Seventh graduating class of TSU’s New Farmer Academy. Photo by Michael McLendon, TSU Media Relations

By Lucas Johnson

 NASHVILLE, TN (TSU News Service) — Individuals from across the nation looking to become farmers graduated from Tennessee State University’s New Farmer Academy on Sept. 16.

The seven-month program was started by the university’s College of Agriculture in 2014. Participants meet the third Monday in each month from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and cover topics that include agricultural leadership and regulations, financial planning, hydroponics and irrigation, organic production, hemp production, soil fertility and suitability, and drone usage.

The Academy, which also offers classes in West and East Tennessee, is the only one of its kind in Tennessee. Its first year, the program had nine participants. This year, 38 graduated from the Middle Tennessee class, which finished last week. TSU President Glenda Glover was among the speakers who addressed the graduates on their final day.

One of the participants, Brian MacDonald, flew in each month from Orange County, California. After visiting Tennessee several years ago, he decided it is a place where he would like to retire, and do some organic farming.

“I have this dream of owning a farm,” said MacDonald, who is a retired president and chief financial officer for an electronics company. 

On the farm, he said he would set up a program for disadvantaged youth that would allow them to grow their own produce and possibly sell it, “basically teach them how to run a business, and how to sustain themselves in life.”

“When I was a kid, I was raised by a single mom for the most part,” recalled MacDonald, who is looking for farmland in Tennessee. “But there was a small portion of my life where I had an opportunity to have a horse for nine months. I learned how to take care of it, and it taught me responsibility. I feel like, if I can have a program for kids where they can take care of plants, and to teach them the responsibility of doing that, it may give them a leg up.”

Graduate Daniel Harpstead traveled from Philadelphia to attend the Academy, and said he also plans to retire in Tennessee where he owns a 33-acre farm in Culleoka. Harpstead said he doesn’t yet know what he’s going to grow on the farm, but that the class has given him some ideas, and guidance.

“I’ve had an opportunity to learn a lot, and I plan to put it to good use,” he said.

Shannon Summer also said the class was very beneficial. The retired Army veteran has a farm in Williamson County and is planning to grow hemp on it.

“What I’ve received out of it (the class) is a broad spectrum, an overview of agriculture in different arenas,” she said.

Hemp research and production was one of the main topics of this year’s class. Finis Stribling, the Academy’s coordinator and a TSU area extension specialist, said some of the graduates have already started producing hemp, and others are curious. 

“It’s a niche crop that can be utilized for small scale farmers,” said Stribling. “A lot of farmers are growing an acre, half-acre, or quarter-acre just to gain some experience.”

Ashley Richmond of Chicago was another long distance traveler to the class. A Nashville native, she and her family have a 10-acre farm in Cross Plains, Tennessee. They use one acre for hemp. 

Richmond said one of the main reasons she’s interested in hemp is because some of the senior members of her family currently use it for medicinal purposes. 

“Just seeing some aging family members around me who have issues with pain,” she said. “So I thought it was a good idea to get into the industry myself. It provides help for people who are in my life.”

Another class topic that drew strong interest is the growing use of drones in agriculture. More farmers are beginning to use them to locate livestock, detect nutrient deficiencies in croplands, and inspect water lines.

“They’ll fly along those pipelines with the drones to see if any pipes have burst, so they don’t have to walk the fields,” said John Lee, a natural resource specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and one of the Academy’s guest speakers.

Stribling said the next class is scheduled for March 2020 and he currently has a waiting list of 15 people.

For more information about the New Farmer Academy and TSU’s College of Agriculture, visit