Growing the Next Generation of Sustainable Farmers
June 1, 2011 | Nicole Crescimanno
Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit 80-acre four-season farm and education center in Pocantico Hills, NY (a hop, skip and a jump from Manhattan) is looking for aspiring farmers to counteract an alarming trend in agriculture: an aging population of farmers that isn’t getting any younger.
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, as of the 2002 Census, the average age of all U.S. farmers was approximately 55. More distressing, though, is that from 1982 to 2002 the number of young principal farmers under 35 years old has declined from 16% to 9%. Stone Barns Center attributes this decline in young farmers to years of economic forces that have deterred young people from regarding farming as a viable career opportunity.
To alter this perception and create a positive career trajectory for a new generation of farmers, Stone Barns runs an apprenticeship program that equips aspiring young farmers with the tools and skills necessary to successfully run a sustainable farm. Mara Flanagan, Marketing and Communication Manager at Stone Barns said that the program seeks to fill a “big information gap” for young people who want to pursue a career in farming, but did not grow up on farms where farming knowledge is typically passed down from generation to generation.
Alec Baxt, an alumnus of the apprentice program, got involved with Stone Barns for this very reason. “I realized that I’d really benefit from working alongside people who know what the hell they were doing,” he said. Prior to his decision to enter the apprentice program, Baxt had struggled for a season trying to grow his own crops without the benefit of farmer mentorship.
Apprenticeship Program Details
The apprenticeship program is a major component of Stone Barns’ Growing Farmers Initiative, which seeks to both halt the decline of farmers, farmland, and rural economies and to increase the number of sustainable small and medium sized farms in the Northeast. “Our niche lies in training the next generation of producers, ensuring they’ll be successful, ready and willing to meet the demand of the increasing numbers of concerned and conscientious eaters out in the world,” said Nena Johnson, Growing Farmers Initiative Director at Stone Barns.
The program requires that apprentices commit 35 hours a week for a period of five to nine months (depending on the area of the farm) to gain hands on farming experience and training, plus an additional five hours of classroom time focused on a holistic agricultural curriculum. It is not a program for sustainable agriculture enthusiasts who might want to experience what a day’s work in the field feels like. It’s for young men and women who have decided to pursue sustainable farming as their livelihood. “We felt it was important to differentiate between those folks who are exploring the idea of farming as part of maybe a greater interest in food and the issues surrounding it and those folks who are ready to commit to being a full-time farmer and steward of the land,” said Johnson.
To be considered for the program one must first submit an application for an apprenticeship opportunity related to a specific functional area on the farm. For the 2011 summer program, aspiring young farmers were given the opportunity to apply for the following apprenticeship roles:
Herb and Flower Terrace Apprentice
The Herb and Flower Terrace apprentice receives instruction on how to manage the ½ acre growing area at the Center, which produces a broad variety of culinary and tea herbs, small fruit, edible and cut flowers as well as rotations of seasonally appropriate vegetable crops.
The Field apprentice learns how to grow a multitude of different vegetables on a 5 ½ acre growing space by developing an understanding of how to manage soils to increase biological activity, utilize mineral content, build organic matter and maximize plant health.
Formal Gardens and Landscape Apprentice
The Formal Gardens and Landscape apprentice learns how to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs, and manage the landscape according to biological/organic principals.
The compost/biochar apprentice receives instruction in and obtains a foundational understanding of how to operate a small-scale agricultural composting operation.
Summer Greenhouse Apprentice
The Summer Greenhouse Apprentice receives instruction in the labor, economics and maintenance required to become a successful greenhouse grower.
Those who are accepted into the program receive a $1250.00 per month stipend while learning their specific trade. As part of the program, apprentices act as advocates for Stone Barns Center and actively participate in its educational outreach efforts to school groups and the general public.
Apprentices are also provided with ample networking opportunities to meet and learn from other farmers in the Northeast through offsite field trips and events like the annual Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns, which last year attracted nearly 260 participants from 24 states to learn from agricultural luminaries, peers, and advocacy organizations through workshops, keynotes, and panel discussions.
Challenges Faced by Young Farmers
According to Johnson, many of the emerging farmers in the program face challenges in gaining access to land and finding the capital necessary to launch their operations. Nevertheless, Johnson believes that they will be able to overcome these hurdles through resourcefulness and creativity. “[Many new farmers] are seeking out socially responsible investors, devising creative lending options, and engaging in alternative land tenure scenarios,” she said.
The program, which began in 2004, has trained over 50 apprentices so far who have found positions managing small sustainable farming operations far and wide from Shelter Island, NY to Santa Cruz, CA. Baxt, the alumnus and former field apprentice mentioned above, is currently running his own sustainable agriculture operation in New York City called FarmingUp, which seeks to create a large-scale rooftop farm that grows high quality produce primarily for neighbors within walking distance of the farm.
Currently, there are 15 farm apprentices getting their hands dirty and working the land at Stone Barns, nearly double the number of apprentices that participated in the program in 2010.
As young graduates and apprentices spread the word about the apprenticeship program and demonstrate the viability of a career in sustainable farming, the ranks of young sustainable farmers will only continue to grow and Stone Barns will have done its part to contribute to the reinvigoration of farming in the US.
About Stone Barns Center for Agriculture
Stone Barns Center is open to the public year-round, Wednesday through Friday from 10am to 5pm and is working on broader initiatives to create a healthy and sustainable food system. Learn more at www.stonebarnscenter.org.
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