The Zumwalt Acres Apprenticeship Program: An accessible farming experience for educating and empowering emerging growers

Final report for YENC23-207

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2023: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Zumwalt Acres
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Manager:
Gavrielle Welbel
Zumwalt Acres
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Project Information


Apprentices engage in a 3-month, hands-on, live-in learning experience on a regenerative farm. Experienced farmers and foresters mentor apprentices throughout the season in skills related to sustainable horticulture and agroforestry. Apprentices also learn from climate scientists leading an ongoing longitudinal study on agricultural carbon sequestration. To contextualize the work of our farm, we organize guest speakers, workshops, and field trips for apprentices to connect with regional regenerative farmers and scholars. Immersive living with other young changemakers cements their commitments to equity, justice, and environmentally conscious growing practices. Yearly, 21-30 apprentices advance their careers in farming, research, policy, and education.

Project Objectives:
  • Teach skills in horticulture, agroforestry, mushroom cultivation, beekeeping and conventional to regenerative land transition to 21-30 young people through hands-on mentorship, immersive field trips to regenerative farms, and on-site educational programming 
  • Engage young people in applied agricultural research in collaboration with the University of Illinois, Yale University, and our existing SARE Farmer-Rancher projects; share results through presentations, publications, and social media
  • Host farmer-focused field days and community events for apprentices to share their knowledge of sustainable practices and foster dialogue with conventional farmers
  • Build a hopeful community for young people to explore futures in sustainable agriculture and create lifelong friendships


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Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Tours
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

7 Farmers/ranchers
39 Youth
7 Educators
30 Other adults
7 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Our primary goal with USDA-SARE funding was to support the education of our apprentices. This year, we had 14 new apprentices come to Zumwalt Acres, and we also supported 5 apprentices returning to Zumwalt Acres for a 2nd (or 3rd, or, even a 4th!) season. Our focus was on building their skills and knowledge in regenerative midwestern agriculture systems. As co-managers of our 30-acre operation and leaders in our multifaceted organization, our apprentices gained skills and knowledge in community building, regenerative agriculture practices, and climate change research. Apprentices gained 3-months (or more) of hands-on experience on a diversified and perennial farm, participated in weekly “context conversations” that explored the political and historical dimensions of agriculture, and went on various field trips to local members of our food ecosystem. We are very proud of our 2023 apprenticeship program, but our successes don’t end there.

Our education and outreach points outward beyond our apprenticeship program to non-apprentice community members. Zumwalt Acres consistently demonstrates that young people are excited to build community and engage with our local food system. Funding from USDA-SARE gave us crucial funding to provide stipends to our apprentices as they continue to build a perennial, diversified operation we anticipate delivering financial returns down the line. By bringing young people to the land, supporting and empowering them to make decisions, and plugging them into the connections we’ve built over the past 3 years, apprentices led education and outreach for non-apprentices.

Apprentices coordinated on-farm demonstrations for nonspecialist audiences, including a “summer shindig” explicitly for members of Iroquois County and a “sukkot celebration” to ring in the Jewish harvest season. We secured a third-party grant that allowed us to host a family cooking event to counter rural food insecurity where we could send families home with gift cards for groceries, recipes for healthy and easy back to school meals, and farm fresh produce. Through our partnership with Yale University, we hosted a soil health field day for farmers and agriculture professionals with over 50 participants. At the field day, apprentices presented on the scientific research they had participated in and led a farm tour for visitors. These events came from apprentices expressing interest in particular dimensions of our work – local community building, Jewish land stewardship, and rural food insecurity. (See here for an apprentice-led 

One of the highlights of our summer was working with the local FFA chapter to host a soil health event at Zumwalt Acres. This, like the events above, came from an apprentice’s interest in education. High school students from Iroquois County were able to meet with Yale researchers, take their own soil core, and learn about perennial systems that build up soil health. This was a huge success, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with them moving forward.

As part of the Zumwalt Acres (ZA) Apprenticeship Program in 2023, ZA created a unique curriculum, co-led with apprentices themselves, to implement education about sustainable agriculture beyond just practice. These sessions occurred weekly, with apprentices mapping out a list of topics they were interested in exploring further at the beginning of the season. Each week, an apprentice would collaborate one-on-one with an educator to prepare a lesson and materials, and then they would co-lead a learning session for the rest of the group. These sessions, called "Context Conversations," covered topics such as insect diversity on agricultural landscapes, U.S. farm policy and economics, land use history in the region, and more.

Apprentices shared their experiences and learning weekly throughout the season on a website blog called “The Farm Journal,” which was sent to a newsletter of almost 300 subscribers monthly. They are also featured in Apprentice Spotlights on the Zumwalt Acres Instagram account (@zumwaltacres), with 1,500 followers, to share their experiences and show other young people of diverse backgrounds that there are people who look like them farming in Illinois.

As the 2023 farming season came to a close, apprentices gathered at a reunion weekend with other alumni of the program. At this event, they connected with program alumni who have gone on to work in sustainable agriculture, environmental policy, food access, and graduate programs on climate and agricultural research. 

Learning Outcomes

23 Youth reporting change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness
Key changes:
  • Diversified sustainable vegetable production

  • Problem-solving and farm management

  • Mushroom production

  • Compost management

  • Building farming community

Results and discussion:

Youth reported strong learning outcomes in vegetable production using sustainable methods and farm management. The youth education program encourages all participants to take ownership over their farm work and experience what it is like to be part of decision-making on a farm. They are responsible for a certain working area of the farm and monitor that area for necessary upcoming tasks, directing the rest of the team in that area. 

Project Outcomes

11 Number of youth considering a career in sustainable agriculture
1 Grant received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Increased organizational support to explore and teach sustainable ag:
Explanation for change in organizational support to explore and teach sustainable ag:

This grant brought increased organizational support to teach sustainable agriculture because it expanded the resources available for the lead farm manager and educator. Because of this, the primary farm educator, Acacia Berg, who has deep experience in sustainable agriculture, will be able to stay with the farm for another full season and bring the lessons they learned and experience they gained from this past year to another season of sustainable agriculture programming and education.

Success stories:

Many apprentices stated that they left the program more sure about what they wanted to pursue in life, feeling very fulfilled from the work they had done at Zumwalt Acres, and with a clearer idea of the positive impact that sustainable agriculture can have on the environment and society. One apprentice shared: "I am leaving with a better sense of who I am as a person, what work preferences I have, and what goals and ideas I have moving forward for my career," while another one shared that they are "leaving with a better sense of how I can make a climate impact." A third apprentice shared: I can confidently say that this apprenticeship program changed the course of my life. I highly encourage anyone even remotely curious in agriculture, climate change, or sustainability to apply."

Of the youth who participated in the apprenticeship program, four expressed interest in returning or will be returning to the farm to work for another season in 2024. 




For future projects, both within our own farm and for other organizations, we would recommend holding regular check-ins and time for feedback collection from youth participants so that educational content can be tailored to their interests.  Another recommendation we have is balancing hands-on and lecture-based learning. While much of our educational programming is hands-on, giving apprentices the opportunity to do the things we talk about and gain experience making mistakes and learning from them, participants also expressed interest in sitting down and diving deeper to explore why we were doing what we were doing. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.