Innovative Education Programs Support Sustainable Agriculture and New Farmers

As interest in and dedication to sustainable agriculture grows, so must the infrastructure to support the further development of sustainable food systems. One piece of this infrastructure that is rapidly cropping up all over the country and beyond is educational programs for aspiring farmers and sustainable food producers. Sustainable agriculture education programs range from informal weekend workshops to lengthy and fully-comprehensive programs that tackle every aspect of farming. Whatever the variety, the development and offering of all of these programs is critical to the proliferation and staying power of sustainable agriculture in the U.S., however the few highlighted in the proceeding article are especially innovative models of education.

In western Washington state, a new three-year beginning farmer program distinguishes itself by multi-tasking. Not only does the farmer incubation training, which started in 2003 and is run through the local non-profit Sustainable Connections, tackle the breadth and depth of farming, it also benefits the broader community. While attending farmers-to-be are learning the ins and outs of how to create a successful farm business, they are also growing a plethora of food for the area food banks. New farmers are paid wholesale rates to deliver food to the food bank, and as a result over $50,000 worth of fresh organic produce has been delivered to emergency food pantries over the last seven years.

While much more standard, a tried and true approach to sustainable agriculture education continues to grow in Maine. The apprenticeship program run by the Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener's Association (MOFGA) has been in existence for over 30 years. MOFGA serves as the middle man, matching aspiring farmers to their ideal farm for a season-long apprenticeship. While this sort of program seems a little less innovative, many farmers agree that there's no better way to really learn to farm than through a hard-core apprenticeship that gives you a realistic sense of what it takes to be a farmer.

Although internships and apprenticeships are the standard fare of farmer education, more and more non-profit organizations, colleges, and universities are developing and refining sustainable agriculture programs that are a bit more structured and academic than your average apprenticeship. Programs like those offered through The Farm School in Massachusetts are open to anyone who is seriously interested in learning to farm, while college students (of any age) can pursue a degree in sustainable agriculture from the multitude of programs now offered at many state universities and private colleges. Offerings range from the innovative and alternative, like the rural Sterling College and Unity College to the standard, like those found at some of the larger, more agriculturally-focused state universities like Iowa State.

Additionally sustainable agriculture non-profits are constantly advertising an ever changing array of farming workshops and tutorials. From raising backyard chickens to container gardening, butchering to composting, there are tons of short classes out there that anyone interested can attend. As sustainable agriculture continues to gain momentum and a foothold in the upcoming new year, it is likely that more and more educational programs will rise up to support it, and to foster a new generation of farmers and gardeners.