For those invested in creating a fair, economic, and ecologically just agrifood system this question of is of utmost importance. If we want to re-localize our production, aggregation, and processing of food, it makes sense to begin with the farmers—with the keepers of the soil and managers of land who have practical knowledge of cultivation and husbandry.
For the purposes of this article, we define farmers (growers) as those individuals involved in a variety of activities including: agriculture, horticulture, and aquaponics with the aim of producing fruits, herbs, vegetables, animals (including fish), and bees (for honey). These products are to be sold to the public, institutions, and/or wholesale markets. In defining what is a farm, we acknowledge wide latitude, from dispersed urban and suburban plots, to indoor vertical operations, community gardens, and traditional rural farms ranging in scale from small gardens to thousands of acres. The CORV foodshed falls within a 50-mile radius of downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, into Indiana and Kentucky.
There are many important reasons to ask “Who is training farmers?” First, the USDA reports the median age of farmers in our country is 57(1) and we need to train the next generation. Second, food is big business and a driver of our regional economy. Training farmers is a step in the right direction to re-localizing the flow of our dollars. Third, the human health implications (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, etc.) of our current food choices (related to food production) negatively impacting our communities, economic productivity, and now account for more than 15% of our Gross National Product(2). Fourth, from an ecological view, many current farmers and their operations are large-scale, commodity oriented, and rely heavily on fossil fuel inputs, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Agricultural activities account for more than a third of humanity’s greenhouse gas (carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide) emissions(3). It is imperative that we train the next generation of farmers to use agro-ecologically sustainable and carbon sequestration practices. Finally, training farmers in alternative methods and mindsets will help challenge and change the unfair practices of Federal commodity subsidies, the Farm Bill, and our food system in general.
Fortunately, as concerns have grown, we have seen a rise in alternative growing models—both in the agricultural philosophies that are preached and practiced, and in the kinds of organizations involved in training new farmers. Words such as Permaculture, Biodynamics, Restoration Agriculture, Certified Naturally Grown, and Organic are becoming more commonplace. While these ecologically oriented approaches are vital to creating a new agrifood system, we should acknowledge that there is no one right way to train farmers or cultivate the land. Many different kinds of programs (discussed below) can produce competent farmers and it is often a mix of methods and experience that works best. We also need to realize that our Midwestern models of farming and training are based on the concept of the family farm, whereas farms in the American West are much larger, ranch style operations.
Historically, it has been the small family farm in rural towns that reproduced and imparted knowledge to the next generation, through kin connections and/or journey-style apprenticeships. Then 4H, the Land Grant University System (begun in 1862) and our County Agricultural Cooperative Extension Offices (early 1900’s) were developed. Extensions serve both rural and urban areas, and currently are broken down into the following four departments: Agriculture, 4-H, Family and Consumer Sciences, and Community Development. Eventually State Farm Bureaus, vocational high schools, and associated programs such as Future Farmers of America (FFA) were also created to help improve our agricultural systems and train farmers. To a large extent, these are still the places where people learn to farm—from learning the family business, being hired as seasonal employees, to attending a community college or university, spending time as an intern, and in cooperative agriculture educational programs.
However, the food movement(s) takes issue with some parts of these approaches. First, the agricultural research and development relationships that exist between our Land Grant Universities, the USDA, FDA, and agribusiness are problematic given the financial, political, and legal ramifications. One only has to look at the Farm Bill and the FDA approval process to understand the extent to which industry interests influence the food system. Simply put, the vast majority of these programs train farmers and conduct research within the industrial-chemical-hormone-antibiotic-geneticly-engineered-conventional paradigm. The industrial model often defends these practices in the name of food safety and the need to grow enough food to “Feed the World.” While the USDA does oversee agro-ecological programs and practices, such as Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), the National Organic Program (NOP), and the National Resource Conservation Service (NRSC) and its Environmental Quality Initiative Program (EIQP), the majority of the agency’s funding dollars do not support these projects.
Second, our culture and economic systems do not encourage youth to pursue farming as a vocation; rather they are pushed towards other white-collar, non-manual labor occupations. This trend is intensified because the economics of our agrifood system make it difficult for farmers to earn a living wage without having additional off-the-farm income. Furthermore, many of our agricultural workers are migrants (legal and illegal) and face the same financial challenges as the farmers themselves. Finally, another related issue is that as a society we have lost much of our collective food production knowledge in just two generations time. Fortunately, as a result and in connection to the wider food and justice movements, we are now seeing a renewed interest in, and expansion of alternative methods, models, and farmer training programs.
Before exploring these old and new programs, any discussion must acknowledge the fact that not all organizations, curriculums, courses, teachers (master farmers), and facilitation methods are created equal. There are a number of factors to consider when evaluating training opportunities:
- History of the organization and program
- Financial and human resources available
- Number of farmers (students) trained per cohort
- Organizational mission
- Number of mentors (i.e. masters)
- Amount of structured classroom, labs, and field time where students gain conceptual and hands on experience (the experiential aspects)
- Program’s relationship with the farming community, academic and research institutions, and other healthy food advocate groups
- Student’s exposure to the full food production and consumption process (growing, harvesting, aggregating, processing, and distribution)
- Program’s interest in providing training to be Certified in Organic, Good Agriculture, and Good Handling Practice Standards
- Cost to the organization to provide the training
- Cost to the student (both in time and money) to complete the program.
Finally, many farmers do not have extra money to pay staff and there is frequent turnover in these positions.
In the CORV foodshed there are many examples of different types of organizations involved in teaching the next generation of farmers and engaging in agricultural education. First, in elementary and secondary education, the following schools work with 4H, FFA, or have their own independent programs: Granny’s Garden School (associated with Loveland Elementary), Gamble Montessori, Pleasant Ridge Montessori, the Rothenberg Rooftop Garden(5), as well as other technical high schools. Importantly, 4H operates in conjunction with local K-12 schools and designs their curriculum to meet State Science Standards as they seek to attract interested students(6). The Civic Garden Center, a 501c(3) non-profit) also has a school garden program and provides curricular and material support for teachers and administrators to create and sustain their own plots (7).
Second, smaller farms and LLCs such as Running Creek, Carriage House, Urban Greens, Back Acres Farm, Farm Beach Bethel, Finn Meadows, Dark Woods Farm, Fox Run Farm, and Greensleeves among others, take on interns, employ seasonal workers, and teach their children the craft and business (8- 15).
Third, there are farm-based non-profit organizations that have made education a priority, and offer apprentice style internships, classes to the public, summer camps for children, community garden programs, and even agricultural research opportunities. Some of these organizations in the CORV foodshed include: Turner Farm, Green Acres, Sunrock Farm, Gorman Heritage Farm, Imago Earth Center, the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Project, and Permaganic to name a few. Other non-profit groups that provide training and classes to the public include the Cincinnati Permaculture Institute (composed of the This Land.org and OMValley Permaculture), which broadly focuses on ecologically sustainable agriculture, design, and green buildings. The for-profit Our Harvest Cooperative (OHC) and their new non-profit Research and Educational Institute (OHREI) offer a robust farmer-training program requiring 4,000 on the job farm hours over three years (including 300 hours of formal education) (16-24).
A fourth avenue is the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network, which facilitates the placement of apprentices with farmers. In this model, workers receive food and lodging accommodations in exchange for 4-6 hours of work per day. There are approximately 18 farms within 100 miles of Cincinnati (includes Columbus, Indianapolis, Lexington, and Louisville) that are registered as WWOOFing organizations (25). Another comparable model here is the fact that some CSAs offer work-share programs, where committed members provide labor in exchange for produce and education.
Fifth, community colleges have been offering associate degrees in agriculture and related fields for some time, and these programs work in conjunction with, and are often designed for easy credit transfer to the state’s Land-Grant Universities. In the CORV area, Cincinnati State Community and Technical College offers a Sustainable Agriculture Management Certificate (26). The program is a partner with the OHC/OHREI and provides students the hands on, real world, toil in the soil experience of growing food for market. Cincinnati State then purchases food from the OHC for use in their culinary program and Summit Restaurant. Ivy Tech Community College also offers an Associates of Applied Science in Agriculture at several of their regional campuses in Indiana (27).
Sixth, there are traditional 4-year college programs such as Ohio State University (OSU) and Wilmington College, which are the only institutions in Ohio permitted to offer a BS specifically in Agriculture. OSU, Ohio’s Land Grant Institution, is just outside of the CORV region (as is the University of Kentucky) and will not be discussed further. Wilmington’s program (28) is of note, as it is 68 years old; has a 1000 acre educational farm; a high tunnel; outreach programs; teaches conventional and alternative growing methods; has trained numerous agricultural educators; and just opened a Center for Sciences and Agriculture where they are building an additional greenhouse. Wilmington also has branch in Cincinnati, works closely with Cincinnati State (Mark Deacon, the head of their horticulture program is a Wilmington graduate), and trains farmers in Clermont, Warren and Greene Counties.
Seventh, a more recent and fascinating development in this vocational field is the entry of non-Land Grant institutions of higher education (4-year degree programs), which in addition to teaching farming and gardening skills, also provide students with traditional Liberal Arts Education. Many of these new programs have cultivated relationships with local farms and send their students out into the community to learn from the practitioners. Some of these institutions have recently entered the market as a response to student, public, and administration demands to offer programs that deal directly in issues of ecological sustainability and food production. Moreover, these programs bolster the marketing image for colleges and universities. While there are issues with this model (keep reading) we are fortunate to have these educational and research resources available.
The University of Cincinnati offers a BS in Horticulture Science, focused on green roofs, sustainable landscape design, and urban agriculture (29). UC sends some of their students to learn at the EarthShares CSA in Loveland, Ohio (30). Xavier University has also created a Land, Farming and Community BS, that provides students the opportunity to learn about and become stewards of healthy, productive soils, communities, and regions through the growing, processing and distributing food (31). XU sends students to train at Turner Farm and Grailville Farm (32).
In addition, the University of Miami in Oxford is in the process of designing an interdisciplinary food studies program as part of their Food Studies Institute, which will include an onsite agricultural internship (33). One of Miami’s program goals is to train future extension agents. A unique aspect of this program (similar to Cincinnati State) is that Miami Dining Services has their own processing facility, and purchases food from a variety of local farmers (soon their own plots) and can then prepare it, and serve it to their students. This is novel because unlike UC or XU, Miami is not hindered by contracts with large food distribution corporations.
Thus, these degree-granting programs are additional vehicles for training famers. What has yet to be seen is how popular these newer minors and majors will be with students. The issue of financial cost to the student (apprentice) deserves special attention here. Many of the non-profit organizations (Turner, Greenacres, etc.) are able to pay their apprentices a stipend and provide them with either free or a discounted food price, and/or lodging of some kind. This is made possible because of endowments, grants, and/or municipal financial backing. In terms of traditional farm employees or apprentices, compensation may be financial (paid an hourly wage), or some volunteer positions are paid through a food stipend. There is wide latitude here.
Regarding institutions of higher education, the financial details are of primary concern because students are actually paying to provide labor in exchange for experience, which can be an unfortunate reality of some cooperative educational programs. Specifically, XU, UC, Miami, and Wilmington ($460, $449, $563, and $500 per in state credit-hour, respectively), are more costly than Cincinnati State’s $148 or Ivy Tech’s $135 per in-state credit hour. Some coop programs, such as UC’s require students to pay a coop fee of $500 instead of tuition during the semester they work, which permits the student to retain full time status while working. The wage issue is a crucial fact when considering student-loan debt and the amount of income offered to new farmers (approximately $10–15 per hour) (34).
Despite the challenges to any farmer-training program, the availability and variation of these old and new opportunities is important because most people are no longer born and raised to be farmers, but they are choosing to become farmers. Their education, training and support from farmers and food advocacy organizations will make a critical difference in helping us to re-fashion farming into a financial and ecological sustainable occupation and to —re-localize our food system. In closing, we acknowledge that this is an ongoing conversation. We invite your comments and feedback. Let us know if your farm or organization is involved in training farmers.
Please send comments and feedback to Alan Wight at: firstname.lastname@example.org
By: R. Alan Wight
Edited by: Deborah Jordan
Special Thanks to Ken Stern, Jim Lowenburg, Mary Lu Legman, Sandra Murphy, Megan Gambril, and Tony Staubach for their support and guidance.
R. Alan Wight, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati, the Christ College of Nursing, and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College where he teachers a variety of Education, Professional Development, Social Science, and Agriculture courses. Alan’s dissertation examines the types of learning and education that occur within the CSA context. He is part of the Greater Regional Cincinnati Food Policy Council and works with schools and communities to promote sustainable agricultural and raise our collective food consciousness.
1. USDA Reports – Median Age of Farmers is 58
2. Percent of GDP on Health Care - http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.TOTL.ZS
3. Over 1/3rd of all human Greenhouse gases come from Agriclture:
4. Granny’s Garden School - http://www.grannysgardenschool.org/
5. Gamble Montessori, the Rothenberg Rooftop Garden - http://www.shelbycountypost.com/?p=2044
7. Civic Garden Center School Program
8. Running Creek - https://www.facebook.com/Running-Creek-Farm-89627718515/
9. Carriage House - http://www.carriagehousefarmllc.com/
10. Urban Greens - http://www.urbangreensfresh.com/
11. Back Acres Farm - https://www.facebook.com/Back-Acres-Farm-147783311922386/
12. Farm Beach Bethel - https://www.facebook.com/FarmBeachBethel/
13. Finn Meadows - http://www.finnmeadowsfarm.com/
14. Dark Woods Farm - http://darkwoodfarmstead.com/
15. Greensleeves -
16. Turner Farm - http://www.turnerfarm.org/
17. Green Acres - http://www.green-acres.org/
18. Sunrock Farm - http://www.sunrockfarm.org/
19. Gorman Heritage Farm - http://gormanfarm.org/
20. Imago Earth Center - http://www.imagoearth.org/
21. Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Project
22. Permaganic - http://www.permaganic.org/
24. Our Harvest Cooperative (OHC) and their new non-profit Research and Educational Institute (OHREI) - http://ourharvest.coop/default.aspx
25. WWOFF - https://wwoofusa.org/
26. Cincinnati State Community and Technical College offers a Sustainable Agriculture Management Certificate. http://www.cincinnatistate.edu/real-world-academics/academics/business-technologies-division/program/program
27. Ivy Tech Community College also offers an Associates of Applied Science in Agriculture
28. Wilmington College – Agriculture - http://www.wilmington.edu/academics/areas-of-study/agriculture/
29. University of Cincinnati offers a BS in Horticulture Science
30. EarthShares CSA - http://www.earthsharescsa.org/
31. Xavier University has also created a Land, Farming and Community
32. Grailville Farm - https://www.grailville.org/light-up-the-farm.php
33. University of Miami in Oxford Food Studies Institute
34. How much new farmers are paid