in setting up MG3 Farms, his hydroponic farming business that grows a variety of produce from a 10,500-square-foot greenhouse beside his home in Maxton.
When the 29-year-old got laid off from his job at a grain company a couple of years ago, he knew he wanted to be his own boss but didn’t see farming row crops like his father — who maintains 500 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans — as his path.
“I feel like I am called to farm,” said McMillan, who also received a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification through the Hub.
GAP certification ensures that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.
The Hub connected McMillan to buyers for his products, as well as gave him advice on marketing. McMillan said he makes approximately $75,000 a year through his farming, and though it’s hard work — a recent morning saw him up at 3 a.m. to deliver lettuce to Raleigh — he loves it. Clients for his products have included farmers’ markets and local restaurants, as well as local universities.
Creating connections is a big part of the Hub’s efforts, Hunt said, This includes networking events that connect farmers to food buyers, from regional distributors to farm-to-table chefs. The Hub also helps farmers control costs through resources like a tool loaner program. UNCP’s agricultural faculty and students create connections by using local farms to conduct research and get hands-on training.
Millard Locklear’s New Ground Farm is one of them.
UNCP classes use the 26-acre farm Locklear runs in Pembroke with his wife, Connie, to conduct cutting-edge research, such as studies in biochar, a charcoal used to increase soil fertility.
“The Locklears are so wonderful. They’re so excited to share their knowledge with the next generation of farm workers,” Phelps said.
Locklear has also taken the Hub’s “Tilling the Soil” course, which he calls instrumental in starting his sustainable farm work, a retirement venture begun after working 37 years with DuPont.
A Pembroke native, 67-year-old Locklear grew up with parents who farmed — 1,000 acres of tobacco, corn and soybeans — but like many in his generation left the farm to make a living as rising costs made it harder for family farms to compete with corporate agriculture.
“It was outstanding. I learned what it takes to do sustainable farming,” Locklear said of the “Tilling the Soil” course.
In a good year, which 2020 was not because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he can make about $2,000 or $3,000 profit an acre. However, while Locklear appreciates the profits he turns with his farm — where he grows vegetables like collards, sweet corn, okra — he also appreciates the active lifestyle, healthy eating and connection to community that the work brings him.
Hunt said farming work also brings a connection to the land that goes beyond money.
“There’s an electric current between our bodies and the earth and there’s a pride element in growing a crop,” Hunt said. “We’ve lost a whole generation of farmers. We’ve lost that connection to the land.”
Hunt remains confident UNCP’s work will help get them back. Those 15 acres out on Deep Branch Road might sit empty now, but this fall Hunt hopes to have sewer on the property, then greenhouses, test fields and by 2024, a building with offices and meeting space. There is potential for a farmers’ market on the site, and demo farm plans call for geothermal and solar fields.
Hunt envisions other universities using the site for research, and he sees farmers learning the innovations that will let them earn a good living while protecting the environment around them. The possibilities are endless.
For more information on the Hub and its programs, visit the website at thethomashub.org.
This article is a collaboration between UNC Media Hub and borderbeltindependent.org, a non-profit online newsroom serving Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties.