Tom Vilsack has his work cut out for him. He was only just announced as Obama’s pick to lead the USDA, and food advocates have already pounced. Those who care about food and the environment can be happy about Vilsack, but I would like to offer Mr. Vilsack a modest proposal that would win him friends and do something significant to provide for the future of American agriculture.

We can talk about the need for more sustainable agriculture in this country all day long, but there is one basic problem that is going to hold back the realization of an alternative agricultural system—a lack of farmers. In the traditional ag system, the average age of farmers keeps going up, and with each generation the number of farmers keeps getting smaller.

But there are plenty of people who want to farm. These are people who did not grow up on farms—people who want a sustainable and local agricultural system, not a big monoculture crop of commodities. It is here where the current talent pool of farming is—young people from urban and suburban areas who want to grow food. And there is certainly a market for their products. Americans are buying more and more organic foods and the trend toward local food continues to grow. In many areas there simply aren’t enough farmers to fill the market demand, a demand that is continually growing.

So the biggest step we can take toward sustainable agriculture isn’t just ending wasteful commodity subsidies or moving away from biologically engineered crops. The biggest step we can take toward sustainable agriculture is a program to train and equip young people on how to farm. So I propose a community-oriented farm training program. Think of it as a kind of AmeriCorps for farming; we could call it FarmCorps.

FarmCorps would pay young people to do a one year apprenticeship with a FarmCorps mentor. The mentors and apprentices would be paired according to their interests.

In the second year of the program, the FarmCorps apprentice would then go to a major US city or rural area enrolled in the program. The apprentice would be given a blighted or abandoned piece of land in state, federal, or municipal control. It could be anything from a weed lot to an abandoned farm. For the next year, the FarmCorps apprentice would be given the resources and a stipend to grow food on that land and provide that food to local food pantries and schools.

After two years of experience, the FarmCorps apprentice will have gained some of the important skills and knowledge necessary to then go on to build his or her own farm, enriching the community in the process.

If Tom Vilsack wants to silence his critics (at least for a while) and do something that will truly ensure the future of farming in this county, then the FarmCorps program would be a perfect first move. It would provide a sustainable future for our food system and give many, many farming entrepreneurs the start they need to grow locally and sustainably produced food.

Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008