Resisting the Modern Myth of Farmer Training

Photo Credit: Alex Browning

The Adult Learn to Farm program is modeled on a traditional New England family farm. The kind of farm that a few generations ago would have provided the setting for a family to transfer their knowledge, skills, work ethic, values, capital and business to the next generation. Over the years, the children of farmers would have participated in the work and gradually accumulated more responsibility, until they were ready to take over the farm. Given our new national reality, where most new farmers are not growing up on farms, we naturally have to face the challenge of how to pass agricultural literacy and practical skills to the folks brave enough to want to engage in life as a farmer.

The Adult Learn to Farm Program at the Farm School emerged out of an effort to fill the void left by the training young people got from their families growing up on diversified family farms. We attempt to offer a year-long experience steeping in seasonal patterns, the rhythms of work, and agricultural life, while establishing intellectual and embodied agricultural and vocational literacy in wide and diverse areas of farm production.

Subtly, quietly, our adult farmer training program attempts something deeper and more lasting than simple skill transfer and the accumulation of conceptual knowledge. It is an experiment in living into a relationship to place, work and community that is timeless, authentic, and in some way sacred. Beyond the mechanics, actions and practice of farming, we hope to instill in our students an attitude of kindness and respect for simple work, a dedication to and awareness of safety, a contribution mindset that seeks to pass on and share what they receive here, and a life-long ability to innovate, analyze and problem solve.

There is little doubt about the benefit of “real world” learning as a component of new farmer education. From getting to experience the pressure, speed and scale of production agriculture, to having a taste of consequences for doing something wrong and having to figure out solutions to challenges in the field, as well as the sweet satisfaction of a job well done–participating in the work life of a real farm is an essential and rewarding educational experience. Students need to test out if their passion for agriculture is true outside of the sanitized test tube of the book, classroom or fantasy.

However, there seems to be a strong narrative, popular among young, aspiring farmers and folks exploring farming, that the best and easiest way to become a farmer is to spend a year or two working or apprenticing on farms. This is indeed incredibly valuable experience, but I’d suggest that for most people, it is an illusion that you can learn to farm in one or two seasons. And, I believe, that perpetuating this belief is actually a disservice, both to beginning farmers and to ourselves as educators, because it reinforces unrealistic expectations. I really appreciated Jean Paul Courtens’ characterization at the Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns in 2015, that learning to farm is at minimum a ten-year project, one that benefits both from conceptual scholastic learning through books, classes and information, and also from direct engagement with work through apprenticing with mentor-farmers.

This piece about Farmer-mentors is important. It is necessary to distinguish between working a crew job on a farm and meaningful training with interpretation, feedback and transparency with a farmer dedicated to mentoring other young farmers. A mentor is a person who can intentionally hold and guide the experience of another, draw out strong personal qualities and offer a way in to new territories. At the Farm School, we have Farmer-teachers on both our kids’ staff, and our Adult Learn to Farm staff who mentor first through role modeling and then through interpretation and skills instruction.

A few months back some visitors from another farm education institution shared that they were feeling pressure from their incoming apprentices to teach as much as possible in increasingly shorter amounts of time. This supports the trend that we have noticed, where aspirant farmers increasingly view their training within a consumer mindset, with the belief that the value of the training can be measured in concepts introduced, or skills demonstrated. What is missing from this conversation is the value of hard-earned mastery, in the old-fashioned tradition of apprenticing yourself to the repetitive work, surrendering and humbling yourself before the hoe, the constant striving towards improvement.

I’d like to suggest that as institutions offering introductory agricultural experiences to aspirant farmers, we might best serve the next generation by resisting and challenging the narrative that bolsters the expectation that learning to farm is as simple as acquiring skills in one or two seasons on a farm. Building a life enriched by agriculture is a life-long process, and learning to farm takes many seasons, juggling endless variables, and accruing insight through both conceptual study and hard earned personal experience, and the wisdom of your mentors and teachers.