CRAFT United Piedmont at Ever Laughter Farm: Sharing about Tool-Sharing and How to Grow Year-Round

No tools? No problem? Beginning farmers and the farm-curious came from Wilmington to Rougemont to learn about a tool-lending co-op that allows beginning, first-generation farmers to save money by sharing instead of purchasing pricey equipment. The tour this past Sunday, October 20th, was part of another monthly meeting of the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), United Piedmont, coordinated by Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. They gathered at Ever Laughter Farm in Hillsborough to learn about fall/winter season extension methods and a Sustainable Agriculture Tool-Lending Library cooperative to which the farm belongs.

Ever Laughter Farm is in their fifth year of production on their 7-acre property, where they have been farming since 2008. Farmer Will Cramer had previously studied sustainable agriculture at Central Carolina Community College's Sustainable Agriculture program and farmed through apprenticeships as well as through the PLANT @ Breeze Farm's  Incubator program. In 2008, he joined forces with his now farming partner, Sam Hummel, who had recently moved to Hillsborough to start a farm but wasn’t ready to farm full-time. Now, they grow a wide variety of vegetables, raise chickens for eggs, and are also developing another 10 acre plot of land eight miles down the road from their current farm. They sell at both the Chapel Hill and the Durham farmers markets twice a week as well as to a few restaurants.


The CRAFT crowd, as always, came from a variety of background and parts of region, but all shared in interest in learning and growing food.  Participants were beginning farmers, part-time farmers, incubator farmers, apprentices on local farms, and even a resident at a co-housing community in Rougemont that wants to grow 80% of its food. One person had driven all the way from Wilmington for the afternoon to be a part of the learning environment. All were excited to learn from each other’s successes, mistakes, and experiments as they try to make a living farming or begin their own growing endeavors.

Sustainable Agriculture Tool Lending Library

Ever Laughter Farm belongs to a cooperative called the Sustainable Agriculture Tool Lending Library. Started by George O’Neal of Lil Farm and his girlfriend, Kelly Owensby, in 2008, the co-op of 10 farmers buys and shares tools together. The Lending Library was initially funded by a cost-share grant from RAFI(Rural Advancement Foundation International)-USA’s Tobacco Community Reinvestment Fund, which assists farming communities transition out of tobacco and farmers develop new sources of income.

The co-op allows beginning, first-generation farmers to save money by sharing instead of purchasing pricy equipment outright that they might only need one day a month. Will and Sam started farming at Ever Laughter without a tractor. As they grew and a tractor eventually became necessary for them, belonging to the co-op allowed them to purchase a better tractor than they would have otherwise because they had the security of knowing that they would not also need to purchase lots of implements like a bush hog and a disc harrow to go with the tractor – those would be available through the Sustainable Ag Tool Lending Library. These types of tools save lots of work by hand, and lots of time.

The farmers use a Google calendar to manage scheduling – creating an event for when they need the tool and for how long. The tool then stays at that farm until the next farmer needs it. They capped the group at 10 members for a reason -- Will cautioned that having more than 10 members could make it harder to coordinate and to keep track of where all the tools are at any given time.They hold a yearly meeting to decide what their purchasing priorities are and make all the decisions for the year. Farmers also pay $200 yearly in dues, which mainly goes towards maintenance of the shared tools.

IMG_0453What other types of tools has the cooperative purchased?  An augur for post-hole digging, a vacuum sealer for on-farm meat processing, different types of hand seeders, a transplanter, a disc harrow, a tillage tool, a tiller, a small plastic mulch layer, a bush hog, a manure spreader, a trailer, a bedder, a  pressure washer, a wood splitter, and a leaf vacuum.

With that last item, Ever Laugher Farm has collected large amount of organic material (leaves) for compost and mulch. The first year they used it, they tried driving into the town of Hillsborough to collect leaf piles that folks had raked up from their yards, but ending up spending too much on gas in the process. So the next year, they instead put up flyers around Kenion Rd (the road their farm is off of), and found that their neighbors were happy to have someone pick up their leaves instead of burning them or pushing them to the woodline – it’s a mutually beneficial relationship! From their leaf collecting efforts, Ever Laughter was able to fill a 100 ft bed 5ft tall, mixing the leaves with horse and chicken manure to create compost and enrich their soil , which is especially important in the beginning stages of farming and here in the Southeast, where heat and rain leach organic material out of soil quickly.

During the CRAFT event, participants got to look at and inquire about the usefulness of various tools, and even got to try one of them out! They helped bend pipes for a caterpillar tunnel (similar to a hoop house) that the farm uses to continue growing when the weather turns cooler. Watch this video to learn more about the Sustainable Agriculture Lending Library and its creation.

Fall/Winter Season Extension

Ever Laughter Farm aims to grow and sell produce year-round. We’re lucky enough to live in a climate that allows this to a large degree, but many crops still need protection from the elements during the colder months of the year.

To extend the growing season into the fall and winter months, Will and Sam say they first experimented with cheap methods, which didn’t work very well. They have since invested in better systems, but are still experimenting to determine the best methods for what they can afford. Heated greenhouses , for instance, work well to grow year-round, but require a lot of capital or really good credit to build, and the farmers would rather not burn lots of fossil fuels if they can avoid it.

So what’s the solution? They grow hardier crops that can withstand cooler temperatures, and use low tunnels and high “caterpillar” style  tunnels to insulate the rows from the cold.

Low tunnels fit over individual rows of crops – pieces of PVC pipe are stuck onto 1.5 ft pieces of rebar to form hoops over the rows. Next, they string rope or twine down the center of the row, looping it around each hoop at the top to create the spine of the tunnel. They then cover the hoops with greenhouse fabric and weight the ends of the fabric on the ground.

This keeps the crops a full 5-6 degrees warmer at night, meaning that even if the temperature drops below freezing, the plants will be protected.

The farm’s larger “Caterpillar” tunnels use the same basic idea, but fit over multiple rows and use greenhouse plastic instead of fabric as a cover.

The plastic cover provides extra heat that would be too much for the smaller rows with our variable weather – one warm winter day and the crops could fry. The plastic on the caterpillar tunnels can also be rolled and clamped up to allow air in during the day to avoid overheating.

When it's really cold out, Will also sometimes put low-tunnels on the rows inside the Caterpillar tunnels for double protection from the cold. The hoops on these tunnels are composed of top rail and footer material they get from chain link fence supply companies like Dickerson’s Fencing Supply in Durham.

But this event wasn't just a tour -- CRAFT participants got to do some hands-on learning, too!

After testing out the co-op's pipe bender, they helped Will finish putting up the hoops and covering them with plastic for a new caterpillar tunnel on the farm!

Covering the Caterpillar tunnel. Teamwork! Photo by Shosha Capps

Thanks to all who have attended the CRAFT tours this fall! We have our final tour for the 2013 season November 10th at Raleigh City Farm from 2pm-6pm. The tour will focus on agriculture with an urban strategy, production emphasis, community mission, and restaurant support. Attendees will also have the chance to participate in building modified hugelkultur beds! Find out more and register here!