Training the Next Generation

By: Megan Fehrman, SAEA Outreach Coordinator

For some in the agricultural world, winter is the time for resting, recuperating and planning for the next season. It can also be full of meetings, travel, and probably means attending a farming conference or two. This winter, the USDA released the preliminary data from the 2012 Agricultural Census. As sustainable agriculture educators, how do we take this new information and incorporate it into our work, both for 2014 season, and beyond?

At base level, the census numbers do not look promising. While the number of large farms has grown, the number of mid-sized farms continues to decline. It appears that small farms held steady, which is somewhat hopeful from a sustainability perspective, but these small farms do not necessarily bring in enough income to support the people living there.

The average age of the American farmer is now nearly 58, an increase of 1.2 years since 2007 alone, with about a third of our farming population over the age of 65. On the other hand, the number of farmers between the ages of 25 and 34 increased slightly to 6%. But with a decrease in the 35 to 44 range, it is unclear if young farmers are sticking with it.

I recently returned from the Oregon Small Farms Conference where the need to train the next generation of farmers was underscored repeatedly by the keynote speaker, Michael Ableman of Foxglove Farm. Farm profitability and sustainability were also topics of conversation, both on stage by presenters and in the casual conversations in the halls during the breaks. At EcoFarm earlier this winter, land transfer and succession planning were discussed again and again. If we are able to get people into the field, which is a big job in and of itself, how do we help them succeed?

After EcoFarm, I met people addressing these issues as I toured the UC Santa Cruz Student farm and the UC Davis Student Farm. Over the past 5 years, many new farmer-training programs have sprouted up, but these two date back to 1967 and 1977 respectively. They offer a couple of different approaches to sustainable agriculture education, and provide models for many others.

The Center for Agroecology and Food Systems at UCSC runs their apprenticeship program in conjunction with UCSC Extension. The Apprenticeship course carries 20 units of Extension credit for the approximately 300 hours of classroom instruction and 700 hours of in-field training and hands-on experience in the greenhouses, gardens, orchards, and fields. During the six-month program, topics such as soil management, composting, pest control, crop planning, irrigation, farm equipment, marketing techniques, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) are covered. Graduates of the program go on to run their own farms, host educational programs, and manage many different projects concerning food and farming.

The Student Farm at UC Davis is 20-acres of certified organic teaching and research fields- offering internships, formal courses, research opportunities, and visits from the general public. Student interns can work in the Ecological Garden or the Market Garden, a four-acre section dedicated to hands-on learning about small scale, organic vegetable production and marketing. Students help to sell their produce through a CSA, to a coffee house on campus, and other venues. Courses at the Student Farm include Organic Crop Production Practices, Intro to Sustainable Agriculture, Seminar on Alternatives in Agriculture, and Field Work in Ag and Environmental Education where students work with Kids in the Garden.

Currently, I am the Education Director for the Rogue Farm Corps, a non-profit that works with a network of commercial growers in agricultural communities in Oregon to provide hands-on training. Though we have only been at this for ten years, we are working with the on-farm internship model that has been happening in the world of sustainable agriculture for decades- while providing a legal, safe, and educational experience for all involved. We have learned a lot from UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz, as we work to establish valid educational programming outside the realm of Academia. And, we have a lot to share with them. Our relationships with these institutions, and others, have been crucial to our development.

Clearly, these three programs, and many, many more across the country (as shown in our Academic Program Listings and the Student Farm/Garden Listings), are doing their part to get that number of farmers in the 25-34 age bracket above six percent. These programs are networking and exchanging information through organizations like the SAEA. They are coming up with curriculum, not only teach the art of sustainable agriculture, but also to teach marketing, bookkeeping, and technological skills necessary to run a profitable farm business. And, they are forming partnerships and working relationships with others within the food system to help build the movement.

In one of his writings, Michael Abelman says, “We prepare ground for planting, providing everything we can to insure that the conditions are right. We place tiny seeds, and plants, and trees in that ground, in rows, and lines, and blocks, on raised beds, in trenches, in holes, we wait and watch and cover and protect, always knowing that in the end we are not in control.” The same applies to new farmers. As agricultural educators, we are responsible for creating the best of conditions for these young people- so that they may thrive.

For more reading on this topic, please see this article by Kim Niewolny, the President of SAEA’s Steering Council: Expanding the Boundaries of Beginning Farmer Training and Program Development: A Review of Contemporary Initiatives To Cultivate a New Generation of American Farmers