We are often asked why someone might need to pay for a training program in order to become a farmer…and if it’s not just as educational to work as an intern or apprentice. These are reasonable questions, and we’ve thought about them a great deal. Before we jump into why we think that, for some, a training program is a solid option, here are a few things to consider…things successful farmers do in real time, all the time, with their livelihood on the line.
To square up a new field, farmers need a working understanding of geometry. To schedule their crops for a long season, they need a functional relationship with Excel as well as a mathematical familiarity with the various levels of productivity for each of their crops. To appropriately and economically add soil amendments and fertilizers to their fields, they need an understanding of plant physiology and basic chemistry. To engage customers and manage employees, they need skill and practice with communication, social justice, group dynamics and market trends. To maintain their ability to function as a business, they must keep up with politics, policy, regulations, and insurance concerns. Farmers need to possess the mechanical skills required to design and maintain irrigation systems (plumbing), maintain and repair tractors (combustion engines), fabricate shelter, storage, and processing structures (carpentry/construction). They need a strong practices of financial planning, record keeping, and evaluation. They need tight and yet flexible time management muscles. While theirs is a livelihood related to the natural systems of geology, botany, biology, chemistry, climatology, and meteorology, they must also be able to set up websites, post on social media, use on-line financial apps, respond to emails, distribute fresh sheets, create newsletters, and juggle the ever-growing assortment of potential mobile marketplaces (or hire these things out).
Surrounded by all of this work, they also need to possess a solid proficiency with plant propagation, direct seeding, transplanting, cultivating, weed management, pest management, good harvest and processing procedures, crop variety selection, vegetable storage systems, and human ergonomics. Given how quickly our world is changing, they need to recognize and address pests they have never seen before, diseases that have not been a problem before, and weeds that have not shown up before. They need to adjust their planting dates based on weather trends that have changed first and last frost dates and precipitation profiles.
In other words, farming is a skilled vocation, an honorable profession, a critical-thinking and adaptive management enterprise, and a hard-won livelihood.
Perhaps it is because we take food so for granted in this society? Perhaps it is because we have disconnected ourselves to such a large degree from what it takes to grow food? I don’t know, but there are quiet yet powerful assumptions being made these days about what it takes to learn how to farm.
“Why should anyone have to pay to learn how to farm?” “There are so many opportunities to intern on a farm and get paid…why should I pay tuition?” “Farming is just growing plants, what’s so difficult about that?”
To be clear, a person can learn to farm in ways other than attending a university or a focused training program. There are You Tube videos. There are internships and apprenticeships. There are on-line and weekly lecture series. There are workshops and incubator programs. And you can grow up on a farm in the shadow of farmers. All of these are functional ways to enter the profession of growing food for other people - and at the Organic Farm School, we encourage all those interested in the profession to consider them all, find a trail and get started down it!
But we also encourage both eaters and potential farmers to consider a few things. What farmers grow ends up in our bodies. The end result of their labors is food, packages of nutrients that we need in order to live healthy lives. Growing food for people is serious work even as it is filled with beauty and satisfaction (and long hours and hard work). And to become a farmer, as with just about any vocation, there is a continuum of opportunities that create a path from beginner to practitioner.
Want to be a baker? Look at the culinary training options out there. Dream of being an airplane mechanic? You’ll need more than You Tube, but it can get you started and then pointed in the direction of a trade school. Passionate about computer science? Yes, you can learn a LOT on your own, but more than likely you’re going to need some formal training along the way as you get specific with the industries you want to support. Want to make people beautiful? You’re going to need a program to prepare you for the licensing you need to become a stylist or esthetician.
So why is there an assumption that to become a farmer, you just need to get dirt under your nails?
It feels like this assumption is actually more of a myth. And perhaps a disrespectful one at that.
The diversity and complexity of skills and expertise required to farm successfully for the long-term mandates training that is equally diverse and complex. No matter how you receive the training, you will be trading something for it.
What a focused training program offers (like ours, or that offered at UCSanta Cruz or University of Vermont) is a fast-track through the basics…a running start that quickly leads to employment opportunities and the potential for farm ownership. Internships are powerful but it’s likely to take 3-5 years of interning to gain the knowledge and skills a training program can offer in 6-8 months.
If you have the time and want to support other small farm owners, an internship might be the perfect route for you. Working for an existing farmer is itself a good and honorable endeavor, if you are patient enough to learn through the osmosis of the work week rather than in classrooms focused on your learning process and your business plan.
But if you want to kick start your farming career, a focused training program is more likely what you need. And if you’re serious about managing and/or owning a farm, you might want to make sure it’s a training program that pairs ag skills with financial planning and marketing.
Ultimately your choice, as a future farmer, is whether you want to exchange more of your time or more of your money for the life you want? Do you want to leap frog over beginners’ mistakes, or plan on making them all on your own and seeing them as “learning opportunities?”
You have options, and we encourage you to figure out which one best suits your needs, learning style, and professional goals. But don’t be fooled. To become a farmer in the deepest sense of the word, you’re going to need to learn a lot more than how to plant a seed or pick a tomato, and that learning will require that you trade something for it. Respect the food and the people who eat it. Respect the process, respect the vocation.