Farming is one of the most useful and satisfying occupations people can pursue. It meets our need to feel useful, exercises body and brain, builds communities, and connects us with nature. The more food we produce for ourselves and our neighbors, the healthier our communities will be. But with the average U.S. farmer now 55 years old, we need a new generation of farmers to replace those who are retiring.
Fortunately, there are many young people who dream of becoming farmers, and with the rapidly growing demand for organic and local food, there also are growing business opportunities to meet local needs for fresh, healthy food. If you or someone you know is an aspiring farmer, there are numerous career options. Here’s where to start learning the skills to earn a fulfilling living on the farm.
The Academic Route
A good place to start looking for academic programs near you is the online directory maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This directory is a thorough list of the colleges and universities with sustainable agriculture programs, and the much greater number of schools offering one or more courses in organic farming.
Many of the colleges listed are land-grant universities — state colleges and universities specializing in agriculture. State universities offer two-year, four-year and graduate programs, and while they have a tradition of emphasizing industrial agriculture, many now also teach sustainable and organic approaches.
The first U.S. program to offer a Bachelor of Science in sustainable agriculture began in 1988 at the University of Maine. Mark Guzzi is a young farmer who graduated from the program in 2000. He says he has always been interested in the environment and that farming is the perfect career for him.
Guzzi says he got more out of the program because he had worked or interned on four farms before starting college, which helped him better understand the importance and applications of his coursework. “The program is a good way to learn the principles and ecology behind agriculture, but you also need practical experience,” he says. Practical experience is encouraged by many farming programs, including the University of Maine, which requires field experience and a capstone course in designing and managing agro-ecosystems.
Another popular choice for those interested in sustainable agriculture is Washington State University. It has a solid record of research in organic methods and offers a Bachelor of Science in agriculture and food systems, including a major in organic agriculture systems, which was the first such program in the nation. The program requires an internship and a summer practicum at WSU’s organic farm. Elsewhere, the University of New Hampshire runs an organic dairy farm; Colorado State University offers an interdisciplinary studies program in organic agriculture for food and fiber production; the University of Florida offers a degree in organic agriculture; and Michigan State plans to offer one this year.
Community colleges with two-year degree programs are another option to consider. Central Carolina Community College has a hands-on Associate of Arts degree in sustainable agriculture — tempting for the practical curriculum and for the price tag of $600 a semester for North Carolina residents. Many other community colleges offer classes in organic and sustainable agriculture, if not specific programs. A few include Yuba Community College in Marysville, Calif.; Lansing Community College in Lansing, Mich.; and Maui Community College in Kahului, Hawaii.
Andrew Marshall, educational programs director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), notes that many established college programs train academics and researchers more than farmers, while some community colleges offer more practical experience. “In terms of skills training for the money, community colleges are great,” Marshall says.
Marada Cook, who comes from — and has returned to — a farm in Maine, is enthusiastic about her Hampshire College experience. She was attracted to Hampshire because of its independent approach to learning (no required classes, no grades, no tests, and an in-depth senior project). But what really sold her was a tour of the campus farm. She says: “I saw the most beautiful broccoli I’ve ever seen and thought, I have to go here and learn to grow broccoli like that!”
Given the experiences students can get from Hampshire’s farm, greenhouse and community (Cook interned with a few local food organizations), she thinks graduates are prepared to farm. “Organic farmers seem to have no trouble finding employment when they get out of college,” Cook says, adding, “There are very few more real or more reasonable things to be doing. How many people have better food on their tables?”
The Hands-on Approach
The cost of college (more than $40,000 for four years at some state universities) might beg the question: “Should I spend this money on a degree, or would I be better off investing it in a farm?” The answer to that question will vary with the individual. A degree program provides some depth of understanding and confidence for future farmers, as well as other job opportunities; plus, financial aid can make the cost more feasible.
However, shorter and less expensive paths, such as internships, apprenticeships, volunteering and paying farm jobs may be enough to learn the fundamentals of farming, or to decide that you would like a more formal education in agriculture. A good place to find internship opportunities is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service — also known as ATTRA — which maintains a list of sustainable agriculture internships in the United States and Canada at www.attrainternships.ncat.org.
For a combination of the academic and apprenticeship experiences, there’s a full-time, six-month Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which includes a 25-acre farm and the three-acre Alan Chadwick Garden. Tuition in 2006 was $3,750. Terry Allan completed the Santa Cruz apprenticeship, and says the program provides excellent all-around training in organic farming and gardening. “I have repeatedly applied the fundamentals I learned there to start successful organic farms and gardens in a variety of different climates around the world,” Allan says. Since graduating, she has set up an organic farm in southern Chile, grown cut flowers and vegetables in Virginia, managed the vegetable trials and research at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, and spent three years volunteering in India.
Another place to look for on-the job training is World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) , an organization where volunteers learn firsthand about organic growing by helping farmers. The program is open to anyone older than 16, and puts volunteers in contact with organic host farms in the country of their choice to make their own arrangements.
Marada Cook “WWOOFed” on a mixed vegetable farm in New Zealand for five months during her senior year in high school. “It was terrific,” she says. “I went to school there and worked on the family farm. That’s when I realized there were people all over the world doing farming projects they were passionate about.”
She says the experience was less formal than an internship, and while it didn’t pay a wage, housing and food were provided. Because so many volunteer opportunities exist, “WWOOFers” have many options when choosing the locations and types of farms where they want to work. (See left for another WWOOF experience.)
Also look for state and regional organizations that work with farm apprentices. For example, MOFGA has trained an estimated thousand or more apprentices in its 35-year history. Marshall has worked with many apprentices as the educational programs director. He says that while MOFGA apprentices say they learn a lot from the program, most never go on to farm. “A lot are very idealistic at first, but the apprenticeship is a reality check. Some thrive and some don’t. An apprenticeship is definitely a good thing to do before a four-year program instead of after.” Also, a single apprenticeship is not enough to prepare someone to farm, Marshall says. “Hopefully the person would go on to a multi-year apprenticeship, maybe apprenticing between each year of college and on more than one farm, if that’s affordable, then on to a journey person position.”
A Farm of Your Own
Sooner or later, it’s time to make the commitment to start farming on your own. Once you’re ready to take that step, Allan says, “Start small and don’t get into debt. Don’t expect to get rich, but rather seek to have a richly rewarding life.”
That was Guzzi’s experience. He first rented, and now owns, Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, Maine, where he grows nine acres of herbs and vegetables with help from about a dozen workers. Guzzi has found a ready market for this produce: Peacemeal sells at farmers markets seven days a week in the summer, as well as to natural food stores and restaurants. He’s pleased with his choice of career. As he explains it: “What could be better than to make a living on the land while helping to feed all those nice people out there?”
Read “Learning to Farm on the Side of a Volcano” for a firsthand account from a WWOOF apprentice.