A Rogue Mission to Enlist a New Generation of Farmers

Farm-based student programs could offer a way to help stem the loss of a time-honored profession.

Tomorrow's farmers learning the ropes. (Photo: Rogue Farm Corps)

A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

It’s not the most enticing job description: long days, hard work, a sometimes-slim profit margin—not to mention a high cost of entry into the field. Job title: farmer.

This unerringly bleak summary is probably why USDA Deputy Secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, told Iowa Farmer Today that, “An epidemic of sorts is sweeping across U.S. farmland.”

The basic problem is that between 2002 and 2007, the number of farmers older than 65 grew by nearly 22 percent. And USDA statistics show that for every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older.

But despite all this bad news, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon, emanating from an increasing number of farm-based student programs that offer hands-on education to entice, encourage, and train a new generation of farmers.

One of the most ambitious programs is Farms Next, which was founded in 2003 by Rogue Farm Corps in southwestern Oregon. “A community of farmers in our area recognized the need for a training program for young farmers and felt like they wanted to give back to the community and to the next generation of farmers,” says Stuart O’Neill, the Corps’ Executive Director.

Farms Next internships are tailored to each of the individual host farms and run from eight to nine months depending on the site. The maximum number of on-farm hours in any one season is 1,500, and that includes 50 to 60 hours of classroom learning with expert farmers and agricultural professionals.

“The on-farm curriculum will look totally different depending on whether you’re working at one of our vegetable farms or one of our livestock farms,” explains O’Neill. “So it’s tailor-made to match the unique operation.”

“There are also independent study projects that we work with the host farm and the students to design,” says O’Neill. “They can really be whatever is of interest to the student and the farm—a very hands-on project, for example, or it could be a pure research project. We also coordinate a number of working evenings that provide the opportunity to discuss issues that aren’t related to the hard skills of farming, but are instead more theoretical conversations about how and why we’re all exploring this path of learning how to farm and what that means.”

“One of the reasons we wanted a model that was flexible and adaptable is that we’ve been hearing from folks in other parts of the state that they’re interested in our program and would like to see it come to their community,” adds O’Neill. “And part of our mission is to work with these other communities around the state to help establish this type of model and training program in their areas.”

O’Neil notes that the farming in the Rogue Valley can look quite a bit different than the farming in other parts of the state. But because the Farms Next curriculum model is so flexible, it fits a number of different types of agriculture and can be easily embedded into various farming communities.

“Because our program was created by and for farmers we really want our expansion efforts to capture that same spirit,” says O’Neill. “Rogue is a relatively small agricultural valley and the scale of what’s possible in other parts of the state is so vastly different than it is down here.”

“Working with those other communities and using our model will allow the program to be regionally appropriate and adaptable to diverse areas with very different climates and/or topography,” says O’Neill. “It presents some really unique opportunities for agriculture.”

It’s also great news for those hoping to ensure the future of farming in America.

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