More and more people are discovering that farming is an economically and ecologically optimistic way to make a living—and to make a difference.
Diane Daniel | June 2011 issue
After finishing their undergraduate degrees at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Josh Capodarco and Meredith Hart, both 23, craved a change of pace. Not that long ago, they might have considered a cross-country trip or a backpacking tour through Europe. Instead, they chose to work on a farm.
“It started as a general interest,” says Capodarco, whose only experience growing things was a small vegetable garden they planted at their home the summer before. “We wanted to experience doing something with our hands.” Through the farm-work exchange website growfood.org, the two found a spring-to-fall apprenticeship at Seven Springs Farm, a 125-acre organic farm in Check, Virginia. They lived in an off-the-grid cabin with an outdoor kitchen and an outhouse.
“The living part was a bit of a bumpy road,” Capodarco acknowledges, “but the work has been amazing. We’ve learned about soil science, plants, erosion, compost, pest control, fixing things, building things.”
In the U.S. and Europe, a rapidly growing number of young and not-so-young people are trying their hands at farming, some as a way to see the world, others as a prelude to running their own farms. Inspired by the local food movement, environmental concerns and the chance to work outdoors, fledgling farmers are learning their skills through short work visits, formalized apprenticeships and college degree programs.
That’s undoubtedly good for the farmers, but it’s also good for farming. The average age of American farmers is upwards of 58, meaning much of the existing farmland will need to change hands in the next 10 to 15 years. The situation is similar in Europe, where more than half of farmers are over the age of 55. While industrial agriculture has been the standard for decades, the new wave of European and American farmers is changing that. “The aims and intentions of the younger people are to explore sustainable and healthy ways of producing food,” says Edith Daniel of Demeter-International in Darmstadt, Germany, which certifies biodynamic farms worldwide. “Healthy for the planet, the soil and human beings.” Over the past decade, she says, Demeter has seen a tremendous leap in interest from new farmers.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), the world’s largest farm-volunteer exchange program, has watched its stable of host farms and volunteers spike over the last few years. Because each chapter is independent, international figures aren’t available. But in the U.K., where the non-profit network started in 1971, membership has doubled in three years, says spokesperson Scarlett Penn. Currently the U.K. is home to 5,419 WWOOFers and 456 hosts.
“They come from all over, but we have a lot of Europeans in the summer,” Penn says. “We’re also pleasantly surprised that 50 percent of our WWOOFers come from the U.K. It’s brilliant to encourage intercultural exchanges, but we’re also encouraging WWOOFing in your own country.”
The organization, which has 50 country programs and 50 more independent ones, is working on creating a more unified European Union focus, she notes. “WWOOFers are all different types of people: some who want their own piece of land and are quite keen to learn about the farming life, and others who want to be outside and see different parts of the world.”
While similar online matchmakers are cropping up, such as growfood.org and HelpX.net, WWOOF remains the top directory for bartering farm work in exchange for food and lodging. “Everyone who calls here about interning at farms, we send them to WWOOF,” says Thomas Cierpka, a deputy director at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements in Bonn, Germany. The umbrella group, which represents more than 750 member organizations in 108 countries, does not directly place interns.
It’s also common for young farmers to use WWOOF before moving into formal internships or going to school in sustainable agriculture. “I did some WWOOFing before I came to school because it’s a great way to see different farms,” says Josephine Connelly, a 22-year-old Dane who grew up in Scotland and Denmark. Connelly is in her second year of a four-year biodynamic agriculture program at Warmonderhof in Dronten, the Netherlands. The center operates Groenhorst College, a four-year vocational school, where students live on campus, as well as a two-year program for adults of all ages. Only Dutch citizens and legal residents may enroll in the adult courses, but the full-time program is open to anyone from the European Union between the ages of 16 and 23. Most vocational students are Dutch, and 15 to 20 percent are from the E.U.
Connelly chose a structured program so he could get a more complete education. “I really wanted to learn and I really wanted to do, but I was young and inexperienced and a girl, and I never got the chance. A farm I worked on in Scotland, the tractor work would always go to the boys. Now, I have a tractor license.”
She studies theory in the morning and in the afternoon works at one of the four farms connected with the school. “We have one farm with cows, one for small-scale gardening, one for large-scale farming and an orchard, so I get to try all these different things,” says Connelly, who has decided to focus on small-scale gardening. “I like a lot of diversity and growing plants that you’re personally spending time with, like peas, where you pick them every day.” Not only does she think the program will teach her what she needs to know, “living with people who feel the same way is really exciting.”
Gied Donkers, who teaches farming skills at Groenhorst, says the local food and environmental movements are attracting an ever-increasing number of students. The four-year school has about 100 students and the two-year program 70, a number that has more than doubled in the past few years. “Our students have one thing in common,“ Donkers says. “They care about the Earth. They’re very idealistic about their future.”
Mark Williams, associate professor at the University of Kentucky, Lexington and the driver of its four-year-old sustainable agriculture program, echoes that finding. “What we’re seeing among students is the idea of using agriculture as an agent of change, a way to make a difference. It’s economically, ecologically and intellectually hopeful. A lot of people are turned on by that.”
For Shannon Baker, at 31 a “nontraditional” student at the university, pursuing a four-year degree in sustainable agriculture was the result of a major lifestyle change. “I have a husband and three kids, and until a few years ago I was a stereotypical suburban mom,” she says. “I worked in retail. I was very overweight. I was unhappy.” After one of her children was diagnosed with a corn allergy in 2007, Baker started to investigate food sources.
“I realized that everything we were eating is crap, and I really got into nutrition,” she says. “I lost 100 pounds. I went to school to become a dietician, but after an apprenticeship at the school’s research farm, I changed my major. I love the connection from the farm to the food to the community.” Baker’s current apprenticeship is managing a church-run community garden that uses the food to make free dinners for those in need.
While two- and four-year degree programs in sustainable agriculture are on the rise at private and public schools across the U.S., many more people learn to farm through individual internships on farms. The go-to source for American farm internships and apprenticeships is the online directory managed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA).
What started in 1989 as a paper directory with a handful of farms has grown into a database of about 1,400 farms offering learning opportunities, a number that has doubled in the last two years, says Katherine Adam, who oversees the database. Adam attributes the increase not only to the growing interest in sustainable farming but to the economy. “When the economy is weaker, farms rely more on interns, especially smaller farms,” she observes. While Adam monitors farms and not interns, most workers are college age or in their 20s, she says. “The majority of interns are from 18 to 30, though they go up to their 50s and are from predominantly urban backgrounds.”
One ATTRA user is Danielle Szepi, who completed a successful apprenticeship at Fernbrook Farm in Chesterfield, New Jersey. The Wisconsin native’s interest in farming started when she volunteered at a student farm during college at Humboldt State University in northern California. From there, she held a farm internship in Oregon, and then a paying position back in Humboldt Bay co-managing a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, where shareholders pay in advance for produce throughout the growing season.
“I found that I was mostly interested in organic gardening and wanted to work at a urban farm,” says Szepi, a 2007 graduate who changed her college major from English to botany. Through ATTRA, she found an apprenticeship at Weavers Way Farm in Philadelphia, where she worked in 2009. “It was fairly competitive because urban farming is such an up-and-coming aspect of sustainable agriculture,” she says. Szepi earned a stipend of $100 a month and was given housing and “all the produce we could eat.”
She appreciated the apprenticeship offerings, which included not only hands-on work, but educational components. “Different sustainable [agriculture] groups in the area had workshops that we were allowed to go to, and we had formal training sessions about things like seed ordering and budgets.”
She turned to ATTRA again when looking for her next opportunity. “I knew I wanted to farm but that I still had a lot of things to learn. I wanted to work on a bigger farm that had more acreage and production. And I really wanted to learn tractor work.” Through ATTRA she found Fernbrook, which farms 12 acres for its 300-member CSA. There she learned to use a tractor, plant, grow and harvest for a larger CSA and even got to work with a small number of hogs. She earned $800 a month along with housing and “really good food.”
Szepi also benefited from the knowledge of farm manager Jeff Tober, who developed a structured program for his seasonal interns. “Every week we tour the farm and look at the field, discuss the crops, pest management, things like that,” Tober says. “I also pay for classes and a summer conference. On cold mornings, we might sit down and discuss budgets and field plans.”
For that structure, Tober credits his own internship with farmer Dan Kaplan at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts, starting in 2003. “They run a really great apprenticeship, and I try to emulate it. Dan gives you a lot of responsibility, and there are definitely high expectations for you, but it’s also fun. A lot of the people I apprenticed with are still farming, all over the country.”
Both Tober and Szepi say that while the college route to farming is viable, it’s not necessary. “It’s just as valuable to start doing apprenticeships and learn by doing,” says Szepi, who, along with her farming boyfriend, is looking at land to farm. (For that search, they’re using online directories that link land owners with new farmers.) While some internships, such as Capodarco’s and Hart’s at Seven Springs Farm, teach mostly by doing, more farms are structuring their programs like Tober does or even more so.
Rogue Farm Corps, for example, is a collaborative intern education program run by 11 farms near Ashland, Oregon. The program, which started in 2003 and has a curriculum posted on the ATTRA website, includes classes and workshops. “We teach 15 classes over a season, using two or three Sundays a month,” explains director Stu O’Neill. “They’re held on our different farms and include farm tours.”
Farming associations in Maine and Vermont have operated intern education programs for years, and more programs are coming onboard nationwide, many funded by grants from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The educational outreach program has awarded $35 million in grants since 2009 and plans to dole out $36 million more in the next two years. Also pushing education (and political activism) is the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, which formed in late 2010 to capture the new agrarian energy.
Folks merely curious about farming who want to dip their boots into the soil can search for the nearest “crop mob.” The movement, which started in 2008 in North Carolina and is spreading, brings together people who want to participate in a variety of farm work days.
As for fledgling farmers Capodarco and Hart, they’re looking for a second apprenticeship. “We both learned so much in one growing season, but there’s so much more to learn.”
Diane Daniel is the author of Farm Fresh North Carolina, just out from UNC Press.
Photo By Nicholas_T