Organic Farm School Teaches Tomorrow’s Farmers Everything from Soil to Sales
December 18, 2013 | Susan Botich
In 2008, Greenbank Farm established its Organic Farm School to teach sustainable agricultural methods to students from all walks of life. The farm, located on Greenbank, Washington’s Whidbey Island, teaches agriculture methods and emphasizes how to manage a farm as a viable business.
Farm manager and instructor Jessica Babcock says the Farm School’s emphasis on business management is what sets it apart from other organic agricultural training programs.
“Each student leaves the program with an extensive business plan they have written that they can use to start their own sustainable farm business,” says Babcock.
The seven-month residential program runs every year from March 15 through October 15, covering everything from business management and direct marketing to experiential organic farming practices such as soil science, weed control, using hand tools and farm equipment, crop rotation and raising chickens, sheep or goats.
The business training focuses on how to manage a working farm with an emphasis on participation in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and local farmers’ markets as well as other income-generating activities, according to Babcock.
Students range in age from 18 to late 50s. The class sizes are kept fairly small—between eight to 10 students—so they do fill up quickly, Babcock says. “This year, I’m excited that we have just a couple of spots left,” she adds.
Having students involved in the selling of the fruits of their labors at farmers’ markets and through the CSA also helps to make the business aspect of farming more concrete, according to Babcock.
“We don’t give grades,” Babcock says. “Every student has a lot of responsibility. This is a farm school but it’s also a working farm. We have an obligation to our CSA members and the farmers’ market. I’ve found that responsibility engenders that they have to step up and make the farm their own and that group cooperation is an incentive, as well, to seek after your own learning and be proactive.”
Though the school is not accredited, at the end of the training period each student receives a certificate showing they have completed the program. The nearby Skagit Valley College, located in Mt. Vernon, Washington, offers a companion program that is accredited.
The two programs work together, according to Babcock. “They can enroll in that college while doing our program and, when they finish our program, they also get a certificate from the college,” she says. For students who wish to continue on with further training beyond the seven-month program, there is an option to enroll the following year as a farm assistant or farming incubator, according to Babcock.
“The incubator program is where someone can start their own farm business on-site for a very inexpensive cost,” Babcock says. “They can use our equipment, lease our land, and they get a second year of mentorship. It helps them to start a farm business without the scary risk of going out and starting totally on their own; they can make some of those first mistakes and tweak their business so they already have that experience behind them.”
Babcock makes herself available for consultation and help along the way. “And it’s nice that the new students have someone who has been through the program and can offer a context for where that student can grow to be.”
The surrounding community is very involved and committed to keeping the land uses in line with the overall goal of natural resource stewardship, according to Babcock, which enables students to find an entire network of sustainable agriculture support.
“There are so many voices involved in the direction of the farm,” says Babcock. “They care very much about what happens. It also means that we have a lot of voices giving input when we want to make decisions. This helps us to run the farm the way they want it to be run. We’re very lucky that there are so many people on the island who love this farm.”