RALEIGH, N.C. — “I saw the disconnect between agriculture and local farms with my students when I taught high school agriculture. I knew I wanted to invite people onto our farm to see and know their local farmer.” Michelle Pace Davis is a 6th generation Johnston County farmer who has learned the importance of farm adaptability, ag education, and customer connections. Part of her family farm’s mission is to invite and to educate – including students from her alma mater, NC State.
Bringing Class Home
Michelle Pace Davis was an agriculture education student at NC State in 2015 with no ties to Crop and Soil Sciences. But her sister Cara was an agriculture business/ crop science student, which landed her squarely in Bob Patterson’s Crop Science 213 class, one for which she would later serve as a teaching assistant.
The class’ lab work included visiting research farms, so why not her own family farm? Pace Family Farms has been a highly anticipated field trip destination for the past five years. Many students report it as the highlight of the class, often asking “Do we really have to leave?” at the day’s end.
The Power of Observation
Field trips are an important real-world connection for Patterson’s introductory class. “Perhaps the most instructive part of the field trip experience is that our students observe the consequences of the innovative thinking of the Pace family. They are constantly trying new ideas, which they share with our students, and they strongly encourage our students to keep an open mind to the possibility that there just might be “a better way!!” Patterson said. Watching inspiration in action is infinitely better than studying a book.
A Change of Pace
“I’m the 6th generation on this farm,” Pace Davis said. “One thing that has helped us was a willingness to change, take a chance, and do something different to survive the farm,” she said. For over 100 years, tobacco was the mainstay of farm income. It served them well until it didn’t.
“Our community has changed so much in the last 10-50 years. Urban sprawl has reached us. We were losing leased farmland to subdivisions and seeing increased traffic issues on the roads. I knew we needed to do something different,” Pace Davis said. “I didn’t like being at the mercy of the [tobacco] contract. I wanted to be my own boss. Daddy welcomed me back to the farm, but I had to come with a plan on how to support another family from the farm. After much research, we settled on strawberries.”
They harvested their first crop of u-pick strawberries in the spring of 2017. The community flocked to the farm with overwhelming support but left the Paces at a loss when customers asked: “What other produce do you grow?” Tobacco and soybeans weren’t on their shopping lists. But sweet corn and watermelons were. The Paces heard their customers’ demand and quickly pivoted to add produce to their fields and to introduce a subscription CSA for the next year.
The CSA has expanded each year by offering seasonal produce from potatoes and broccoli to squash, sweet potatoes, watermelons, and more. The Paces also offer on-farm agritourism events like a sunflower day, a fall pumpkin patch, and a Christmas craft fair.
“We try to get as much input from our customers to help better our business and our practices because theyare the ones spending the money. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be in business,” Pace Davis said. “It also makes our customers feel like a key part of our farm – which they really are!”
Bob Patterson stressed the value of these field trips beyond crop science. “Our students observe the empowerment resulting from a farm family developing a very trusting relationship with other families in their community–the ‘heart and soul’ of healthy community-supported agriculture.” A lesson underscored by COVID-19 fractured supply chains.
New World Agility
Sadly, this year’s Crop Science 213 field trip to Pace Family Farms (farm-fresh ice cream and all) was canceled amid COVID-19 restrictions. But Michelle Pace Davis adapted again and surprised Professor Bob Patterson with a recorded lecture to replace her usual in-class pre-farm-visit lecture.
“I’m a proud alumna. Participating in these classes is part of how we give back. I didn’t want students to miss this opportunity even if they couldn’t visit the farm right now,” she said.
Her 45-minute long lecture covered the farm history, marketing, and some life lessons for ag-minded students. “I spent five years going to conferences and other farms researching how our farm could differentiate. I learned from seeing what other farms were doing. Take advantage of these [university] connections! In business, networking is so important. You never know where a relationship will go!”
For Michelle Pace Davis, her farm’s future depends on community connections. She sees those relationships as her responsibility and a key to keeping the farm thriving. “Agriculture is changing. It’s so different than it was even five years ago. We try to be an advocate for agriculture with our customers. It’s essential to have conversations about the important topics in agriculture with our customers. We want them to get to know us. We’re the farmer just down the road!”
Want Johnston County Produce?
Pace Family Farms is open seasonally for on-farm purchases and u-pick strawberries. Hours and availability vary, so check their Facebook page for the latest details.
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–Jennifer Howard, N.C. State Extension