Incubator farm sparks global journey for Semora native

Jillian Mickens stands in a specialized structure at her Open Doors Farms outside Prospect Hill where she grows cold-hearty lettuce, cilantro, flowers, and other produce.

Semora native and organic produce farmer Jillian Mickens recently returned from 12 weeks in Brazil as a part of North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission Agriculture Leadership Development Program through NC State University and in two weeks, she’ll leave for Texas to learn more about agriculture.

“My world of farming is a microcosm, but the program gives me a sense of farming overall. I got to meet people who have farmed their whole lives and then in Brazil I got to see it times 10, because of how enormous the farms are there. I have a new understanding of what competition North Carolina commodities farmers have to face and I got to see what one little farm like mine means in the whole global market because we’re so interconnected.”

Starting with an incubator farm in Breeze through Orange County Extension, Mickens and her husband Ross have been farming for seven years, the last four of which at their own “Open Doors Farm,” outside Prospect Hill.

Mickens said she and Ross would watch documentaries and became influenced by popular press media on agriculture, learning more about where their food comes from. Then they started gardening, attending conferences, and “lost their minds” thinking they too could farm. They purchased 43 acres in Cedar Grove, mostly wiry trees and craggy.

Bit by bit, he a software engineer and she a student, they cleared and settled the land. Five acres is used for their own farming, producing on less than two acres at a time, rotating, and growing year round. Several areas have been separated and leased out to other farmers.

“Incubator farms vary in what they offer and when I went through the program, it was near bare minimum, offering us land and equipment with only a little education behind it.”

Since then the program in Breeze has expanded and now, the Caswell County Commissioners will hear about incubator farms at the Feb. 18 regular meeting as a part of a proposed Pelham Agriculture Education and Enterprise Center.

“I’ve always been interested in politics and feel that my type of farming is underrepresented,” said Mickens. “Another huge thing was going to Washington, D.C., where we met our representatives, talked about agriculture topics, and then went to the N.C. State Legislature. Before I didn’t know how to engage in addressing policy issues. With this experience, I now have a better sense of how to make it happen in the future.”

Mickens is on the Carrboro Farmers Market Board and is involved in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association nonprofit in Pittsboro that promotes local foods and lobbies agriculture policies.

Mickens treats college students and startups who visit Open Door Farms.

The leadership development program has two main objectives, Micken said; professional development so N.C. farmers may be leaders in their communities or in their realm of agriculture; and exposure to agriculture in North Carolina, domestically, and globally.

In the leadership portion, Mickens said personality tests help participants understand who they are as a person and how they interact with employees, community, family, and people in general.

The program was originally funded in the 1970s by Philip Morris during the tobacco buyouts to better transition tobacco farmers to do other things, she said.

“It has evolved over time to include someone like me, a woman and super small scale farmer and not just row-crop farmers. But most of the people in the group were large-scale commodity row-crop farmers, cotton, soybean, wheat, corn, and tobacco.”

In the north of Brazil, Mickens and her group looked at soybeans and cotton.

“The farms are so enormous you can’t even imagine,” she said.

In South Brazil, they watched tobacco produced in ways comparable to Caswell County’s heritage past.

“On the last day, we went to a farmers market and looked at produce, but it was the second largest wholesale distributor market in the world, or something like that. There is a ton of agricultural diversity in Brazil and we didn’t see it all, but it was still awesome to see,” said Mickens.

Prospective participants must be nominated by past participants or industry leaders.

Open Door Farm welcomes anyone who wants to learn how food is grown.

They sell cold-hearty cabbages and lettuce, cut-flowers such as late winter roses, artisanal duck eggs, organic carrots and other produce.

Mickens is the daughter of Tammy Carter, Caswell Local Foods Council president.