UVM Farmer Training Program Teaches Students Sustainability Hinges on Financial Fitness
August 9, 2012 | Helen Weatherall
If beer is a reliable indicator, rosy times lie ahead for American agriculture and those who like fresh wholesome food. As the 70’s gave way to the 80’s, doomsayers predicted that if the going trend of consolidation continued only 5 beer-brewing companies would exist by the 1990’s. But something happened and that something was the rise of the craft brewer. Today this phenomenon is happening again, this time with peas and carrots. At agricultural training programs cropping up at such places as the University of California, Santa Cruz, New York’s Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming, Michigan State University, and now at the University of Vermont’s Farmer Training Program, one diverse student group after another is endeavoring to reinvent and reinvigorate farming.
May 2011 marked the launch of the University of Vermont’s program. Offered through the school’s Department of Continuing Education, the 6-month intensive Farmer Training Program strives to train students in methods of sustainable farming as it propels them back into the real world. The objective is to turn out agriculturalists prepared to forge careers in the rapidly expanding realm of food production. As much as the program is devoted to the ins and outs of sowing and reaping, it is also devoted to business.
The program was built around the understanding that sustainability hinges on financial fitness. Program Director Susie Walsh Daloz and her colleagues fully appreciate that all the nitrogen rich poultry manure in the world cannot make up for a faulty business model.
“(In the program) We’re talking about marketing and business planning,” said program Director Susie Walsh Daloz who herself is a farmer.
“We don’t just want people to love (what we’re teaching), we want it to work. (Our students) are not going to just bask in the love of the dirt,” she added.
While acknowledging that some of their students find the business focus intimidating, Daloz is convinced of its importance and proud of its inclusion. Daloz notes that, in fact, it sets her program apart from others.
Discussing the program in the wake of the Food Systems Summit hosted by UVM in mid-July, Daloz talked about the care given to selecting applicants. Previous degrees are not required nor are any set prerequisites. But successful applicants demonstrate a high level of self-awareness and have some experience in plant cultivation or animal husbandry.
“We don’t want this to be (a student’s) first experience. They have to show they’re committed,” said Daloz. “Those in the program spend 40 hours a week farming. It’s hard work.”
The week begins with a ‘farm walk’ at the 97-acre Horticultural Research Farm – or ‘Hort Farm’ as it is affectionately known. Here, for over 50 years, students and faculty have been experimenting with plant varieties old and new, testing their ability to adapt to Vermont’s climate. On Tuesdays students devote their time and energy to working visits at various host farms where they study such topics as CSA management, specialty crop production, and systems of livestock care. On Wednesdays students go indoors to the classroom and turn their attention the intricacies of business. For the remainder of the week the farmers in training manage their own 4-acre farm. This farm is theirs and theirs alone. They are responsible for all decisions concerning the planting, harvesting and marketing of produce grown from this plot. As crops are harvested students sell them at several local markets. All surplus food is donated to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf the largest direct service emergency food provider in Vermont.
Now well into its second year, The Farmer Training Program at UVM is off to a promising start. In its first year, 12 students enrolled and earned certificates. This year the cohort, as Daloz likes to call the group of trainees, has increased to 18.
In talking with Daloz it’s clear that she is both heartened and impressed by the caliber of the students she and her colleagues are working with.
“The group this year is really amazing; they’re very motivated; they know what they want,” she said adding that the group is also highly diverse.
“The ages range from 22 to 47. We have folks who didn’t get their BA and some with PhDs.”
At least two of those enrolled are undertaking major career shifts. Thirty-something Catherine (“Cookie”) Compitello left a flourishing career on Wall Street to strike out on a new path via UVM. A self-described urbanite and East Coast Girl, Compitello is intent on leaving Burlington with a watertight business plan.
“I don’t want to choose a career path that isn’t sustainable for me as well,” she explained.
The professional future that Compitello envisions for herself varies starkly from the forty-acres-and-a-mule model of yesteryear. Compitello’s career as an agriculturalist may well take her back to the city.
“One of the biggest things I’m passionate about is food access,” she said going on to express enthusiasm for Stephen Ritz’s accomplishments with The Green Bronx Machine.
For Canadian native Marie-Eve Mongeau the decision to enroll in the Farmer Training Program at UVM signals a major career change. In her prior life Mongeau was a an engineer, first a chemical engineer for GE in Albany, then a mechanical engineer for a medical device company in Boston.
Ironically it was success and word of a likely advancement within the company that led to Mongeau’s reconsideration of her life’s path.
“Management wasn’t for me,” she said explaining how her switch to agriculture transpired.
“And a good friend started me into houseplants. It was a cool hobby and I started growing food indoors.” She added.
One thing led to another and following fruitful negotiations with her boss, Mongeau was soon propelled into the Master Gardener Class at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Mongeau’s passion for all things agricultural continued to grow.
“The Master Gardener Program introduced me to a broad spectrum. Once I started with vegetables I thought, ‘well this is so cool!’”
Mongeau confesses that she found the program at UVM by stumbling upon it. But when she went to Vermont for a visit she knew immediately that the time was right to follow her heart.
“I really believe there’s a gardener in all of us,” said Mongeau.
Asked how her decision to switch from a career in engineering to one in farming was received by family, colleagues and friends Mongeau answered, “It was a pretty big leap. People were surprised. But it’s like they wished they could have done it themselves.”