ACORN’s Grow a Farmer

October (2)

ACORN has just launched their new Grow a Farmer program.  This is a program that we think will be amazing. And that’s not just an uneducated, hopeful guess. I (Shannon) happen to be on the Grow a Farmer Steering Committee. The Steering Committee is made up of a lot of really cool people. I think I was mostly invited to be on it since I had previously apprenticed at quite a few farms so have experience from that perspective. The rest of the people on the committee are brilliant and make up a huge wealth of farming resources. Huge!

Apprentices in the program will get a Learning Outcomes manual, currently being prepared by ACORN staff and the Steering Committee, they will take frequent webinar classes, meet with other apprentices for farm field trips, and attend the Beginner Farmer symposium as well as the ACORN Organic conference. By the end of the season, they will have received an amazing amount of knowledge.

Since an abnormally large amount of my friends are people I met while apprenticing, I know that one of the largest complaints is the lack of “learning time.” Of course, we are always learning and nothing rivals hands-on experience (aka working hard) when learning to farm. I truly believe that muscle memory is one of the best things we can learn as farmers. But, it is also definitely useful (and maybe more in line with the way our generation has grown up learning to learn) to have time set out just for learnin’.

The Grow a Farmer program is also not just an apprenticeship. It has 2 parts: apprenticeship and a mentorship program. The mentorship is basically for beginning farmers and matches them with more experienced farmers. So, as a new farmer, you have a question, you can call up (or email) your mentor farmer and get some advice. The mentor may (depending how close they live to you) also come visit your farm a few times during the season and the new farmer can go out to visit their mentor’s farm.

Transplanting spinach

We, in our unique situation, will potentially be participants in both programs. We have agreed to be apprentice hosts, if we find an apprentice (or more) whose goals fit ours.  And we are planning to be mentees in the program, to learn from someone wiser than ourselves.

One of the things that most excites us about the possibility of hosting an apprentice is the “learning days.” We want every Monday to be a learning day at the farm, for us just as much as the apprentice(s). We love learning and sharing and field trips and workshops. We have plenty of “weekly reading assignments” to encourage discussion and conversation.

One of the reasons we were hesitant to have an apprentice, was that our farm is so new. While together we have over 12 years of farming experience, we are still young farmers and have only been on this piece of land just over a year. However, when we started our business, we realized that a big thing missing from our farming experience was the experience of being a new farmer. Every farm we had worked on had been built up over time to a point that didn’t at all resemble our start-up phase. And we wished we had apprenticed with a new farmer because we had SO MANY questions about starting up. So, we have hesitatingly decided to say Yes to having apprentices.

There is another issue though. We are uncomfortable with the idea of someone living with us full-time at the farm. Mostly because of some of our lifestyle choices: we don’t have running hot water…we heat water on the woodstove in the winter and camp shower bags in the summer (though we would love to build a solar hot water heater), we use a composting toilet, we use as little electricity as we can get away with, and our diet is made up of a large amount of vegetables. We like our simple life and wouldn’t change it, but we also can’t afford to change it (unless we want to take off-farm jobs, I guess). Farming full-time, without off-farm income has been our dream and we are so happy to be living it, but our lifestyle isn’t for everyone. We don’t have TV or internet and cell phone reception at our house. We always line dry our clothes so if it’s raining, dirty clothes don’t get washed. The second floor of our house is closed off from the woodstove heat so bedrooms are very, very cold in the winter and shoulder seasons.

Our area is also fairly quiet. There’s not a huge amount of social activities in River Hebert. And we go to bed pretty early in the growing season. Other than a game of Dutch Blitz or Boggle, we’re unlikely to be able to regularly provide much of a social life for an apprentice.

All of these qualities have made us feel more comfortable not housing apprentices. So, the ideal apprentice would likely live in the Amherst, NS area or in the Sackville-to-Moncton, NB area. And they would drive in. But we don’t want people driving here daily. So, we thought up an alternative apprenticeship opportunity. We would like to offer a flexible apprenticeship. An apprentice would come out to the farm (or to the field trip site) on learning days (Mondays). Then, ideally but it’s flexible, they would have 2 days off. Then work with us on Thursdays and Fridays. Saturdays at the market would be flexible and not mandatory. Other farming work that could be done at the apprentice’s home could be included…stuff like website and social media updates or researching something for us (since we don’t have internet access at the farm, computer work definitely helps us out and teaches the apprentice other skills required of a farmer). The apprentice(s) would be welcome to spend the night between the 2 work days.

This schedule allows the apprentice to have a part-time job, keep their current home/life situation, and just allows the apprentice to have a life in general. We don’t need to feel responsible for the apprentice’s life after work and we have a few days on our own to do solo tasks and take a break from managing others.

I think it could be a cool and fun and educational type of apprenticeship, while I recognize that it wouldn’t suit everyone. Heck, it wouldn’t have suited me when I was a homeless, nomadic farmer. I didn’t have an apartment or a car or a life outside of farming. But I know that some people do. Just this past season, we had young people volunteer with us who commuted in. They had lives, houses, partners, pets, other sources of income. A full-season, live-in apprenticeship wasn’t in the cards for any of them this past season. And I suspect there are others just like them; People who have a farming dream but can’t drop everything to apprentice full-time. And that is where their constraints and ours meet and can create something exciting.

So, just because the Grow a Farmer program has a certain framework, if you want to grow into being a farmer but need flexibility, talk to Lucia, she may know of a situation that can meet your needs!

Kohlrabi harvest

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