Learning from Expert Host Farmers

Our Beginning Farmer Program is always a little tough for me to explain to people.  I’ve created an extensive set of inter-linked pages back at the NOFA-NY website, to which I’m happy to direct anyone who’s seated at a computer, but it still doesn’t quite tell the underlying story about what it is I do!  Nope, NOFA-NY doesn’t run a training farm for beginning (or experienced farmers), but we do provide a suite of support services and programs that help beginners (and experienced and transitioning-to-Organic farmers) get the information, experience and boost they need to continue in their farming careers.   Just as importantly, we provide resources for experienced farmers, often simply lifting up the best practices that farmers have developed for training beginning farmers, so that more farmers will be skillful and encouraging trainers to the up-and-coming set of aspiring farmers.  Better trainers will mean better-equipped and more beginning farmers!

For the past nearly 4 years, NOFA-NY has been a part of a project with 6 other Northeast states (5 other NOFA state chapters and MOFGA in Maine) to develop several distinct programs or services, all within a broader “Beginning Farmer Program.”  We rely on farmers’ expertise and experiences to develop broadly-applicable and useful information for beginning farmers.  Sometimes they teach workshops for other host farmers, and sometimes they teach directly to beginning farmers.  Recently, they were teaching me and my interstate colleagues!

farm tour panorama

We went on a daylong learning retreat to discover and be inspired by the on-farm training practices of some of our region’s respected host farmers.  Sure, there are legal issues regarding on-farm labor that each NOFA provides resources and trainings about (the laws vary by state), but the core design and intention of any on-farm training program is critical to successfully train new farmers.  It must be fulfilling to both host and aspiring farmer, and increase the aspiring farmer’s preparedness to take a next step in farming without dropping the productivity of the farm to an unsustainable level.  Not easy, but not impossible.

We visited Indian Line Farm, Caretaker Farm and Cricket Creek Farm, all in the Western Massachusetts region.  Elizabeth (Indian Line) and Don (Caretaker) both have nearly a decade of training aspiring farmers on their farms.  Suzy (Cricket Creek Farm) is newer to that role, though has developed an excellent structure that works for the less-experienced host farmers among us (more structure is better in that situation, to establish clear chains of command).  They shared specific details about how they assign the work on their farm (good lessons whether or not a farm is trying to train the next generation of farmers) but also about how they discern and decide about aspiring farmers to bring on to the farm.  Some best practices I noted, which are generally good practices for having anyone working on your farm.

Clear, central, visible task lists accompanied by permanent guidelines for tasks.  The guidelines (or Standard Operating Procedures) are taught, but all workers can refer back to them in the central location.  So while apprentices may be harvesting or weeding for the first time, they have a standard to refer to, lessening the likelihood for mistakes that can be avoided.

Chore list bulletin board and Elizabeth Keen

Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm shows off the task board, complete with instructions and the Chore board (each apprentice plus Elizabeth rotates between being responsible for the big 4 areas: Watering, Driving the Truck (and managing the greens, just because those tasks seem to go together), Unloading, and Spraying/Nutrient Management.

Captains/leaders rotate through roles.  This helps the farm run smoothly and forces each apprentice or worker to think about all the little things that need to happen under their watch.  The crew becomes invested as they are accountable, but the manager/lead farmer is never so removed that the tasks can’t be explained until the crew is comfortable.

Don in apprentice book library

Don Zasada at the Caretaker Farm lending library.

A priority and emphasis on learning aside from daily tasks.  All farms we visited were members of a CRAFT group, so the apprentices are provided with a schedule of farm tours on other farms.  It’s a chance to make a group of apprentice friends, get off the farm, and learn new ideas and methods by seeing the way other farms do what they do.  This particular CRAFT group enforces a “no penalty for going on CRAFT farm visits” policy.  The farmers explained that it is good for the morale of the apprentices, gets them excited to think about problem-solving on the farm, and helps lessen the load to teach everything or represent more farming methods than the farm actually employs.  A lending library and apprentice-captained research or building projects allow apprentices to dig even deeper.

Scheduled Checking In and Communication.  Each farm does this differently, but each farm we visited did one thing the same: they scheduled communication meetings to talk about the way things were going for education goals, for farming production goals, and for interpersonal issues.  At Caretaker Farm, each meeting takes a slightly different structure so feedback is given all around, in a way that makes sense for that point in the season.

Whole-Farm Perspective.  Farmers give the apprentices on-farm “workshops” or learning opportunities to talk about the business aspects of farming; everything from keeping good records to calculating budgets and financial statements.  Apprentices must learn these skills to know how they would manage a farm for themselves.  Regular farm walks and discussions allow apprentices and workers to understand the flow of all the aspects of the farm, especially as they begin to specialize in one area or a different area is less visited during the season.

Caretaker farm panorama1

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