Farmer Apprenticeship Program Seeds Next Generation Small-Scale Farmers

It’s not the first farmer apprenticeship program of its kind, but the University of Vermont’s upcoming curriculum aims to be just as revolutionary as its university counterparts. Farming apprenticeships at Michigan State and UC Santa Cruz, have already proven that college graduates are not only ready for intensive, professional training in sustainable agriculture, but are capable of turning their experiential education into sustainable jobs.

As the demand for small-scale, locally-grown produce steadily increases, the mission of UVM’s apprenticeship is quite clear: provide graduates with an education and support system that encourage them to create and maintain sustainable farms and food businesses.

The university recently launched its own research initiative, the Spires Of Excellence in Food Systems, to promote education, training, and outreach in the field of sustainable food systems. Students of this particular apprenticeship will have the opportunity to learn along side program directors, Corie Pierce and Susie Walsh Daloz, two experienced farmers in their own right who have also had much success as educational trainers at the university and elementary school level. They, along with a community of participating farmers (Intervale Community Farm, Half Pint Farm, Bread and Butter Farm) and food businesses (City Market Coop), will introduce students to fields and marketplaces that will become their classrooms.

The university has received overwhelming interest in the program, which will begin on May 31st and finish five months later on November 4th. Different from other farm apprenticeships, there is an application fee of $4,800 for student enrollment. But Susie Walsh Daloz views the cost as a long-term asset: “We believe it’s a great investment to gain a comprehensive view of running a farm, or local foods business that can be quickly recouped after a student launches his own enterprise.” At the end of their 5-month training, students will receive a Certificate in Sustainable Farming from UVM’s Continuing Education Department. They will also leave equipped with a tremendous skill set, having learned from farmers, harvested their own land, and participated in Burlington’s local economy.

Students begin each week with a farm walk at Intervale Community Farm. Regular review of the land is practice in evaluating short-term farm duties and season-long strategy for productivity. “Thinking like a farmer,” is how Walsh Daloz describes Monday morning assessment. From there, the students spend time farming their 2-acre university plot, where crop selection and overall farm management is entirely their responsibility. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, students work at participating farms. Their experience weeding, harvesting and planting, is also an opportunity to “engage with the farmer in the planning and big picture thinking on the farm,” Walsh Daloz explains. Wednesday are reserved for classroom labs, which can mean anything farm trips to lectures by farmers, UVM professors, and other local food activists.

The curriculum is rigorous and full-time. It is also not intended for undergraduate students. But Walsh Daloz envisions a student-base rich with varying motivations: “Ideal applicants for this program have a passion for joining the sustainable food movement and can come from a wide variety of academic and work backgrounds: new and aspiring farmers, career changers, back-to-landers, urban and community gardeners, students of sustainable agriculture, environmental studies or nutrition/culinary arts, educators, and activists who want to promote and sustain local food systems.”

Upon completing their apprenticeships, students are encouraged to create their own farming opportunities—a chance to put their education into practice. It is Walsh Daloz’s belief that “people graduating from this program will go on to educate others–through a CSA, a local food restaurant, an educational garden project–about the important and integral role of sustainable food systems in our lives.”

The question of how to bring small-scale farmers back to the land is a thorny issue. Land preservation, government approval, and start-up costs are real challenges to the larger food system framework. But beneath the politics of economy and environment, is the strength of a skilled farmer. A farming education is intuitive—the mind learns to observe and care for the needs of the land. It is also instructive about the greater effect of local agriculture: Give an apprentice the opportunity to witness a growing season, to manage an acre or two, and she will harvest enough food for her own kitchen and sale at a local farmer’s market. That is the defined deliverable of this apprenticeship. As graduates engage with other farmers, they learn the value of partnership and together, they create a powerful marketplace.

For Walsh Daloz, the supporting farmers of UVM’s apprenticeship program also have much to gain from a shared local economy. By allowing “more motivated folks [to help] on their farms, [they] support and grow even more new farmers.”

“We are all working towards the same end,” Walsh Daloz says, “and [we] are happy to have found a way to collaborate.”

 

To learn more about the 5-month Farmer Apprenticeship Program, visit: http://learn.uvm.edu/sustainability/farmer-apprentice-program. Applications received by May 2, 2011 will be given priority. Rolling admissions accepted, depending on space.

Photos: Rebecca Bloomfield, Charu Singh