Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. -Ancient Proverb
But what if you need to feed an entire community? Or the whole country?
America’s youth have been gaining interest in sustainable food and farming in recent years – and thank goodness. Aging baby boomers that make up the majority of farmers in the United States will soon be retiring and their boots will need to be filled. With the average age of the American farmer approaching 60, and less than 1% of the US population working on farms, there’s a pressing need to train the next generation of farmers.
In order to sustain America’s agricultural systems, maintain and enhance the ecological health of the land, and assure future generations a reliable and safe food supply, it is crucial that knowledge of the land be properly passed down.
Farmers around the country recognize this. Each year, more programs are sprouting up to provide opportunities for young people to learn about where their food comes from. Programs range from farm visits for young schoolchildren to full-time, immersive, apprenticeship programs for young adults where they gain first-hand experiences living and working on farms and ranches. It is in some of these intensive apprenticeship programs where a deep understanding of the land is developed.
A variety of apprenticeship programs exist. Some are general in nature while others focus more closely on specific areas, be they organic farming, ranching, permaculture, or regenerative agriculture. Programs are offered through farms or farm coalitions, educational institutions and/or nonprofits and most often include a cost to apprentices in order to compensate for their instruction and accommodations.
While all program are different, they have the common objective of sharing knowledge of the land with future generations. Below are two such programs.
Offering apprenticeship programs in the Southwestern United States, the Quivira Coalition offers one of the most extensive networks of farming and ranching apprenticeships in the country. Quivira’s New Agrarian Program offers six different 8-12 month apprenticeship programs throughout Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico that focus on regenerative agriculture.
“Once upon a time, apprenticeship was the primary form of education available to a person, whatever the field – medicine, music, cobbler, or scholar,” said Julie Sullivan from San Juan Ranch in Colorado, a Quivira partner. “An agrarian apprenticeship is a form of this age-old process whereby a learner becomes a practitioner.”
LoaTree recently spoke with the Director of Quivira’s New Agrarian Program (NAG), Virginie Pointeau, to learn more about their programs and partnerships. Pointeau has combined her studies of biology, forestry, and outdoor education with her passion for sustainable agriculture to lead NAG’s efforts around agricultural education and environmental restoration.
“When you think that almost half the world’s land is affected by agriculture, the link between ecology and agriculture becomes a no-brainer,” she explained. “We can make an enormous contribution to land and watershed health by incorporating regenerative methods of agriculture into every operation.”
Ecological risks at play when sustainable practices are not implemented include large-scale ecosystem degradation, dead and dying soils, diminished watershed health and functions, decreased food security and more, she explained.
Having worked with many young farmers, Pointeau described what today’s typical farm apprentice is like. She painted a picture of an ambitious, tech-savvy, and well-educated person who wants to help make agriculture more sustainable.
“It may surprise some people that the average apprentice isn’t from a farm, but actually from a city or an area near a city.”
Traditionally, farmers have grown up on farms and inherent their roles from their parents and past generations of family. Now, there is more of a migration to farms by those who have grown up with little or no farm experience.
Pointeau elaborates, stating that these programs are a meeting of the old and the new. “Apprentices come in with social networking skills and can network in a way that we haven’t seen before. These skills allow for the creation of new networks that promote the sharing of techniques and provide general support. As a result, more people are beginning to draw connections between farming and ecology…”
Pointeau stressed the importance of the turnover of land ownership over the next 10-15 years as current farm owners and managers pass on their farms to their successors. “Our goal is to train the next generation of ranchers and farmers, but being a relatively small organization with limited resources, we can’t do it ourselves,” she said.
By reaching out to organizations with similar goals, and by sharing talents and resources, Pointeau and Quivira are making great strides.
“If we can combine forces and figure out how to best utilize the strengths of each group or individual, we will become far more than the sum of our parts. That’s when we start to change the world,” said Pointeau.
In LoaTree’s own backyard is Fairview Gardens. Located in Goleta, California, Fairview Gardens is a 12-acre urban farm that focuses on producing high-quality organic food while also preserving the ecology of the land. Fairview offers two apprenticeship programs: one in farming and one in farm education. Apprentices tend to be college students and graduates, some interested in farming as a career, others seeking the experience to broaden their understanding of farming.
LoaTree had the privilege of sitting down with Fairview Gardens’ director, Mark Tollefson, to learn more about the farm. “We don’t just feed the community with our food,” said Tollefson. “We feed them with the education about where their food comes from.” In describing the importance of apprenticeship programs, Tollefson stressed the significance of the average age of farmers in the country today.
“To have a viable industry, the people in that industry must have an average age lower than around 45 or else the industry isn’t replacing itself fast enough in order to be sustainable,” Tollefson said. “It’s programs like these that are needed to train the next generation.”
In addition to apprenticeships, Fairview Gardens also engages the rest of the community in learning about farming. With school tours, summer camps, adult programs, festivals, and other community events, Fairview Gardens teaches all walks of life about where their food comes from and why it’s important.
“From the macro perspective, teaching people about where food comes from and the fact that growing food is critically important is something that we need to come back to as a society,” said Tollefson.
Vanessa Lang, recent graduate of the farm’s Education Apprenticeship program, shared a story about a young girl who didn’t want to eat any of the farm’s food when she learned it all came from the dirt. Fairview works to overcome these barriers. In order to help cultivate an appreciation for the soil, for example, Lang explained that they teach the kids a song called “Dirt Made My Lunch.”
Lang (24), a graduate of UC Santa Cruz with a history of outdoor education, described her apprenticeship experience as ‘life changing.’ As an Education Apprentice, she worked with children during school visits and camps, educating them about the basics of farming.
“It was amazing to see kids get so excited about this stuff. You could see their curiosity being sparked when they were exposed to something new.”
Self-guided tours are available seven days a week, from 10 a.m. until sundown, at Fairview Gardens for anyone looking to learn more about the farm or farming in general.
Written by Max Bayuk, LoaTree. Photos for the Quivira Coalition provided by Virginie Pointeau. Photos of Fairview Gardens, including banner image, provided by Lea Anna Drown of Observant Images.