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 50s. 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.
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.
If you decide to become a farmer, you can glean helpful knowledge from many sources, including universities, books and — most importantly — hands-on experience.
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. (See “Where to Connect” later in this article to find apprentices and apprenticeships.)
Let’s look at how both parties — experienced farmers and aspiring farmers — benefit from this partnership.
Advice to Current Farmers
As small-scale farmers, recognize that your expertise is the result of an ongoing and complex learning curve. Sharing your precious knowledge with beginning farmers increases the possibility that they’ll succeed. For 13 years, Patricia Mumme of Garden Patch Produce in Alexandria, Ohio, has hosted apprentices through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). She has observed her apprentices’ speed and efficiency progress considerably throughout a season, making them much more likely to profit during their first years farming on their own.
Beyond altruistic motives, you’ll benefit from the additional muscles and hands that apprentices provide. My husband and I have employed apprentices for several seasons, and I am still grateful for the help of young people when pulling weeds or putting hay in the loft. I also appreciate their energy and enthusiasm. Lunchtime talk of high tunnels, aquaponics and biodynamics is stimulating — especially when I realize I don’t have to try new projects all by myself.
Annie Warmke, who owns Blue Rock Station in Philo, Ohio, is also a member of OEFFA. She says her apprentices’ influence, ideas, hard work and passion have moved her business forward and kept her going emotionally as well as financially.
OEFFA is similar to other associations that have an online service through which established farmers and aspiring farmers can find each other. Be aware that no organization certifies the farmer or apprentice applicants listed on its website. Individuals must determine the situation that could make a good match through conversations and on-site visits. To connect with someone who lives close by, choose a state or regional organization. To work with people from different parts of the world, choose an international organization, such as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
My husband and I use our state organization because we’re interested in mentoring young people who live relatively nearby. We think this gives us a better opportunity to work with apprentices who might become the future caretakers of our farm when we can no longer do the work. We hate to think of the land being turned into subdivisions or conventional farmland. By having apprentices through the years, we may find people with similar values who will protect our farm in the future. And our apprentices who don’t continue to farm here will still add to the population of much-needed future farmers.
Advice to Beginning Farmers
As prospective apprentices, trust your instincts when finding the right farm and farmers for you. Ask questions about the farm’s practices and the specifics of the arrangement. The beauty of a particular place, the close interaction with animals, the attitude of the farmers, and the working arrangements should all factor into the decision. Your labor is valuable and you should expect to learn a lot in return. Enjoying much of what you do is important, just as it will be when you have your own farm. A farmer needs to delight in the work to keep at it when the weather is bad or when fatigue sets in.
If you can’t picture exactly what kind of farming you want to do, you might consider apprenticing on a homestead that offers a smorgasbord of interesting possibilities. You could get experience with vegetable gardening, orchards, bees, livestock and pasture management. This exposure will not only provide you with tools for self-sufficiency, but will also help you identify what areas you want to concentrate on when creating a profitable farm of your own.
If you already know what you want to produce, choose a mentor who is already successful in that area. Offer your labor in exchange for knowledge on how to grow food or raise animals, and also on how to market, meet licensing requirements and finance your operation. Visit other farms during the same season to broaden your understanding of what’s possible.
Aaron Jimenez, in Philo, Ohio, has transitioned from apprentice to farmer. He says his apprenticeship taught him that it’s OK to mess up. “By making mistakes, I developed confidence to try more and more of my ideas. These experiences helped me to develop priorities, not only in farming but also in life,” he says.
In addition to experience, small-scale farming takes a great deal of knowledge, which needs to be continually updated through reading and attending conferences. Most small-scale farmers have bookshelves filled with reading material that dates from the time they began farming. Ours contain the original homesteading books of Helen and Scott Nearing, Gene Logsdon, and John and Sally Seymour, as well as a couple of books on each new project we’ve undertaken throughout the years — from chickens and bees to cows and hoop houses. We’re thrilled to share books and journals with apprentices when afternoons are too hot or too wet for chores.
Would a college education be useful to people who want to get into farming? The best words of wisdom I’ve heard on this topic come from Dr. Rhonda Janke at Kansas State University. She encourages young people to complement their farm experiences with structured educational opportunities to gain basic knowledge of soil science. “Understanding the basics of soil physics, chemistry and biology helps someone to understand the why of various farming practices, even though the how needs to come from on-farm experience,” she explains.
Though a degree isn’t necessary, some science classes would serve all farmers well. Courses Dr. Janke recommends include basic sciences, such as chemistry and biology, and applied classes, such as entomology, plant pathology and, of course, soils. These courses allow farmers to understand and evaluate the validity of what they read. A formal science background can also help organic farmers avoid buying many unnecessary amendments, because they’ll have a better understanding of what their plants truly need.
Be sure to look into available grants for beginning farmers, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides funding to projects exclusively dedicated to training the next generation of farmers.
Making Farm Apprenticeships Work
The first time working together may be uncomfortable for farmer or apprentice. All of a sudden, the farm family has a new member and the apprentice is part of a new family. Clear communication from both sides, such as who’s responsible for washing dishes or doing laundry, seldom fails to sort out problems. In the rare cases when the match just isn’t right, either apprentice or farmer can terminate the agreement. We’ve not had this happen, but if someone consistently put animals at risk by not closing gates, for example, having them on our farm wouldn’t work out. Likewise, if we didn’t listen to our apprentices’ protests and made weeding their only task while teaching them nothing in return, I would expect them to terminate the season early.
To avoid problems, clearly state what you hope to get out of the experience before making a commitment. What are the expectations for room, board or stipends, and what are individual dietary preferences and needs for private time? Room, meals and instruction are often adequate reimbursement for apprentices’ work. However, if an apprentice’s school loans or car payments won’t wait, then you should talk about the possibility of a stipend. Clarifying details first will save hard feelings later.
Working together provides the wonderful opportunity for two generations to envision the future together. More farmers living in proximity to one another will create supportive farming communities. Together, we can develop a network that shares labor, equipment and social time — and allows everyone some vacation! Creating these interconnections improves farmers’ quality of life while building a more sustainable food system.
Where to Connect
Most states or regions have groups that offer farm apprenticeship programs, hold conferences, teach classes and guide farm tours. Examples are the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, and the Northeast Organic Farming Association. To find the state you’re interested in, search “farm apprenticeship program” by state online. Here’s a list of larger organizations to help you get started:
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) provides a directory to connect farmers and apprentices nationwide.
FarmLINK is a website designed to match experienced farmers in Canada with apprentices seeking to learn farming skills.
GrowFood's lists include more than 1,700 farms seeking apprentices. Room, board and experience are generally accepted as compensation.
For an international experience in farming, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) can link you to organic farmers in other countries.
Mary Lou Shaw and her husband, Tom, have a small farm near Washington Court House, Ohio, where they grow most of their food and teach others how to expand their apprenticeship programs. Her book, Growing Local Food, outlines the basics of food self-sufficiency and is available for purchase in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store.