Rogue Farm Corps Trains Future Farmers

We have all seen the headlines and read the census reports. Less than 1% of the population farms for a living and our farmers are aging. Meanwhile, our farm economy is changing. Local food is all the rage. Farmers markets are opening all over the country. The face of agriculture is changing right before our eyes.

What does the future of agriculture look like? Who are the farmers of the future?

In Oregon’s growing sustainable agriculture community the answers to these questions can often be found in the fields and barns working side by side with established farmers. Young people from all over the country and all walks of life are exploring agriculture as a possible career path. On-farm internships have provided an entry point for beginning farmers to learn the tools of the trade.

As anyone who has farmed before knows, you cannot teach farming in a classroom. You have to work on a farm to learn farming.

Interest in on-farm internships has exploded in the past 5 years. Young people are seeking out opportunities to learn from farmers and participate in the new food system. And many of today’s established farmers want to give back to their communities and share the knowledge they have accumulated over the years.

Yet this age old model of sharing knowledge and teaching hands-on skills is in jeopardy. Farmers hosting interns in Oregon, California, and Washington have found themselves subject to wage claims and lawsuits for failure to adequately document the terms of their internship programs. The informal nature of most on-farm internship programs puts them in direct violation of these legal protections for workers. Handshake agreements between farmers and interns do not stand up to the law.

The risks associated with these informal on-farm internships sent a chill throughout the sustainable agriculture community and jeopardized the future of these valuable education and training opportunities. Many farmers stepped away from hosting interns all together. Others thought there had to be a better way.

Legal protections for workers are a cornerstone of our democratic society. These protections were won through many long, hard struggles of labor in all sectors of the economy. Historically, agriculture has been one of the worst violators of workers’ rights and this is not something that our community of farmers is striving to repeat. The intention behind the on-farm internships is to teach the next generation, to transfer skills and knowledge, and to ensure a sustainable agricultural future.

With all this in mind, the legal status of on-farm internships has been a hot topic of discussion. We have seen it presented on at several farming conferences around the West, and in the spring of 2010, Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the Bureau of Labor & Industry (BOLI) convened a meeting of stakeholders in Salem to discuss the quasi-legal status of on-farm internships in this state. Participants explored numerous options for addressing the legal concerns and allowing for this crucial education and training to continue. At this meeting, Rogue Farm Corps (RFC) emerged as the leading organization in the state to meet the standards established for legal on-farm internships. RFC was born in the Little Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon. Farmers who shared a commitment to mentoring the next generation of farmers banded together to develop curriculum and refine training opportunities for interns. From these humble beginnings, RFC has grown to include 13 host farms in Jackson and Josephine Counties.

RFC’s Farms Next Internship Program is a cooperative program combining hands-on training, classroom learning, and farm-based education on a diverse network of family farms in Southern Oregon. Participants in Farms Next live and work full time on a host farm for an entire growing season, receiving ongoing instruction and learning in-depth skills unique to the host farmer’s operation.

The hands-on work experience component is tailored to meet the unique needs of each individual host farm. Host farmers are required to offer close supervision and mentoring to promote mastery of the basic skills needed to operate their farm. Interns are exposed to all aspects of the farm operation and develop skills throughout the growing season.

In addition, interns are offered a comprehensive classroom curriculum in skills and topics necessary to succeed as a farmer. These classes occur two to three times per month throughout the growing season and include a tour of each host farm. Through this curriculum, interns are exposed to numerous farming operations and offered instruction in systems that may not be employed on their host farm.

To meet the state and federal criteria for legal internships, RFC initiated conversations with Rogue Community College (RCC) in the fall of 2010 to establish a pilot program in Southern Oregon. Throughout the conversations between RFC and RCC, increasing the educational value of the intern’s experience was a paramount concern, as well as meeting all the state and federal criteria for legal internships. In consultation with ODA and BOLI, RFC is close to solidifying a partnership with RCC that will launch in the spring of 2012.

Creating a model for legal on-farm internships will help ensure that the education and training of beginning farmers continues in Oregon. If the pilot program proves successful, RFC is poised to share the model with other communities across the state.

There are other models for beginning farmer education and training happening across the country. Many universities are now offering certificates and hands-on course work in sustainable agriculture. In 2010, Washington State passed legislation creating a pilot program for legal on-farm internships for small farms in two counties that met certain criteria. There is an effort underway to expand the duration and scope of the pilot program to more communities in Washington State. In California, farmers in the central coast have worked with state labor officials to create an official apprenticeship program for beginning farmers.

What seems clear is that in order for the next generation of farmers to learn the tools of the trade, many more of these types of hands-on opportunities are going to have to emerge and take root. Rogue Farm Corps is proud to be a part of this movement. A steady supply of young, able and willing farmers is needed to grow our food. The future of our food system demands it.

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