My visit to The Seed Farm presented a hopeful vision on an otherwise gray day. It drizzled intermittently on my drive to and from the farm site in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, but the rain held off just long enough to walk around and chat with the Executive Director, Sara Runkel. The Seed Farm is an incubator farm; more and more educational farms seem to be popping up that follow this model, pioneered by organizations such as the Intervale Center in Vermont. The project is a collaborative effort between Lehigh County and Penn State Extension, and seeks to help beginning farmers–young and old alike–to start their own farm businesses by providing access to training, equipment, and land. Runkel described the founding impulse of the farm, saying, “The Seed Farm project grew out of the county’s farmland preservation program, with the idea that the county has preserved a little over 20,000 acres of land from development and that we need to preserve farmers as well as farmland…” The program is situated on property owned by the county. They started in 2009 managing 25 acres, but are already outgrowing that space and managing another 18 acres on the same property.
The training program is designed to be three years in duration. Participants spend their first year as apprentices, helping Runkel run a 1.5-acre market garden. The program trains up to six apprentices each season, who each work 20 hours per week, mainly on weekends. The position is an unpaid exchange of labor for education, with four hours of classroom time each week. Because these apprenticeships are part-time, unpaid, and nonresidential, the program tends to attract Lehigh Valley locals who are able to continue working another job off the farm. The Seed Farm also tends to seek participants who have experience doing farm work, since they want people who already know they can meet the demands of full-time farming and can focus on acquiring business management and farm planning skills. The program provides a unique educational opportunity for a farm of its size because it has received a demonstration grant looking at specialized vegetable-growing equipment, so participants can learn how to use equipment suited for various scales. Runkel highlights this component of the program: “It’s nice because we have all of this equipment available for people to try out and use. I think that’s a really special part of the program, that people get a lot of one-on-one training in equipment operation, tractor safety, and ideally time on the equipment […] Usually when you apprentice on the farm, the farmer has their setup and their method and what works best for their situation so you don’t get to see what options are out there.”
After this initial training, apprentices have the option to continue on as “farm stewards” leasing land, equipment, and facilities at The Seed Farm and running their own farm businesses. They pay rent and other fees at a rate that is below market value, making the start-up phase more affordable. In addition to these financial benefits apprentices and stewards receive less tangible forms of support, such as an environment that promotes peer-to-peer learning and access to mentorship from more experienced farmers. These kinds of social support can be crucial in a line of work that can otherwise be isolating. The hope is that in this lower-risk environment provided by the farm incubator, beginning farmers will succeed in starting and sustaining a business, becoming profitable more quickly than they otherwise would.
Applications for next year’s apprenticeships are due by December 15. More information can be found on The Seed Farm’s website.