By Kim Robson:
Are farmers going extinct?
Some experts believe the collapse of our current big agribusiness food system may be imminent because of its dependence on three fragile conditions: cheap petroleum, plentiful clean water, and a stable climate — none of which are guaranteed in our future. Our aging population of farmers will need replacements when they retire, and transferring their knowledge to future farmers is vital to emerging sustainable food systems. Farm apprenticeships are a pathway into this essential and rewarding career.
By growing food locally and sustainably, farmers improve the ecological and economic health of their communities. The Institute for Food and Development Policy reviewed farm productivity data from 27 countries and found that the productivity of smaller farms — which integrate growing multiple crops with raising livestock — is between two to ten times higher than industrial-scale monoculture crops.
Aspiring farmers can learn skills from many sources. Universities and books are fine, but most important is hands-on experience. They need practical experience and access to land; and farmers need laborers and, sometimes, someone trained and ready to buy their farm and take over when they retire. Apprenticeships bring these two groups together through mutual benefit: knowledgeable farmers pass on their knowledge to those willing to learn in exchange for getting additional enthusiastic hands and minds to help with work.
Benefits to Farmers
For 13 years, Patricia Mumme of Garden Patch Produce in Alexandria, Ohio, has hosted apprentices through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). Her apprentices’ speed and efficiency improve considerably throughout a season, making them much more likely to succeed during their first years of farming on their own.
Annie Warmke, who owns Blue Rock Station in Philo, Ohio, says her apprentices’ influence, ideas, hard work and passion have moved her business forward, and have kept her going emotionally as well as financially.
Advice for Aspiring Apprentices
Trust your instincts while searching for the right farm. Ask questions about the farm’s practices and the specifics of the arrangement. Your labor is valuable, so you should expect to learn much in exchange. Enjoying what you do is important. A farmer needs to delight in the work to keep at it through bad weather and fatigue.
Unsure what to focus on? Consider apprenticing on a homestead that offers a choice of interesting tasks. Try out vegetable gardening, tending orchards or bees, or livestock and pasture management. Varied experience provides you with tools for self-sufficiency and helps you decide which areas to concentrate on when starting your own farm.
Already know what your path will be? Choose a mentor who is already successful in that area. Offer your labor in exchange for agricultural knowledge, as well as how to market and promote, meet licensing requirements and finance your operation. Visit other farms during the same season to broaden your exposure.
Experience is great, but small-scale farming also requires knowledge, which must be constantly updated through study and attending conferences. Most small-scale farmers have bookshelves filled with reading material that dates from the year they began farming. Hosts will share their collected books and journals with apprentices when afternoons are too hot or too wet for chores.
Supplement farm experience with structured education to gain basic knowledge of farm science. Understanding the basics of soil physics, chemistry and biology brings an understanding of the “why” of various farming practices, while the “how” comes from hands-on experience. Though a degree isn’t necessary, some basic science classes such as chemistry, biology, entomology, plant pathology, and soil chemistry would serve all farmers well. These courses help farmers understand and evaluate the validity of what they read. Having a formal science background also helps organic farmers avoid buying unnecessary amendments because they will better understand what their plants really need.
Finally, look into available grants for beginning farmers, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which funds projects exclusively dedicated to training the next generation of farmers.
Making Farm Apprenticeships Work
At first, working together may be strange for farmer or apprentice. Suddenly, the farm has a new family member, and the apprentice is thrown into a new family. Clear communication on both sides is key. Clearly state what you expect from the experience before making any commitment. For instance, ask about expectations for room, board or stipends; individual dietary preferences; and needs for private time off.
Room, meals and instruction are the most common reimbursement for apprentices’ work. However, if school loans or car payments can’t wait, then you should discuss a possible stipend. While most farm apprenticeships are unpaid, some farmers such as Caretaker Farms provide a monthly living allowance.
However, if the match just isn’t right, either apprentice or farmer can terminate the agreement.
How to Get Started
Many states and regions have groups that offer farm apprenticeship programs, hold conferences, teach classes, and guide farm tours. To find programs in your state, google “[state] farm apprenticeship program.” Some examples:
Here’s a list of larger national organizations:
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) provides a directory to connect farmers and apprentices nationwide.
FarmLINK matches experienced farmers in Canada with apprentices seeking to learn farming skills.
GrowFood lists more than 1,700 farms seeking apprentices. Room, board and experience are generally accepted as compensation.
For international farming experience, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) can connect you to organic farmers in foreign countries.