>Farming Apprenticeships: Pitchfork Pastoralism

>Imagine an afternoon in mid-June sprinkled with late-arriving spring rains. Graduation rituals are being held all over the country, including here, at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The Environmental Studies program ceremony is held outside, and everyone’s too jubilant and excited to mind a few light showers. As the proceedings wind to a close and the distribution of diplomas is about to begin, the program head announces that graduates will be asked to state their post-graduation plans into the microphone as they cross the stage. In unison, the few dozen black-robed young adults in the audience gulp.

I quickly maneuver my way to the back of the line to give myself time to think. My immediate plans after graduation are to embark on a six-month apprenticeship on an organic farm. This is surely not what the esteemed administrators of my program want to hear about. I can almost hear my parents’ doubts about my unconventional career launch ringing in my ears. Why couldn’t I have a promising job as a wind power engineer or parks manager lined up? For the first time, I question my decision to postpone my entrance into the “real world” by following my passion for food and gardening to one of the lowest-paying professions in the world.

Luckily, unbeknownst to me, many of my colleagues had the same idea about their futures. After four or five graduates made their announcements (“Get a job”; “Live I my parents’ basement”; “Save the world”), somebody said something about going to work on a farm. He said it quietly, into his collar, but I heard it. A few others also made this admission. As I looked out into the audience, nobody was gasping with horror, fainting or weeping – just the typical “I’m so proud” sniffles.
By the time my turn finally came around, I hiked the stairs confidently, accepted the coveted slip of paper, and faced the audience. “Work on an organic farm,” I said, “Write. Save the world.” I could hear my father wincing, but I didn’t care. Suddenly, I was part of a movement.
The University of Oregon, apparently, is not the only postsecondary institution pumping out graduates who refuse to let a little higher education get in between themselves at a fulfilling back-to-the-land lifestyle. According to the New York Times, more and more students are spending their summers on farms, with  the goal of either being farmers or otherwise participating in organic food production. Those without immediate connections to the farming community – like me six months ago – can find positions relatively easily using online databases. One site has over 1500 entry-level, mostly unpaid farm work positions listed, and claimed to have nearly as many applicants in 2009 (for a complete list of farm internship databases, see the end of this post). If trends continue, the number of people wanting to learn about organic practices at the ground level will soon outpace the number of farms who are able to accommodate them.

The New York Times’ reporter on this story is downright cynical about the whole phenomena. “During a recession,” she says, “a summer on the farm provides respite from grim job hunts and as much bohemian cachet as backpacking through Europe.” Sure, organic food is extremely trendy, and in this job market, most are lucky to find any work at all. Still, I think the fact that all of these educated, idealistic people are choosing to throw their energy and bright-eyed enthusiasm into farming – instead of, say, construction work – speaks less of our need for hipster credibility and more toward a fundamental change that is taking place in our society.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of these newly converted farmers have any idea what they’re getting into. Many seem to hold farming in some golden light, summoning up clichés of the value of working with your hands and getting in touch with nature. This attitude has deep cultural roots. Ever since the invention of agriculture – and its evil stepchild, civilization – agrarian lifestyles have been painted as the antidote to the moral corruption brought about by technology and urbanization. In endless lyrical passages about the beautifully simplistic lives of rural shepherds, the ancient Greek poet Virgil fantasized about life in the countryside. His characters spent a lot of time singing praises to nature and gathering wildflowers in May.

Of course, if Virgil had taken the time for a saunter into the countryside, he would have found an abundance of sheep but a severe shortage of the innocence and merriment he portrayed in his writing. Like modern people in urban and rural contexts, those blessed folk would have likely been struggling for survival on too little land under the burden of too many taxes, all the while quarreling with their spouses, neglecting their sheep and bumming food off their neighbors. They were human, after all, just as sheep herders are today, no less or more morally pure than those who make a career out of car repair or accounting.

Still, the idea that the pastoral lifestyle elevates standards for human interactions has stuck now for millennia, with hundreds more poets and artists adding to the grand illusion. Modern-day writers make the whole situation worse by proposing a “return” to our agrarian roots as an antidote to the confusion and complication of modern society. If only we could all live off the land, in harmony with mother nature, all our problems would be solved – or so the rhetoric goes. Enter the wave of agricultural internships, apprenticeships and volunteer programs.

The basic idea is this: Farm volunteers can work just a couple of days or up to a full season. An internship implies at least part of a season’s commitment, while apprenticeships can last even longer. Room (ranging from a tent pitched in the fields to private cabins) and board (meals with the family or free access to farm produce) is almost always provided. Apprentices sometimes receive pay – one article I read described a farm that provided “a salary of a $1000/month, room, board, a $50/month bonus for working until the end of the season, $30 extra for every farmers market they attend, and a performance bonus of up to $2000”. That right there is enough to activate the salivary glands of any liberal-arts graduate who has spent weeks unsuccessfully trolling Craigslist for work. (The farm ended the program after being sued for back wages – the hazy legislation around agricultural apprenticeships is one of the challenges its participants must deal with.) What kind of work is involved? Well, some farmers consider inexperienced but enthusiastic volunteers to be an easily exploitable source of free labor. Others expect a little self-direction and leave the worker to find his or her own work around the farm. Some apprenticeships, like mine, can include tasks like food preservation or even community outreach to build support for local foods. Although the words can often mean different things, for convenience’s sake, I’ll refer to volunteer, internship and apprenticeship program as “apprenticeships” here.

Other than a lack of standardization (and, let’s face it, standardizing things usually ends up making them boring and predictable) and sometimes bloated expectations on behalf of the apprentices, I believe apprenticeships are one of the most effective tools we have in revitalizing farming, its role in the economy, and people’s approach to food. The current generation of farmers is aging – in twenty years or so, they won’t be able to produce food for us anymore. Meanwhile, we import most of what we consume anyway, and our agricultural land is being gobbled up by subdivisions and freeways. But the realities of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse are making it abundantly clear that this is not the direction we want to be heading. We can’t all be farmers, but we can certainly do a better job of feeding ourselves, stop flooding the global market with agricultural surpluses, and clean up the planet a bit by transitioning to organic practices. A key step in this transition is training the new farmers. While traditional agricultural colleges are stuck in the old paradigm of industrial methods and bigger is better, organic farmers know better. When they open their farms up to apprenticeships, they have the opportunity to share their knowledge with clueless city kids in an environment that is unmatched in the world of public education. With the low student-to-instructor ratio (usually one or two apprentices per family farm), absence of tests, and abundance of real-world experience, learning in an apprenticeship is not simply an end result but a process that allows for personal as well as “professional” growth.
Granted, apprenticeships won’t work for every farmer or idealistic, world-saving graduate. As for my own experience in the trenches of hands-on agricultural learning, well, it was enlightening. Do I now aspire to possess my own ten acres, a cow and a pile of debt? Will the dirt ever come out from under my fingernails?
Stay tuned for next time.
In the meantime, you know you want to abandon whatever it is you’re doing to grow some vegetables, so check out the following sites:

Field Guide for Beginning Farmers  – This is a great place to start; it gives an overview of farming apprenticeships available in North America and what to expect.

Oh, and I now have a semi-professional blogging gig with Conducive Magazine. Read my posts here (and if you ever come across an ad on the site, by all means, click the heck out of that thing).

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