downtown greensboro skyline
The skyline of downtown Greensboro. The N.C. A&T University Farm sits just around three miles away from these skyscrapers.

They may not lecture in a classroom. But make no mistake, the cows at the University Farm at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (N.C. A&T) are teachers all the same.

The 57 cows that make up the herd at N.C. A&T help students learn and understand agriculture in a way that only hands-on work can.

“We do four things here: We’re teaching, we’re researching, we’re doing demonstration, and we’re doing production work,” said Leon Moses, the farm’s superintendent of 18 years before his retirement this past July.  “Our students gain the necessary skillset to work in the dairy industry.”

Students Get Hands On From the Get-go

The University Farm, which spans 492 acres, sits just three-and-a-half miles from skyline of downtown Greensboro, N.C., a contrast that adds another unique layer to the N.C. A&T dairy. The dairy has been a Maryland & Virginia member since 2006, when the dairy returned from a one-year hiatus.

Students are expected to be full participants in the operation of the farm. That brings some different challenges than an average Maryland & Virginia farm.

“My employees are only here for four years at a time,” Corey Burgess, the dairy unit coordinator said. “They move on from here to grad schools, vet schools, industry work – even teaching. But our program gives the kids a chance to be exposed to dairy, something they may not otherwise get a chance to do in life.”

Four people stand in a milking parlor chatting
Corey Burgess (R) speaks to his three students as they work to milk the herd of 25 cows at the N.C. A&T University Farm Dairy Unit.
herd of cows on a pasture
The cows at the N.C. A&T dairy are on a pasture-based system of dairy farming, which the university says is a perfect model for small farmers in North Carolina looking to get all of their forage from the land.

The students report for milkings at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. and take care of the herd even when their fellow students have school breaks.

“I think I have some of the best students in the state of North Carolina right now,” said Burgess. “The quality awards we receive from Maryland & Virginia are a credit to our students here at A&T. Without the students, this dairy wouldn’t be possible.”

The herd at N.C. A&T is on a pasture-based grazing system and rotates pastures roughly every three days. The model is one the University thinks is perfect for small farms in North Carolina seeking to lower overhead and provide a herd’s nutritional needs from pasture.

University Stands As Beacon For Underserved Groups

As the largest Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the country, N.C. A&T has a long history of representing those underserved in many academic areas. But for its dairy unit, representation of minority agriculturalists is more pronounced than perhaps anywhere else across the University – because it’s the only dairy unit at an HBCU in the United States. 

“There are many students who have come through this university, come through this farm system and developed a real sense of love for agriculture and farming,” Moses said. “They left here and went back to the farm and started developing what they have learned here at the University.”

It’s a mission that remains as critical as when N.C. A&T was founded, if not more so. In 1920, there were nearly one million Black farm operators in the country; today, a USDA study finds that number at less than 50,000. 

Moses says that all comes down to resources available to minority farmers.

“It’s not as simple for people of color to go into a bank or a loaning facility and get funding to actually start an operation from scratch,” Moses said. “Until we can overcome that barrier and allow people of color to get in front of bankers and walk away with a loan that allows them to farm, we’re always going to have this struggle.”

cows in a freestal barn
The herd at N.C. A&T's University Farm number 25 milking cows, with a total of around 57 in the herd including young stock, dry cows, and heifers.
concept art of urban and community food center at N.C. A&T university
The University is planning a Urban And Community Food Complex, which will include a creamery.

Growth In The Works For N.C. A&T

Even while serving multiple functions, N.C. A&T is keeping an eye forward on what’s next – and two big projects are on the horizon.

First, the University hopes that its two new milking robots will be up and running by next summer. Burgess says the robots will help students stay on the cutting edge.

The University is also in the process of planning and building an Urban and Community Food Complex near the farm. As part of the new facility, the University will also be launching Aggie Ice Cream made with milk from the farm. The team expects that the new product will be available at the University’s campus soon.

Common Goals Connect University To Dairy Farmers Everywhere

Even with all the growth, one thing will be a constant: the university will always stand as a resource for small, minority farmers across the country.

“When I go to these meetings and talk with other dairy farmers, we’re still family,” Burgess said. “We have that one thing that joins us and that is dairy farming. No matter the color, we have that one place that we can all go together and meet.”