Perspectives Online

College Profile. Chatham County's Debbie Roos is a new agent for a new kind of farmer. By Dave Caldwell.


Since arriving in Chatham County in 2001, Roos has developed a Web site, created e-mail listservs to promote networking among farmers and led dozens of organic and sustainable farming workshops.
Photo by Daniel Kim

Meet a new kind of American farmer. He or she may not have an agricultural background. Indeed, there's a good chance this new farmer came to agriculture from another career entirely, a career that may have been considered white collar. Then there's the farming operation; it's small and may be organic, likely catering to a niche market.

Now meet the Extension agent who's working with these farmers. Her name is Debbie Roos.

Roos has been a North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent responsible for organic and sustainable farming in Chatham County since 2001. Before that, she was the horticulture agent in Lee County. The farmers with whom Roos works tend to be different, at least when compared to producers of more traditional crops such as tobacco, soybeans, cotton and corn.

"Chatham County is one of the few areas in the country where the number of farms is actually increasing," Roos says. This is happening at the same time the county's population is growing. Between 1990 and 2000, Chatham County's population grew 26 percent, to about 50,000, Roos says. The latest count puts the number of farms in the county at 1,128. That's a lot when you consider the number of farms is declining nationwide, and the average age of farmers is rising.

So what's going on here?

"A lot of the people I'm working with are first-generation farmers," says Roos. "A lot are what I call career switchers. Many had white-collar jobs. One has a Ph.D. in biostatistics. They weren't satisfied with that lifestyle. They came to Chatham County to farm, many from outside the area. It's a growing community."

The farms these farmers created are generally small, often just a few acres. But Roos says those few acres are typically farmed intensively, producing crops such as high-value specialty vegetables or flowers almost year round. Of course, more traditional farmers, those who raise traditional crops on farms that encompass hundreds of acres, vastly outnumber these new farmers.

Yet Roos says what is happening in Chatham County is an example of a trend that is popping up here and there around the country, particularly where urban and rural areas bump up against one another.

Chatham County is, of course, the perfect spot for the new agriculture. It's still a largely rural county, yet it's close to affluent Triangle markets where consumer demand for high quality, locally produced food is growing. It's the kind of area where the new agriculture can flourish.

'As interest in organic farming continues to grow, so will research and extension programs targeting organic farmers.'
Chatham County is also where Roos knew she wanted to be when she was in graduate school in the 1990s at the University of Florida earning two master's degrees. In order to be effective, Extension agents must, of course, be knowledgeable of their subject matter. But they must also understand the communities with which they work. Considering those twin needs, Roos' degrees in applied anthropology and horticulture may be the perfect training for an Extension agent.

A stint in the Peace Corps in West Africa prior to graduate school had persuaded Roos she wanted to work with farmers. Attendance at various agriculture conferences while a graduate student exposed Roos to North Carolina Cooperative Extension and programs such as the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

"I knew I wanted to work with the kind of farmers you see at the farmers' market," she says. She saw that opportunity in North Carolina and was encouraged by people like Dr. Roger Crickenberger, associate director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service; Dr. Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems; and Dr. John O'Sullivan, farm management and marketing specialist at North Carolina A&T State University.

How does Extension operate in this new agricultural environment? Roos says her program is based on three elements, which she calls "pillars": a Web site, a newsletter and workshops.

Roos surveyed her clientele when she first arrived in Chatham County and found that 95 percent used the Internet. That's when she decided to develop a Web site. She describes her Growing Small Farms site (http://chatham.ces.ncsu.edu/growingsmallfarms/) as a "labor of love. It just grows and grows." The site contains around 300 pages. In addition to production and marketing information, it includes features such as local farm profiles and a buy local guide.


Among her Chatham clients is Cathy Jones (left), who operates Perry-winkle Farm, where produce and flowers are grown organically.
Photo by Daniel Kim
Roos produces a newsletter electronically and the old-fashioned way, as a hard copy, and has about 1,400 subscribers. She also created several e-mail listservs to promote networking and information sharing among farmers. Then there are the workshops, nine to 10 a year ranging from 2 hours to 2 days. As of early August 2006, Roos had held 39 workshops since 2001, with total attendance at 2,370.

Roos is unusual among North Carolina Extension agents in that she charges for her workshops, $10-$25 a head, depending on the length. She admits she was anxious when she first considered charging, but her advisory committee urged her to do so.

"Often when people have to pay for something, they automatically consider it more valuable, and I feel obligated to make it worthwhile," she says. Registration fees cover the cost of refreshments, usually locally produced products, and a resource notebook. Roos has a core group of clients who attend all her workshops, and she's had participants from Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and all regions of North Carolina.

Doubtless the loyal following Roos has developed in Chatham County and beyond is one reason she was named national winner in the Search for Excellence in Small Farm Programs by the National Association of County Agricultural Agents at the association's annual meeting in late July in Cincinnati.
Working with organic farms can be challenging, Roos says. She points out that Extension deals in research-based information. The problem is, research-based information on organic farming is sometimes in short supply because organic research programs at land-grant universities are relatively new.

"We are fortunate to have some great sustainable agriculture specialists at NCSU and NCA&T, and as interest in organic farming continues to grow, so will research and extension programs targeting organic farmers," says Roos.

Roos sees the kind of intensive, small acreage, often-organic agriculture that's prevalent in Chatham County expanding.

"It's very exciting," she says. "It's not going away. It's the way the world is going. There's increasing interest in strengthening local food systems and protecting the environment."