Last month, thirty-one biodynamic and organic farmers and gardeners gathered at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Harlemville, New York for the first Farmer-Mentor Workshop of the North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program. The farmers came from across the United States and Canada. Their operations run the gamut from small homesteads to large CSAs. Some have been farming for ten years or less, others for forty years or more. What they share is a fierce commitment to the education of young farmers. They see themselves not just as growers, but as teachers, and they have all chosen to participate as mentor farmers in the new apprenticeship program.
The workshop was part-orientation, part-professional development, part-vision setting. During three days of presentations and discussions, the mentor farmers learned about the details of the program structure and shared their challenges, successes, and strategies for working with apprentices. For the mentor farmers, it was a first step in the development of a strong culture of guidance, their gift to the next generation of farmers.
The North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program is an initiative of the Agriculture Section of the School of Spiritual Science. The Agriculture Section is a group of individuals with a diversity of backgrounds in biodynamic agriculture, who work to promote the growth of the biodynamic movement in North America. Their past initiatives include the Turtle Tree Seed Initiative and the formation of regional biodynamic preparation-making groups. Over the course of three years, the members of the Agriculture Section have focused their attention on the need for a formal training program for aspiring farmers. This will be the first season of the program, which is intended to provide a supportive, structured training plan to those who are pursuing a career in biodynamic agriculture.
In recent years, the need for a strong vocational program has become more apparent. A growing number of young people, conscious of the troubling effects of our modern industrial agricultural practices, are dedicating themselves to becoming good stewards of the land. From cities and suburbs, classrooms and offices, they are finding their way to small, diversified, organic and biodynamic farms in every part of the country. In the absence of a formal tradition of vocational training, these aspiring young farmers are piecing together their own educational plans, gleaning experience and information in any way they can, from apprenticeships, conferences and workshops. The new program, based somewhat on the European model of apprenticeship training, brings together existing structures and resources to create a comprehensive educational network.
Through the program, apprentices will receive a total of 24 months of on-farm training at participating mentor farms. Applicants to the program will be assisted by Regional Coordinators in finding appropriate apprenticeships on participating farms. Because many farms offer only 8-month apprenticeships, an apprentice might end up working on as many as three different farms. These farms can be organic or biodynamic, but at least one of them must be biodynamic. Each participating farmer commits to being a mentor and guide and to meeting at least once a year with the extended network of mentor farmers in a continuous effort to develop a common culture of on-farm mentoring practices. During the on-farm training, apprentices will be expected to master a minimum set of skills. Their progress will be monitored through the use of a skills checklist and written evaluations, comprising a sort of transcript that will follow the young farmer from farm to farm. Apprentices will be required to keep a daily farm journal, and, at some time during the 24 months, complete an independent project, much like a thesis.
Throughout the growing season, apprentices will visit and tour other farms in the region, participating in discussions on topics relevant to each farm operation. Discussions might focus on a farm’s soil fertility plan, or on a particular technique or technology utilized by the farm. These regional exchanges, arranged by Regional Coordinators, will be modeled after the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farm Training (CRAFT) program, originally piloted in New England and since developed successfully in other parts of the continent. Apprentices will get to know the other farms in the region, meet other aspiring young farmers, and broaden their awareness of the diversity of farm systems. The visits also aim to foster a greater connectivity among operations in each region and open doors for more cooperation.
The program also includes a formal educational component, which will be provided by established institutions on a regional basis, including the Pfeiffer Center, Rudolf Steiner College, Rudolf Steiner Center and Hawthorne Valley Farm. Apprentices will enroll in weekend workshops or one- to two-week winter intensive courses on topics specific to biodynamic agriculture and to the anthroposophical worldview from which biodynamics derives. Topics will address the human, biological, and physical worlds, and might include biodynamic preparation-making, geology and soil, astronomy and planting calendars, the theory of associative economics, phenomenological studies and Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course. This formal training will ensure that all graduates of the program have a solid foundation in the theories underlying biodynamic practices. To contribute to the cost of the workshops and classes over the 24-month period, apprentices will pay $500 tuition for the program. Upon completion of all program requirements, young farmers will receive a certificate from the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association.
The potential fruits of this initiative are threefold. First, apprentices will receive a solid foundation of both experiential and formal education as they start their careers in agriculture. As they proceed on their paths and start their own ventures, they will have the continued support of their mentors, regional coordinators, and the wider network of mentor farms. Second, mentor farmers will receive support in their development as teachers. Regular mentorship conferences will bring the quality of on-farm education to a higher level. Finally, regional networks of farmers will be developed and strengthened, allowing for more cooperation and innovation within each localized food system.
In biodynamic agriculture, preparations are applied to the land in order to awaken the senses of the plants and to enliven a greater intelligence in the soil. For the mentor farmers of the North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program, working with apprentices is about bringing forth a similar transformation. It is about connecting to what Mac Mead, farmer and educator at the Pfeiffer Center, calls the “young cosmic impulse.” This impulse is a precious resource that must be skillfully guided, carefully cultivated and continuously replenished if we hope to have a next generation of farmers. It can’t be done in university classrooms. If we hope to have a next generation of conscious, capable farmers, we must begin, as Rudolf Steiner suggested, in “the field, the forest, and the stable.”