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Building Skills and Strengthening our Food System through Apprenticeship

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz | In 2018, something monumental happened. Government officials, technical assistance providers, and experienced organic vegetable farmers came together, lent their expertise, and crafted what would become the country’s very first registered apprenticeship program for organic vegetable production. It’s safe to say that this program was a long-time coming. Growers have increasingly struggled to attract and retain employees on their farms, and in an industry as labor-intensive as this one is, that’s a big deal. On the other hand, employees hoping to carve out a career for themselves in this field are eager for dedicated training to not only connect them to the bigger picture, but to fill in all of the finer details as well. 

Earlier this year, I was offered the incredible opportunity to begin working with FairShare CSA Coalition as the manager of the Organic Vegetable Farm Manager (OVFM) Apprenticeship Program. Watching the program grow over these past few months has been exciting in its own right, but to me, it also emphasizes the great potential it has to meet a clear need within the industry. 

For farmers, it’s an opportunity to support and train aspiring farm managers, with the possibility of retaining those skilled employees on their farms once they graduate. And for those contemplating retirement, it can also be an opportunity to explore farm succession. Meanwhile, for apprentices, this program provides hands-on, field-based learning under the mentorship of an experienced farmer, but it also offers something more. As one apprentice recently shared, this program not only builds concrete skills, but it also facilitates “connections with other farms, apprentices, and ideas—all of which are healthy to the growth of small-scale agriculture.” 

As I’ve settled into this work, I’ve been able to draw heavily from the many conversations I’ve had with farmers and employees as part of my ongoing doctoral work. Over the last few years, I’ve been exploring the labor experience within Wisconsin’s organic vegetable industry—essentially asking: What factors tend to create a positive work experience? While there are a lot of key takeaways from these discussions, the two big ones are that farmers are struggling with high employee turnover, and employees are looking for a professional work environment. 

Through the Apprenticeship Program, we have a unique opportunity to begin addressing some of these needs and challenges. One major way we’re doing this is by working with a small group of farmers to create a labor management training program—a program that includes the valuable input that farm employees have shared. In the coming months, farmers will begin delivering this training to their peers, sharing both their experiences as well as practical tools on topics ranging from farm culture and employee motivation to delivering feedback and resolving conflict. By building their skills and confidence as employers, this training program can prepare farmers to take on apprentices while helping them to continue cultivating a work environment that is likely to catch employees’ attention and encourage them to stay over the long term. 

The OVFM Apprenticeship Program has already benefited immensely from the participation of an incredible group of committed, curious, and talented apprentices and farmer educators—including Gwenyn Hill. And I am eager to see how it will continue to grow and evolve to meet the needs of our state’s organic vegetable producers. I’ll use the words of farmer educator Stacey Botsford of Red Door Family Farm to wrap this up: “There’s never been a more important time to create more farmers!” 

Sarah Janes Ugoretz serves as manager of the Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Apprenticeship Program, and is a PhD Candidate in Environment and Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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