Multi-colored vegetables, goats, chickens, hogs, and fabulous young people learning to be organic farmers. What is not to like about this scene? For the past three years it has been my great joy to volunteer as an adult mentor at the Organic Farm School in the Maxwelton Valley of Whidbey Island.
The young people range in age from mid-twenties to mid-forties and come from all over the U.S. to join the ranks of future farmers focused on growing healthy food. It is a six-month, full time, intensive training. They learn soil management, seed production, marketing, and business planning through a combination of classes, field work, and community interaction. (The latter was challenging during the pandemic, but we shifted, adapted, and had a successful year with a smaller class in 2020. We are back up to full capacity at 12 this year.)
In one of our recent teaching sessions the students were each giving a 4-minute statement on why they choose to farm at this time. We were meeting in the open-air picnic shelter. The air temperature was 45 degrees F. and there was a light wind blowing. I found myself wishing I had donned long underwear. Even though it was April, there had been a morning frost.
I was busy taking notes so I could reflect back to them the general gist of their statements. Every one of them was articulate about why they were choosing to farm at a time when the number of farmers in the U.S. is slowly decreasing, farmland is being bought up by big corporations, and U.S. Department of Agriculture policies continue to largely favor the “big farmer.”
Many of them spoke about wanting to change the way farming is done in this country. Some focused on wanting to learn essential life skills. Several referenced seeking a spiritual connection to the land. All of them were inspirational to listen to—courageous, taking a big leap of faith, working bone hard every single day. These are the people I want to invest in!
The focus of OFS teaching by the farm manager, assistant farm manager, and the instructor is on regenerative agriculture. A shorthand explanation of that might be a farmer saying, “I focus on the health of my soil. If it is healthy, I am being successful.”
Regenerative ag farmers use a variety of techniques ranging from cover crops to crop rotation to no till farming to rotational grazing. In many ways they look at farming more like a 1950s farmer growing a variety of crops, not using pesticides or herbicides, having some animals as a source of manure and “tilling,” and planning to have a farm whose soils can support crop growing for generations to come.
Also built into the program is an emphasis on communication and interaction. The students host a farm stand, offer cooking and tasting sessions, and even Friday evening pizza oven gatherings. All of these programs involve community volunteers.
“Communication” is where my friend and colleague Sharon Betcher and I come into the program. We offer weekly supplemental classes, like the one articulated above. The umbrella title for our classes is “The Holistic Farmer. We, and invited community members, provide an hour-long session on topics ranging from developing working agreements, to a history of the area, to working with conflict and disagreement, to functional fitness, to civics for farmers, to ethics of slaughter.
We have a course outline for the remaining Mondays of this year’s sessions. We know the curriculum will need to be adapted as suggestions and needs come forward from the students. Like the soil, plants, and animals, like weather and seasons, change is the norm in this outdoor lifestyle. To stand alongside and contribute to this program is challenging, wonderful, and a great privilege. I come home with my arms full of very fresh vegetables, and my heart full of confidence in the future of farming.