Cultivating organic growers

As recently as 20 years ago, organic farming was a rather shaggy enterprise. Its practitioners were a freewheeling bunch of mostly self-taught visionaries who sometimes surfaced at tailgate markets with a limp head of kale or soil-caked radishes. When the mainstream media took note of them at all, it usually mockingly depicted them as Luddite-leaning crop-whisperers who fawned over compost and planted their corn where it would benefit from planet Neptune’s tug.

Photo courtesy Organic Growers School

And then organic food became big business. Wise to the problems posed by industrial agriculture, sustainability-savvy shoppers—once the slimmest sliver of the grocery-buying public—began demanding more organic fruits and vegetables from their stores’ produce departments.

The surge in demand effectively eliminated the wildly quirky and kooky from the organic sector: To sate a nation of responsibly hungry eaters, farmers could no longer just sow a few seeds in untreated soil and hope for a robust harvest. Organic farmers had to get serious about their methodology—and find ways to leapfrog the trial-and-error process that consumed the first generation of organic farmers.

The Organic Growers School emerged in 1992 to support and educate Western North Carolina’s organic farmers through programs like its annual conference, which last year drew more than 1,000 growers from 17 states. This year’s edition of the conference, which has long been the most visible component of OGS’ work (“A lot of people aren’t really aware that OGS is more than just our conference,” sighs director and farmer Meredith McKissick), is a two-day affair, with sessions dedicated to topics including “Kiwi Production in WNC,” “Harnessing Solar Energy” and “Home Processing and Curing of Pork for Family Consumption.”

In keeping with its original mission, the organization recently inaugurated a new project: The Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), an ambitious series of workshops and social events for member farmers and apprentices. The training is intended to supplement the informal learning network on which most organic farmers have been forced to rely. Those behind the program predict it will be far more effective in familiarizing new farmers with organic practices than the faded leaflets and neighborly advice that constituted their bootstrap training.

“The farmers will be the teachers, and their farms will be the classrooms,” McKissick explains. “Each farmer will host a class. Our kind of baseline vision is to have one workshop each month.”

Although the year’s syllabus hadn’t been set at presstime, McKissick said the group’s eight member farmers would probably want to cover “the things farmers face on a regular basis,” such as pest control and soil management.

“Our goal is to graduate high-quality farmers,” says OGS board president Tom Elmore of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester.

McKissick stresses many farms are already rigorously educating the aspiring farmers who serve as their apprentices—indeed, CRAFT is rooted in a grass-roots collaborative a few local growers put together themselves. “But then they were trying to pull in the harvest and also make copies,” McKissick says of OGS’ absorption of the project, which mirrors similar efforts in places such as New York and Illinois. What CRAFT adds to existing on-site programs is exposure to differing philosophies, strategies and products.

According to McKissick, “Some people may think they want to farm on a vegetable farm because they think that’s their passion,” a delusion that could be cleared up by one remarkable field trip to a rabbit farm.

“Farm employees are usually in sponge mode as they decide what kind of farm they want to have,” Elmore agrees.

Elmore remembers making some important decisions about his farm future during his first apprenticeship more than two decades ago: “The farm I worked on was very labor intensive,” he recalls. “This guy actually looked forward to hauling manure up a hill to stay in shape. I prefer to just keep manure at the top of the hill. Each farmer needs to adapt to their value sets and styles.”

McKissick and Elmore confirm farm apprentices (sometimes referred to as interns or employees, depending on the farm) are usually pretty well committed to the farming lifestyle by the time they’ve accepted their positions: “Most farmers have a good solid application process, so they don’t have someone showing up and having never been more than five minutes from a latte,” McKissick says. Often what’s keeping the apprentices from having farms of their own is the high cost of land and unavailability of capital.

“If someone wants to start a farm, it’s almost like you’re up against everything,” McKissick says. “I’ve had people say to me ‘I have land, but I don’t have a house. If I want to be serious about this, I have to live in a tent.’ We don’t ask someone starting a bookstore to do that.”

McKissick believes the coming-together model exemplified by CRAFT workshops, which nonapprentices will be able to attend with paid registration, could eventually help crack the major problems facing potential organic growers.

“We understand you can educate aspiring farmers all day, but other things need to happen,” she says.

“This is a real opportunity to enliven our local economy,” Elmore says of putting well-trained organic growers at the helm of local farms. “We’re having a terrible time keeping up with demand for organically grown food. In fact, we’re not.”

To join the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training or to register for the Organic Growers School’s spring conference (March 21-22), visit www.organicgrowersschool.org. The cost of the conference is $40 per day, and daily registration is limited to 800 participants.

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