Farm Apprenticeships: Keeping Farmers From Going Extinct

Mother Earth News
By Mary Lou Shaw
August/September 2013

Farm Apprentices Tend Caretaker Farms

Farm apprentices enjoy hands-on experience growing food at Caretaker Farms in Williamstown, Mass. While most farm apprenticeships are unpaid, Caretaker Farms provides a monthly living stipend

Small-scale farmers and homesteaders are in a powerful position to bring about the changes our food system desperately needs. By growing food locally and sustainably, farmers improve the physical, economic and ecological health of their communities.

Today’s average farmer is in his or her late 50’s. These farmers will need replacements, and their numbers need to be dramatically increased. Transferring their knowledge to future farmers is vital to the expansion of the emerging sustainable food system.

Young Farmer Nights

Young Farmer Nights (YFN) are bi-weekly social and educational events where young and beginning farmers gather to share ideas, a meal and stories. Each event includes a farm tour, a potluck dinner and other host-inspired activities. In 2013, YFNs also include informational workshops.

Industrial agriculture is disastrous for the soil and environment, animal welfare, and local economies — not to mention human health. Most North Americans rely on this system for their food, however, and its sudden disintegration would be a catastrophe. Some experts argue that the collapse of the current food system is imminent because of its dependence on three fragile conditions: cheap petroleum, plentiful water and a stable climate.

Monsanto and Big Ag want us to believe that only industrial agriculture can feed the world. The truth is actually the opposite. The Institute for Food and Development Policy reviewed available farm productivity data from 27 countries and concluded that the productivity of smaller farms — which integrate growing multiple crops with raising livestock — is anywhere from two to 10 times higher per unit area than on industrial-scale, monocrop farms. This is due to several factors, including the following:

• Small farms use more niche space by planting crop mixtures. This complexity makes a huge difference in total production per unit area and cannot be achieved with machinery.

• The integration of crops and livestock allows plants to benefit from manure, while animals benefit from surplus crops that aren’t consumed by humans.

• Small-scale farmers invest more manual labor in their land. The quality of this labor tends to be better on small farms, because farmers can devote their attention and energy to intensively managed plots.

Farm Apprenticeships

Farm Apprentice Views Tractor Demo

Chuck Currie (left) of Freedom Food Farm in Johnston, R.I., explains tractor implement use to NOFA/RI Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) Workshop participant, Mark Laroche.

If you decide to become a farmer, you can glean helpful knowledge from many sources, including universities, books and — most importantly — hands-on experience.

WWOOF Volunteers Dry Garlic

Volunteers through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) learn to dry garlic on their host farm in Princeton, N.J

One of the best ways you can connect with established farmers is through apprenticeship programs. You will need practical experience and access to affordable land, and experienced farmers need laborers and, sometimes, a trained person ready to buy their farm. Apprenticeships bring these two groups together through an agreement: Knowledgeable food growers pass on their know-how to people who want to learn to grow food in exchange for having additional, enthusiastic hands and minds around the farm.