Educating from Seed To Market: An Organic Farming Apprenticeship Program in St. Louis, Missouri

Project Overview

FNC09-785
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:

Information Products

Commodities

  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: sweet potatoes, beans, beets, cabbages, carrots, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), leeks, onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), tomatoes, turnips

Practices

  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, networking
  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture, marketing management
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, wildlife
  • Pest Management: field monitoring/scouting, integrated pest management, prevention, row covers (for pests), trap crops, mulching - vegetative
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: green manures
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships, urban agriculture, social networks

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    EarthDance sustainably grows a highly diversified system of vegetables, herbs, and flowers on 2.3 acres of rented ground. (In 2011, we rented and cultivated approximately 4.5 acres.) EarthDance is a non-profit organization, with a focus on growing food, farmers, and community for the St. Louis region. We operate on a historic family farm, the Mueller Organic Farm, which was established in 1883. The Organic Farming Apprenticeship program, which this grant partially funded for two years, is our hallmark program, and involves 25-35 beginning farmers each year in our educational farming operation.

    We have followed sustainable practices since our 1st year of programming in 2009, but did not develop the depth and breadth of sustainable practices that we now practice until 2011. We practice: IPM (Integrated Pest Management), cover cropping, crop rotation, no-till (on some perennial beds), composting, water conservation, and companion planting.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION
    GOALS:
    1. Train 25 first-year apprentices who commit 10 hrs/week to the apprenticeship program for a full growing season (mid-Feb through mid-Nov)
    2. Train 5 second year apprentices who commit 4 hrs/week to the apprenticeship program for a 2nd full growing season
    3. Create a pilot CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program with our apprentices and staff serving as CSA members
    4. Sell produce at 2 farmers markets/week throughout the growing season, while providing hands-on marketing training to the apprentices
    5. Host at least 30 weekly field walks, field trips, or classes as part of the apprenticeship program

    PROCESS
    The five foundational components to EarthDance’s Organic Farming Apprenticeship Program are:

    1. Field Work
    This is the hands-on physical labor that teaches individuals what’s entailed in operating a small scale organic farm, and includes seeding in the greenhouse, direct seeding, transplanting, watering, mulching, trellising, weeding, bed-making, tilling, scouting, harvesting, recording, and more. EarthDance staff take the time to explain what, why, and how when starting any new task on the farm to maximize the educational value of the field work. Apprentices are required to commit to 8 hours of field work each week (less when they’re working a farmers market).

    2. Enrichment Sessions
    Enrichment sessions take place every Monday evening of the season, beginning in early March and ending in mid-November. It is the time when the entire class of 25+ apprentices comes together on the farm for a field walk, demonstration, class, or field trip. Organic farming topics are covered seasonally and include everything from greenhouse propagation to farming as a business. Field trips to other local farms take place as part of the weekly enrichment sessions and include trips to 1/4 acre urban farms, 150+ member CSA farms, flower farms, and backyard livestock operations. Apprentices are expected to attend 80% or more of enrichment sessions to graduate ‘with honors.’

    3. Farmers Markets
    Farmers markets are the best opportunity for apprentices to interface directly with the public, and share what they’ve learned in the field with our customers. In this way apprentices learn not only the production aspects of farming, but also the marketing. Each apprentice works between 4-7 farmers markets/season, and farmers market hours go towards the required field work hours.

    4. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)
    By operating as a CSA farm, apprentices not only learn to grow a wide variety of crops, but also learn about the risks and rewards of being a CSA shareholder by being one themselves. They take home a share of the produce each week and are able to taste the fruits of their labor. The CSA runs for 24 weeks of the program.

    5. Community Outreach
    As part of our farm and non-profit mission is to grow community, we ask each apprentice to participate in at least one community outreach event throughout the year to help educate more people about being an engaged food citizen. These events range from running an educational activity at the St. Louis Earth Day festival, to helping out with our annual Pesto Festo at the Ferguson Farmers Market, to staffing a booth at a community health fair.

    Below is a general timeline we’ve followed for the Organic Farming Apprenticeship program for the past 2 years:

    March 2010 -
    Apprentices learn seed-starting in the greenhouse.
    Weekly enrichment sessions begin, topics include Organic Farming 101, Building Healthy Soils, Propagation.
    Field work begins.
    Schedule farmers market shifts. (ED Staff)
    Assign ‘Focus Crops’ to apprentices to track throughout the season and present on to the group. (ED Staff)

    April 2010 -
    Sophomore Overnight Field Trip takes place.
    Lots of planting in the field!
    Prepare for farmers markets and CSA.
    Enrichment sessions include: Selling at Farmers Markets, Selling to Chefs, Plant Biology
    Confirm farm tours with host farms. (ED Staff)
    Create curricula materials such as powerpoint presentations. (ED Staff)
    Update ‘Farmy Resources’ page of website. (ED Staff)

    May 2010 -
    Apprentices learn selling at farmers markets hands-on.
    Enrichment sessions include: The ABC’s of CSA, Recordkeeping, Farm and Crop Planning
    CSA begins
    Create curricula materials such as powerpoint presentations. (ED Staff)
    Update ‘Farmy Resources’ page of website. (ED Staff)

    June 2010 -
    Field work, farmers markets, CSA continues
    Enrichment sessions include: Plant Families, Composting, Field trip to urban goat farm, Field trip to CSA farm, Pollination
    Create curricula materials such as powerpoint presentations. (ED Staff)
    Update ‘Farmy Resources’ page of website. (ED Staff)

    July 2010 -
    Field work, farmers markets, CSA continues
    Enrichment sessions include: Organic Management of Pests and Weeds, Field trip to urban farm/market enterprise, Field trip to flower farm, Succession Planting and Crop Rotation
    Create curricula materials such as powerpoint presentations. (ED Staff)
    Update ‘Farmy Resources’ page of website. (ED Staff)

    August 2010 -
    Field work, farmers markets, CSA continues
    Enrichment sessions include: Preserving the Harvest, Food Justice, Agricrafts, Season Extension
    Create curricula materials such as powerpoint presentations. (ED Staff)
    Update ‘Farmy Resources’ page of website. (ED Staff)

    September 2010 -
    Field work, farmers markets, CSA continues
    Enrichment sessions include: Farming as a Business, Seed saving, Field trip to CSA farm
    Create curricula materials such as powerpoint presentations. (ED Staff)
    Update ‘Farmy Resources’ page of website. (ED Staff)

    October 2010 -
    Field work, farmers markets, CSA continues
    Enrichment sessions include: Cover Cropping, Garlic Planting, Organic Certification
    Create curricula materials such as powerpoint presentations. (ED Staff)
    Update ‘Farmy Resources’ page of website. (ED Staff)

    November 2010 -
    Raise funds to offer scholarships to next year’s class (ED Staff and Board)
    Recruit 2011 participants (ED Staff)
    Host info sessions on apprenticeship program (ED Staff)
    Finish 2010 growing season
    Apprenticeship Graduation

    December 2010 -
    Applications for 2011 program due
    Communicate with prospective apprentices (ED Staff)
    Host info sessions on apprenticeship program (ED Staff)
    Evaluate 2010 program (ED Staff)

    January 2011 -
    Send out welcome packets about the program (ED Staff)
    Determine scholarship recipients (ED Staff)
    Plan enrichment session schedule for 2011 (ED Staff)
    Schedule field trips to host farms (ED Staff)
    Create curricula materials such as powerpoint presentations (ED Staff)

    February 2011 -
    Staff attends conferences such as Missouri Organic Assn, and MOSES
    Apprenticeship Orientation
    Create weekly field work schedule for apprenticeship program (ED Staff)
    Start seeding in the greenhouse

    March 2011 -
    Apprentices learn seed-starting in the greenhouse.
    Weekly enrichment sessions begin, topics include Crop Planning, Building Healthy Soils, Propagation.
    Field work begins.
    Schedule farmers market shifts. (ED Staff)
    Assign ‘Focus Crops’ to apprentices to track throughout the season and present on to the group
    (ED Staff)

    April - December 2011 -
    See April - December 2010

    January - March 2012 -
    See January - March 2011

    PEOPLE
    1. Kevin Tucker, Horticulture Director at North Tech High School - assisted by providing greenhouse space and classroom space at no cost to EarthDance
    2. Steve Lawler, priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church - provided meeting space and back-up rain location for CSA pick-up
    3. Vicki Lander, 2010 EarthDance Farm Manager - led field walks and field work
    4. April Shelhon, 2010 EarthDance apprentice and 2011 Farm Manager - led field walks and field work; developed curricula
    5. Rachel Levi, EarthDance Farm & Community Education Coordinator and Americorps VISTA - coordinated administrative needs of apprenticeship program in 2011
    6. John Wilkerson, Farmer - served as a mentor to EarthDance farm managers and apprentices on the Mueller Farm
    7. Amy Cloud, Farmer - led field trip and enrichment session, provided input on CSA planning and equipment purchasing
    8. Paul Krautman, Farmer - led field trip and enrichment sessions, provided input on equipment, trained our farm manager on tractor mechanics
    9. Karen Davis, Lincoln University extension agent - led enrichment sessions, helped design assessment, provided feedback on crop plan
    10. Kris & Stacey Larson, Farmers - led enrichment sessions, hosted field trip
    11. Trish Grim, Lincoln University extension agent - assisted with crop plan and coordinated a field trip
    12. Annie Mayrose, Gateway Greening City Seeds coordinator - hosted field trip

    RESULTS
    This project achieved the following results for the 2010 season:
    1. Trained 25 first-year apprentices who commit 10 hrs/week to the apprenticeship program for a full growing season (mid-Feb through mid-Nov)
    2. Trained 1 second year apprentice who committed 4 hrs/week to the apprenticeship program for a 2nd full growing season
    3. Created a pilot CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program with our apprentices and staff serving as CSA members, producing for approximately 35 shares throughout the season.
    4. Sold produce at 2 farmers markets/week throughout the growing season, while providing hands-on marketing training to the apprentices
    5. Hosted 30+ weekly field walks, field trips, or classes as part of the apprenticeship program

    This project achieved the following results for the 2011 season:
    1. Trained 32 first-year apprentices who commit 10 hrs/week to the apprenticeship program for a full growing season (mid-Feb through mid-Nov)
    2. Trained 5 second year apprentices who committed 4 hrs/week to the apprenticeship program for a 2nd full growing season
    3. Launched a public CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program with our apprentices and staff still serving as CSA members, and with 60 shares sold to the public, in total producing for 100 shares throughout the season.
    4. Sold produce at 2 farmers markets/week throughout the growing season, while providing hands-on marketing training to the apprentices -- During the months of July, August, and September, our yields were too low to provide produce for both the 100-member CSA AND the two weekly farmers markets, so we stopped selling at the farmers markets for about 10 weeks.
    5. Hosted 30+ weekly field walks, field trips, or classes as part of the apprenticeship program

    These results were what we’d hoped for. The second season, though, we bit off more than we could chew by ramping up to 100 CSA shares AND trying to do 2 weekly farmers markets in just our 3rd year of operation. Therefore, we’ve scaled back this year (2012), and will be redirecting our focus and energies on our educational mission. This also means though that we will need to raise more funds or sell more produce wholesale or at the farmers markets to make up for the revenue lost in not selling so many public CSA shares.

    These goals were fairly easy to measure through attendance sheets, registration spreadsheets, enrichment session schedules, and field work logs. The most challenging part of achieving these results is working with so many different people and so many ‘moving parts.’ I love this challenge and this aspect though. I also love developing systems to make things function smoothly. (I’ve learned that this is an on-going process, and that the most difficult system for me personally is time management.) I am attaching several documents to our final report that demonstrate the structure we’ve created to make the apprenticeship program easier to manage. This includes: creating clear expectations for the program to prospective apprentices, asking each apprentice to sign a contract (agreement) stating that they understand what’s expected of them, and requiring a financial investment on the part of the apprentices (with exception of scholarship recipients) to ensure that they are committed to fulfilling their commitment.

    We are constantly evaluating what we will do differently ‘next time’ with our program. The ‘next time’ can mean a lot of different things for us, as we have so many components, classes, and events that are part of this program. For example, it could mean, “at our 1st enrichment session of the year next year” or “when we begin to recruit new apprentices next fall” or “the next time we organize the sophomore field trip” or “when we’re putting together next year’s seed order.”

    Last year, we started a spreadsheet to evaluate every event that EarthDance participates in or hosts throughout the year. This helps us when preparing the same event the following year.
    This spring, we started a spreadsheet for staff to add notes and suggestions for next year for each of our enrichment sessions. We are currently seeking a summer intern to help us track what the graduates of our program are doing now.
    DISCUSSION
    From this grant I learned that there is indeed great demand for part-time on-farm education, particularly in a metropolitan area like St. Louis. I also learned that while there is both great demand and great need, it still takes a large effort to recruit a substantial class every year. For some reason, though we’d seen our application numbers go up every year since 2008, this past winter we had fewer than we’d seen the previous year. This tells us that we need to continually promote the program throughout the year, not just in the fall when we start to recruit our next class. It also has been somewhat difficult to attract a highly diverse class of apprentices. While we were fortunate in 2010 to have 27% of our class be African-Americans, the % has decreased since then. In 2012 we are making a concerted effort to reach out to more diverse groups throughout the year so that we can build lasting relationships with key leaders in African-American and minority communities in St. Louis.

    We have also learned to not expand our operation too quickly. While 2011 was still a very productive year in terms of our educational goals (we trained 32 first-year apprentices and 5 second-year apprentices), it was very difficult to produce the amount of food we’d anticipated growing. This was due to a number of factors, the 2 major ones being lack of reliable working equipment and poor weather conditions. Since we’d already sold 60 public CSA shares (plus the 40 going to staff and apprentices), we needed to drop one of our farmers markets for a good portion of the season, which meant less market training for our apprentices and less overall presence in the community. The experience from 2011 led us to re-evaluate our focus, and affirmed that our priority is education over production. This leads us to a riskier financial position, since we will no longer have so much CSA revenue with which to pay a salary to our farm manager, but it also means that we need to get more creative with our fundraising until sales of the farm’s output can more fully sustain our staff.

    Finally, this project - the Organic Farming Apprenticeship program - has significantly affected the land on which we’re farming because it’s enabled us to build a large network of people who are closely connected to the farm and who are invested in seeing it succeed. I have never been more re-confirmed in my belief in humanity than to see the hard work and compassion for one another and our planet that has been so evident in our apprenticeship class each year. One of the reasons that I started our apprenticeship program was to connect more people to the Mueller Farm so that it could remain a productive organic farm. We have achieved that goal each year, and are looking forward to working with a local land trust organization to place a conservation easement on the property so that it will always remain so.

    OUTREACH
    Follow the following links to multimedia files concerning this project:

    2010 Apprentice Pam Klump speaks about her experience:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6dLqNwzWKY&feature=relmfu

    2010 Apprentice Sue Reid (& 2011 Sophomore Apprentice) speaks about her experience:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etHoDZMaHGg&feature=relmfu

    Lots of photos from all years of the program:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/earthdancefarms

    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.