It seems like everywhere you turn, new programs are cropping up around the nation to support and educate young farmers eager to get their hands in the dirt. The Northwest is no exception, and within the past year has ushered in several unique and innovative programs that help prepare young farmers for the realities of farming.While it may be true that the best way to learn how to farm is to just do it, the best training programs weave hands-in-the-dirt on-farm experience with a little business savvy and skill.
In Bellingham, WA, Sustainable Connections Food & Farming program helps to connect new farmers to resources. Their Food to Bank On mentor program matches beginning farmers with an experienced farmer for a three-year incubator program. The intensive training includes weekly business and technical classes through the local state university extension, utilizing local experts on everything from soil science to accounting. The coolest part of Food to Bank On is that the farmers in training test their growing power by growing food for the local food banks for a wholesale price.
On Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the newly launched FIELD program blends technical classroom-style learning with classic farm apprenticeships. Founded by local farmers with a heart for education and in search of a more meaningful experience for their ever-present interns, FIELD is a collective effort. Interns stay for a three month “semester” or longer on a host farm while also attending weekly workshops with other area farmers and experts to get a very well-rounded experiential education experience. On nearby Whidbey Island, the Greenbank Farm Training Center offers a 7-month program for those seriously pursuing a career in sustainable farming. Greenbank’s training similarly blends the academic with the experiential, with a special focus on how to build a successful CSA operation. Both programs offer education credits for participating farmers.
In Oregon, aspiring farmers can sign up for new, tailored farm business planning classes through the Oregon State University Extension. These classes are perhaps best suited for young farmers with a bit of experience under their belts who need to get a good handle on the business side of things, which is often the hardest part. Everything from finances, to marketing, and pitching your plan to prospective creditors is covered in the eight-week course. For a more introductory experiential program, Rogue Farm Corps in southern OR is a classic farm apprenticeship program, setting young farmers up on host farms and incorporating a series of education workshops throughout the season. Rogue encourages the farm interns to pursue an independent project during their stay–from keeping bees to building solar-powered farm infrastructure, whatever strikes the interns interest and the farm can accommodate.
Education programs for young or beginning farmers play a key role in providing the muscle necessary to build a new and healthy agricultural system. Programs like the ones featured in this snapshot of Pacific Northwest offerings are vital. As new programs are developed around the country, we learn what works well and what doesn’t, what structures best meet the needs of both host farmers and interns, and what skills are most necessary to equip the aspiring farmer. Sign up and dig in!