Much has been written about the popularity of farming as a career option among young people. But how many would-be farmers have the skills, knowledge or resources they need to make their dream job a reality?
Farmers of previous generations might have learned from their parents, but many of todays' young farmers are first-generation growers, meaning they don't have family role models to teach them. And while a traditional agricultural college might be a sensible place to start for those interested in larger-scale, conventional growing, many of the new crop of farmers are more interested in pursuing small-scale, sustainable and even urban agriculture, there's a growing need for a more diverse range of courses and educational opportunities, aimed specifically at this new breed of young farmer.
Luckily, those options are beginning to become available.
At Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, much of the mission focuses on hands-on education for local school children. A series of workshops, however, offers a well-rounded selection of courses for would-be growers, ranging from seed saving to raising animals to turning your backyard veggie patch into a small-scale CSA.
For those wanting to focus on small-scale farming as a source of financial income, one popular option is the SPIN (Small-Plot Intensive) Farming method. Focusing on a systemic approach to farming on less than one acre, SPIN covers everything from equipment lists through business models and marketing to investment options and farm design. Crucially, SPIN also covers revenue targeting formulas, meaning not just what to grow and how to grow it, but the idea of how to actually farm on a small-scale for cash flow and sustainable income.
SPIN isn't the only training and educational model to put an emphasis on money. Indeed, it seems that finances is a crucial skill set that is missing for many young farmers. In a piece written by Jacob Levin, a colleague and collaborator of mine, for NC Sustainability Connection, young farmers discuss the deficit in information on small-scale farm financing:
Brett Evans, who graduated from college in 2012, is hoping to own a farm in North Carolina within a couple years. His dad had his own business, so he was exposed to business ideals and lessons while growing up. When he went to college, he did not take a single business class: “I was turned off by the idea of business classes because of all the corruption in modern corporations,” explains Evans.
Evans read the popular Organic Farm Business Handbook, “a best seller for farm geeks,” he says, “which focuses on medium scale, tractor farming.” The issue, he says, is that none of the information in this book, or elsewhere thus far, applies to the kinds of small or community-scale farms that Evans and many of his peers gravitate toward.
Greenhorns, for example, is a grassroots networking organization working on several fronts to support new and young farmers. Here's how they describe what they do:
Our work is unconventional and various, we focus on event organizing, in person-networking, mixers, celebrations and workshops as well as the production of traditional and new media: radio, documentary film, blog, a book of essays, guidebooks, web-based tools. Our goal over the next generation is to retrofit the food system and to build a thriving agricultural economy, for healthy regions, healthy watersheds, and a healthy farm culture. We believe our movement can succeed with strong communication, solid business skills, sustainable farm practices and importantly, teamwork. We hope you will join the network.
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