- Education and Training: demonstration, mentoring, workshop
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association will work with Maine farmers on the Farm Training Project, a slate of topic-oriented workshops taking place on farms throughout Maine during the growing season. Building on the well-established tradition in the Maine small farm community of free and mutual exchange of knowledge, these workshops are hosted and taught primarily by farmers, with support from other agricultural professionals. They are targeted at the 60 or so apprentices who work on Maine farms every year, as well as other new and beginning farmers, but are open to the public free of charge. The workshops are designed to supplement and enhance apprentices’ on-farm training; to expose participants to the great diversity of Maine agricultural enterprise and expertise; and to begin to establish among the next generation of farmers the close social and economic ties that characterize the Maine organic and sustainable farming community. MOFGA has been offering FTP workshops on a pilot basis for several years, and has consistently worked to improve their format, content, and delivery on a very modest budget. We hope to use SARE funding to be able to significantly increase FTP turnout by improving advertising and publicity, especially to women, who make up a significant percentage of apprentices and beginning farmers. We will also use SARE support to more commensurately compensate participating farmers for their time and expertise, and to offer farmers more support in workshop planning and delivery. Finally, we will offer scholarships for apprentices and other needy individuals to MOFGA’s annual Farmer-to-Farmer conference, an important forum for farmers of all experience levels to share with and learn from their peers, with five of the ten scholarships awarded to be set aside for women. MOFGA’s research demonstrates that the types of horizontal knowledge exchange embodied in the FTP play a pivotal role in recruiting and training Maine’s next generation of organic and sustainable small farmers.
Project objectives from proposal:
One of MOFGA’s overarching missions throughout its 32-year history has been to build alternative institutions and systems of research and knowledge exchange that serve small, diverse, organic and sustainable farmers in Maine. With MOFGA’s support, Maine’s small organic farmers have pioneered such systems. MOFGA now offers over 60 days per year of events and programs, the majority of which are modeled on the “farmer-to-farmer” concept – in which practitioners of all backgrounds and levels of experience are empowered to teach and learn from each other.
The MOFGA Apprenticeship program is key among these offerings, and is a pioneer in what many feel is a promising model for reproducing America’s small farmers and reinvigorating the informal systems of intergenerational knowledge transfer that are so important to American agriculture. About 50 farms around Maine participate in MOFGA’s Apprenticeship program in a given year, enrolling 60 or so apprentices. The typical arrangement involves an exchange of labor for room, board, a stipend, and intensive training and experience in farming.
The apprenticeship concept fits modern organic agriculture particularly well as an alternative or supplement to more mainstream, formal models of agricultural education, like 4-H, FFA, and the land-grant colleges of agriculture. Apprenticing with an experienced organic farmer has become an important strategy in Maine, not only for passing along the agricultural skills and knowledge necessary to be a successful small farmer, but also in growing the movement supporting local food systems based on sustainable agriculture.
The Penobscot Bay region of Maine is an example of the long-term effects such a strategy can have. It is home to several farms that participate in MOFGA’s Apprenticeship program. Many former apprentices have stayed in the area and established their own operations, providing a steady infusion of agricultural energy and talent into the area and allowing the number of small farms to grow steadily over the past 15 years — countering the predominant national trends of farm and farmland loss. The addition of these new farms has created the critical mass to establish a marketing co-operative and catalyze a strong and growing local food system.
While the experiential, immersive nature of apprenticeship has many benefits, it also has limitations. Farming can be isolated, difficult, exhausting, all-consuming work, and can leave little time for structured learning unless it is deliberately set aside and scheduled. In addition, apprentices need exposure to other farms, other ways of doing things, and other apprentices. MOFGA has developed the Farm Training Project concept out of a recognition that apprentices (and others new to agriculture) will benefit from supplemental structured learning opportunities, exposure to as much expertise and diversity in agricultural systems and techniques as possible during the early stages of their training, and venues in which to socialize with fellow apprentices and farmers. For non-apprentices, the FTP workshops will respond to a demand in the state for accessible, low-cost education and training in organic farming, and will round out and add to MOFGA’s other programming, such as Small Farm Field Day, the Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, the Organic Farming Short Course, and the Common Ground Fair.
Specific objectives are:
To increase awareness of, and attendance at, FTP workshops through increased advertising and publicity. This will be accomplished through direct mailings and reminder postcards to potential participants and through placing advertisements in selected publications. The average attendance at FTP events in 2004 was 10 per workshop. We intend to increase the average to 15 per workshop. We will work in particular to reach out to women, through a partnership with the Maine Women’s Agricultural Network.
To be able to offer farmers the compensation they deserve for their involvement. In return, MOFGA will ask participating farmers to take their roles as instructors seriously, and to spend the preparation time necessary to make their workshops quality educational experiences. MOFGA and other cooperating staff will work with the farmers to help develop their presentations, and will furnish materials such as visual aids for demonstrations and handouts for the participants to take away.
To award scholarships for apprentices and other needy applicants to the annual Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, which takes place in November. The Conference is an institution in Maine organic agriculture, embodying the spirit of free and mutual exchange of knowledge that characterizes the Maine organic farming community. It follows a unique 3-hour session format, in which the first half is dedicated to presentations by experts (including at least 1 farmer), and the second half to a roundtable discussion intended to solicit and capitalize on the accumulated expertise of all the farmers in attendance. The cost of the conference, while not high by relative standards, is frequently cited as prohibitive by apprentices who would like to attend. Five of these scholarships will be awarded to women.