Farming Magazine - May, 2010


Alternative Learning

Education in the classroom and the field
By Rebekah L. Fraser

Traditionally, agricultural education occurred on the farm, as farms passed from parent to child and one generation transferred knowledge on to the next. Eventually, land grant universities took a leading role in educating farmers, providing them with information based on scientific research and preparing people for entering corporate and industrial agriculture. Today, agricultural education is changing again, as local organizations look to provide farmers with tools, resources and information to create and run successful, environmentally sustainable farm businesses.

USDA grants educate new farmers

The USDA recently awarded $17 million in grants to organizations throughout the country that provide education to beginning farmers and ranchers and enhance the sustainability and competitiveness of U.S. agriculture. The USDA identifies beginning farmers as those who have been operating a farm for less than 10 years.

Education often extends well beyond the classroom, including taking advantage of resources to better farm operations. Warren Archibald and Wytonya Jackson check soybean crops in Lancaster County, Pa.
Photos by Bob Nichols.

One organization that received funding is Cultivating Community of Portland, Maine, which received a $600,000 grant to facilitate synergy between two pre-existing programs. The New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) is an immigrant farmer project recently absorbed from another nonprofit., Youth Growers, Cultivating Community’s sustainable ag-based youth empowerment program, started in 2001. Thanks to the grant money, Portland’s youth are being empowered to support the immigrants participating in NASAP with both English language and literacy skills and farming assistance.

Craig Lapine, director of Cultivating Community, says many NASAP farmers have come to a point where they’re ready for individualized help. “The new funding allows us to help those farmers with tailored business planning teams so they can have fully independent farm-based enterprises within the next 36 months,” he reports. The organization is committed to helping farmers with zero to very little capital succeed in sustainable agriculture.

Albuquerque-based Holistic Management International received $639,000 from USDA to train first-time female farmers in the Northeast. The whole-farm-planning series designed by HMI and administered by organizations in the region is designed to train beginning women farmers to create economically, environmentally and socially viable operations. The HMI training applies to many types of farming, including livestock, dairy and produce. HMI is collaborating with extension specialists at the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University, as well as with Women in Agriculture Networks in Maine, Vermont and Connecticut. Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA) is HMI’s partner organization in Massachusetts.

Located in Deerfield, Mass., CISA assists farmers in the region by offering workshops, one-on-one consulting and networking opportunities. The whole-farm-planning workshop series began in February with a full slate of participants, including start-up farmers, legacy farmers moving into the management of the family farm, and farmers with five to 10 years of experience. “This series is particularly in-depth and offers a good mix of classroom discussion, on-farm visits and networking opportunities,” reported Margaret Christie, CISA’s special projects director.

While the USDA grants created numerous opportunities for improved and increased agricultural education, several other organizations in the Northeast (and throughout the U.S.) provide new and experienced farmers with the resources they need to succeed. Programs vary from informal workshops that require little or no advance registration to certificate programs with a formal admissions process.

Quick Start

Throughout New England, New Jersey and New York, state chapters of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) offer workshops and seminars in sustainable agriculture. Their semi-annual conferences offer farmers an opportunity to gather, share information, participate in back-to-back seminars and hear keynote addresses from highly regarded agricultural professionals. Event costs vary, but farmers can usually attend them at reduced or no cost in exchange for time spent volunteering at the event.

To reduce travel expenses associated with attending workshops, the Massachusetts chapter of NOFA maintains a practice of hosting out-of-town farmers at the homes of local NOFA members, as well as inviting seminar participants to bring bulk food from their winter stores.

The Real Food Campaign offers training sessions in Nutrient Dense Crop production. Led by the organization’s director, Dan Kittredge, the 2010 workshop series commenced at locations throughout the Northeast in January. Kittredge designed the coursework to take farmers through the principles, practices and materials that optimize crop health and growth. Throughout the series, Kittredge explains details of rarely discussed subjects such as plant physiology; plant and fungal/bacterial symbioses; how to maximize the timing of growth and fruiting cycles; and how foliar sprays can affect leaf or fruit growth. Classes have been meeting one day every two months and will continue through November in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York and Connecticut.

The training is appropriate for operations of all sizes. The cost is $270 for all six workshops or $50 each, and each session includes half a day of principle study and half a day of practice. Interested parties who have missed the first few sessions can order videotapes from the Real Food Campaign Web site to get up to speed before attending summer and fall sessions. Other materials are available online for free.

Kittredge intends to begin the 2011 series this fall so participants to get their basic soil testing done in time to prepare for the 2011 growing season.

Learn outside the box

Sometimes, a farmer learns about farm management from an unlikely source. In Pennsylvania, the Columbia County Conservation District (CCCD) offers on-farm training to help both new and experienced farmers learn the most ecologically sensitive and efficient ways to manage livestock and produce. Because the agricultural community in Pennsylvania’s Columbia County is so diverse, specialists have created best management practices (BMPs) for farms ranging from a few acres to a several thousand acres. “Regardless of the size and type, all farms have the potential for resource concerns and we have best management practices that will fit them all,” says Todd Rush, a resource conservationist with CCCD.

The organization’s focus is eliminating pollution to water bodies via nutrient runoff. As such, CCCD educates farmers about no-till practices, nutrient (manure) management, cover crops, stream buffers and rotational grazing systems. Rush works with farmers one-on-one at their farm, as well as in groups via field days, farm tours and conferences. CCCD also offers grants to farmers interested in adopting BMPs in their operation. “When we identify resource concerns at a farm, we work with the farmer to develop a plan and BMPs that will address these concerns. We use our knowledge of agriculture and the various BMPs available to give the farmer options specific to their farm,” he explains.

Apply yourself

The Farm School, located in Athol, Mass., offers a yearlong residential program with practical curriculum directed towards training small-scale, independent commercial producers. However, Ben Holmes, founder of The Farm School, says the principles they teach could translate to benefit a large-scale operation.

Daily farm work is the mainstay of the program. In addition, there are small group instruction sessions and mentoring in the field, lectures and hands-on study of everything from basic farm carpentry to food preservation. “Our training does divide time between livestock farming and vegetable production, both being brand new to most of our students. We devote more time and attention to developing [organic] vegetable production skills for our students, as we feel it offers the most viable business opportunity for our graduates,” says Holmes. Students can also participate in an educational trip to a farm in Tuscany, Italy.

The Farm School accepts 12 students each year, and the admissions process involves a written application, two references and an on-site visit and interview. The purpose of the application is to help the staff know the applicant and their motives for wanting to come, and to help the applicant understand what The Farm School offers.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) offers two formal training programs to new farmers. A two-year Farmer Training & Apprenticeship program is designed for those just entering agriculture. Andrew Marshall, MOFGA education director, says MOFGA facilitates the connection between trainees and experienced farmers via a Web system. Although the 85 participating farms are small, the model is replicable to larger scale operations. Interested individuals visit the Web site and look for a farm they’re interested in working on, and then apply through MOFGA. During the season, a MOFGA representative follows up with apprentices to see how they’re doing. MOFGA also hosts educational and networking events around the state.

The two-year Journeyperson program aids people during the first years of farming independently. MOFGA sends journeypersons through a business-planning course and gives them free access to MOFGA resources. A farmer-mentor provides practical guidance. MOFGA monitors the journeyperson’s progress and offers loans to those showing promise.

Through a partnership with a bank, MOFGA backstops the loan with collateral provided by a donor. The staff reviews the applications and approves or denies them, then the bank handles the financial arrangements. “We stole the idea from NOFA-VT, who has an identical program,” admits Marshall.

Since its inception five years ago, the Journeyperson program has grown from four participants to 36. MOFGA also operates a farmer-in-residence program for one person or farm family at an incubator farm in Unity, Maine, similar to the Intervale program in Burlington, Vt. The farmer-in-residence has access to 5 acres of tillable land and about 50 acres of pasture and hayfield. MOFGA also offers continuing education via summer workshops on biodynamics, permaculture and other elements of agriculture.

The value of mentoring and continuing education

On-going training is important to most people in most jobs. In farming, it may be particularly important to be creative and willing to try new things, since agricultural practices, regulations and technology are constantly changing.

Successful farmers are experts in many different areas. Biology, hydrology, soils, plumbing and mechanics are clearly necessary tools for a farmer. Areas of business management like taxes, finance and marketing may seem less important than taking care of crops, but farms lacking a fiscally solvent business structure are doomed to lose the ground on which they stand. Continuing education offers a farmer access to information needed to run a successful operation. “A central aspect of what we are teaching is how to ask questions going forward,” says Holmes.

Mentoring is a more focused, one-on-one opportunity for farmers to exchange information. One advantage of mentoring is it can be less intimidating than a group setting, easier to ask a question and can allow for more in-depth discussion.

Essentially, mentoring works by replicating the kind of familial care that passed down time-tested traditions to every generation of farmers up until this one.

To degree or not to degree

The routes to a successful farming career are numerous.

“The core of The Farm School’s pedagogy is that learning how to farm can only take place with your feet firmly planted in the mud and the muck of a working farm itself, nurturing what grows, fixing what breaks,” says Holmes.

Although the Farm School does not offer a degree, Farm School faculty evaluate the students’ progress throughout the year and grant a certificate of completion that details specific skills gained. Graduates can use their certificate when seeking farm employment. Graduates who wish to start farming on their own can count the yearlong program as the year of farm experience required to get beginning farmer loans.

“If you want to farm, a degree means very little in comparison to practical experience,” says Holmes. However, students enrolled at UMass Amherst can count their participation in The Farm School’s yearlong program for up to a full year’s credit in sustainable agriculture.

It could be argued that one needs both academic and experiential education in order to be a good farmer. Could degree programs and independent organizations be more integrated than they are?

Historically, land grant institutions have the resources and the track record of teaching agriculture, but Marshall notes that institutions on the margin of the mainstream agricultural scene have greater latitude to take a progressive approach. “Places like Sterling College, UC Santa Cruz, Prescott College and Evergreen State College don’t have a history of training farmers, but are really getting into it,” he says. Marshall also sees land grants developing sustainable ag programs, because of a groundswell of interest from the students. He points to the University of Maine’s sustainable agriculture program as a strong model.

Additional Information

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The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.