© Guardian photo by Mary MacKay
Amy Smith, left, and Verena Varga of Heart Beet Organics in Darlington are on the host farm directory list for ACORN’s Grow a Farmer Apprenticeship Program this year.
School may soon be out for summer.
But it will still be prime learning time for some aspiring farmers enrolled in the Grow a Farm Apprenticeship and Mentorship Program being piloted this year by the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN).
This organic farmer training initiative, which was inspired by feedback from the Maritime organic sector, offers a dynamic mix of formal and experiential education as well as community-building opportunities.
“If you’ve ever considered what farm school would be like, then this program is for you,” says Lucia Stephen, ACORN Grow A Farmer Program co-ordinator.
“In the past we’ve seen many people leave the Maritime region in pursuit of this type of training, often leading them to new provinces or countries to get started with their first agricultural enterprises, when we’re facing a pressing need of succession and establishment for new farms right here in Atlantic Canada. What we want to do here is keep more people in the region, and be taught by the experts who are currently doing it: local organic farmers!
“So just like any degree or certificate program that you would pursue, we’re providing a very rich curriculum that will guide these apprenticeships — (and) this hasn’t existed before — and providing an additional array of resource support . . . so that they’re really going to get a much more enriched level of understanding of the issues (related to organic farming).”
There are two apprenticeship options: the full season apprenticeship, for which the application date has now passed for 2013, is for seven months and runs from April to November; the four-month apprenticeship runs from May to August.
There are scholarships available from ACORN to participants with restricted means.
Grow a Farmer applicants are provided with ACORN’s Grow A Farmer Host Farm directory that lists the profiles and photos of the 10 Maritime-based farms offering apprenticeships this season. Once placements are made, participants will follow a structured curriculum with their host-farm throughout the season. It covers a wide range of topics from soil fertility and organic crop management to the more business-oriented discussions around marketing and financial profitability.
In addition, participants meet regularly with new and long-standing members of the organic farming sector, and access free resources, such as ACORN’s Beginner Farmer Success Manual, ACORN webinars, workshops, farm tours and more.
“So there are a variety of opportunities that we’re creating so that not only are they going to have the farm-based experience but they’re going to have the opportunities to connect with others and the other members of the organic sector in the Maritimes and really be able to get a sense of what organic farming in this region is all about,” Stephen says.
Amy Smith and Verena Varga of Heart Beet Organics in Darlington are on the host farm directory list for the Grow a Farmer Apprenticeship program this year.
Smith, in fact, worked as an apprentice on a farm in Massachusetts about eight years ago.
“For me it was what basically opened the door for farming to become a possibility. It was a real hands-on education. It wasn’t just getting a job working on a farm where you might learn something by watching and doing, but you’re not getting the behind-the-scenes real knowledge base about why things are done (in certain ways),” she says.
“And for the farmer to make that commitment to really sit down with the apprentices during the slow season and to open the books and say, ‘OK, here’s the financial side of what it means to run an organic farm,’ (is really invaluable).
“So it’s a real thorough education and it was the kind of opportunity that we wanted to then give to somebody else.”
There will be opportunities to visit other farms throughout the course of the growing season so apprentices will experience many facets of organic production.
“The learning curve is so steep. This is our third year and we’re learning every day. . . ,” Varga says.
“When you’re in it it’s nice to have resources and the biggest resources are those other farmers. And I think this apprenticeship is great because if you do it you already have this network here because it’s so much about ‘This farmer has the manure. This farmer has the lime’ and so on.”
The mentorship aspect of the Grow A Farmer program is a free service for ACORN members.
Applicants are matched with longstanding experienced organic farmers who want to contribute to the next generation of farmers by passing on their years of acquired knowledge.
Mentors contribute one to three hours a month of communication and occasional farm visits and in exchange ACORN provides them with an honorarium.
The deadline for the four-month Grow of Farmer apprenticeship program is April 15.
“The thing we’ve discovered is there are a lot of people who are interested in learning how to farm organically,” Smith says.
“There’s a huge upswing of people who are kind of disenchanted with corporate jobs and thinking they want to do something that would be a little more meaningful. People like being outside, and they’re finding there’s a growing demand for organic food. So I think there’s this really need for people who are interested in growing food organically but maybe don’t know how to do it.”