Apprenticeship and Farmer Ag Education

In almost every farming culture around the world, farming was traditionally learned via the apprenticeship model. Essentially this means an exchange of labor and time for the housing, food, and an intensive educational opportunity. In many cases there is also a small stipend or pocket money paid, usually not enough capital, however, to begin one’s own operation. Therefore it is often the case that a farming career will move from apprentices, to farm-staff, and then eventually to farm management–not always ownership.

The word apprenticeship can be traced back to the guild system of the middle ages. Apprenticeships were used to teach a craft, trade, or form of art, which may be a good way to understand what farming should be. Unfortunately, ‘apprenticeship’ has also been synonymous with ‘indenture’ over the years, and at times modern farm ‘apprenticeships’ are simply used as a form of cheap labor. At their best, apprenticeships are positive and productive social relationships between the learner and the learned, and an effective way of passing on knowledge and experience. For those seeking to become farmers, hands-on experience and hard work is an essential part of the learning process, and one for which there is really no substitute. Yet it is also essential that apprenticeships offer an engagement with someone who is interested in the the process of ‘teaching’ or ‘cooperative learning’, and not simply looking for labor at a bargain price.

The trick is to figure out exactly what you want to learn, and configure your apprenticeship, or sequence of apprenticeships accordingly. In many cases your first farming experience will be the best way to answer those questions. Are you an animal person, a vegetable person, a cut flower person? At the end of the day at least some of your farm-design will reflect what you can best “sell” to make the finances work in your area. If you live near the suburbs, you might want to consider fresh vegetable shares in a CSA. If you are distant from a metropolitan area it might instead be livestock, potatoes, jam or other less perishable wares. And of course, don’t forget to consider what you most enjoy doing.

What does it take to make it as a farm apprentice, and eventually as a farmer? You must also be willing to work hard, be self-motivated, attentive and disciplined. You must be able to derive satisfaction from work that is not always adequately valued by the market economy. Just because your effort yields delicious food, doesn’t mean that it will yield a retail price commensurate with that effort. It is important to be prepared for this reality, and not take it too personally. At the same time we can focus on advocacy efforts both locally and internationally to change this equation that has haunted farming for the past century.

Often those coming from a non-agricultural background are not quite prepared for the discipline of farming–of the careful handling of equipment, the extra precautions with animals, or the need for constant observation. These things are quickly learned on a farm, almost through osmosis–but expect to work hard, and outside of the physical labor, take notice to the goings on of the farm’s business, management, maintenance, planting schedules etc. There will be weeding and somewhat monotonous work–but it will be purposeful, and will likely give you a chance to do some deep thinking, planning, and digesting.

Education is never-ending. If you have already gone through the apprenticeship process, there are still many options for continuing learning in a structured and planned manner. Farming courses are often helpful not just for their content but provide a forum for information exchange between participants. Extension services often produce materials useful for setting up the processing, cooperative marketing and disease management aspects of farming.

One thing that often surprises apprentices the most is the ability of farm enterprises to absorb ‘failures’. Because farming is a constant learning process, and because it is often subject to external forces or environmental factors which the farmer cannot control, small catastrophes are a constant reality. Yet if a farm is run well, and the work is done diligently and intentionally, ‘failures’ can often be an important part of the learning process, and can be absorbed within diverse enterprises because they are almost always accompanied by ‘successes’. A bad melon year, can often be a great tomato year. And mistakes can often teach experienced farmers as well as apprentices both how to do things better, as help them to understand that farming is not a simple practice that one can ‘perfect’. Rather, it is an art form that requires constant exploration, patience, and diligence, and one which allows the artist/farmer to develop personal ways to craft a working whole in the face of constant challenge and change.

Article courtesy of Field Guide for Beginning Farmers

Link photo courtesy of Photopin

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