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Getting Serious About Our Next Generation of Farmers

By Linda Halley | Grim agricultural statistics are not secret. Most of us are aware that the average age of an American farmer is 58, and rising. The USDA reports that a mere 16% are “beginning” farmers, those with 10 (or fewer) years under their belts. But did you know that approximately half of US farmland is rented by the operator, owned by non-farmers? Most startling of all, only 43% of farmers reported a positive net income in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. So, is agriculture a dying business? No, we will always need to eat; but agriculture is at a point of rapid change. I believe with that change comes opportunity.

Farmland will change hands, leases will be rewritten. New ways of thinking, eating, and farming will be embraced by those next to climb in the tractor. We should prepare for this predictable future if we want change to be positive.

Take a look at what happened in 2020. The pandemic ushered in a rush for all foods local. Consumers embraced the short, secure farm to table supply chain in a way never seen before.

Regenerative ag was touted as the solution for a warming planet in farming magazines and popular media alike. It seems the thought that “soil will save us” isn’t just a fringe idea anymore.

Nutrient-dense, clean, and grass-fed became terms not only understood but sought after.

With shifting awareness of the importance of how we farm and what is grown, there is an opportunity to also shift some crops and practices. Some of the ever-expanding tracts of corn and soy, emblematic of the past few decades, can shift to acres of diverse crops grown for human consumption, but only if there are farmers and landowners ready to make it happen.

Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship

To help make it happen, Gwenyn Hill Farm is participating in a couple of apprenticeship programs designed to train new farmers in the practical art and science of organic farming. The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program (DGA) and the Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Apprenticeship (OVFM) both rely on hands-on learning combined with technical college classroom training and master-farmer mentoring. DGA, patterned after education for the skilled trades, expanded from its birth in Wisconsin in 2010, to a nationwide, registered apprenticeship program. One of its graduates is Ryan Heinen, Gwenyn Hill Farm’s Land and Livestock Manager. He brought dairy grazing back to Gwenyn Hill this past July. With two more years of experience on this farm, he will qualify as a master dairy grazier and Gwenyn Hill could have a farmer training in the art of grass-based dairying.

Ryan Heinen with a few of his dairy cows, January 2021.

Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Apprenticeship

On the vegetable side, two apprentices, Elizabeth Lyon and Alexis Champagne, will join Gwenyn Hill this spring as part of the Organic Vegetable Farm Manager program. In its second full year in Wisconsin, OVFM follows a similar training model. Two years of working alongside Gwenyn Hill Farm’s masters and practical technical college training will prepare the graduates to manage an organic vegetable farm as an employee, or on a farm of their own.

Hands-On, Experiential Learning

The practical skills it takes to operate a farm that is breaking new ground and thinking outside the box, such as dairy grazing and diverse organic fruits and vegetables, is rarely taught in four-year institutions. Concepts and the science of farming may lend themselves to the classroom, but hands-on, experiential learning is best taught in a different format.  After nearly 30 years of employing young people eager to learn about organic farming, I found the farm employee model to be lacking. While I was happy to train employees in the how of what we did, neither the employees nor I found there was much time or energy to cover the why of what we did. Most critical behind-the-scenes planning and management is done by the farmer in the off season, not imparted to employees. I am proud to say that several very dedicated young employees that I worked with did become successful farmers. But I also recognize that the process and the outcomes could have been much better.

A well thought-out apprenticeship program consists of a rigorous curriculum with benchmarks covering the full breadth of operating a farm. The master farmer and the apprentice make a commitment to complete the two-year program, resulting in a balanced set of skills and experiences. Ryan is an exemplar graduate of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program and speaks highly of his experience. I can’t wait to implement the sister program for vegetable farms with Elizabeth and Alexis this spring.

To really have an impact on the future of farming there must be more than training, of course. Addressing access to land, capital, and conservation programs that support environmentally sound practices, and removing legal barriers to cutting edge farming models are also some keys to shifting the face of farming. Still, Gwenyn Hill Farm is committed to doing its part in preparing the next generation of farmers in whatever way we can.

Linda Halley, General Manager at Gwenyn Hill Farm LLC, considers the opportunity to mentor future farmers over the past 25 years to be the most satisfying part of her farming career.

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