Boot Camp for Farmers

Chris Weber
Programs Cropping Up for Those Hoping to Farm
A back-to-the-land movement has seized Generation Y, as young Americans ditch cubicles for the earthier vocation of growing food. Not only did a recent documentary, “The Greenhorns,”(profile young poople who have taken farming as their occupation, it also counted them: 6,000. There are probably many more.

But how does someone trained as, say, an accountant learn to run irrigation systems or save seeds for next year? He or she goes to school—and not necessarily at sprawling land-grant universities, as in generations past. Increasingly, would-be farmers are electing to attend one of the non-academic “farm incubators” popping up nationwide. It ’s an important, if subtle, change in how agricultural knowledge is handed down.

Suppose you’ve just graduated from high school. College is expensive. The job market stinks. Young people with an interest in agriculture in Chicago, where I live, can apply for Windy City Harvest. Once accepted, they complete six months of hands-on horticulture training, then move on to a three-month paid internship with a farm or food-justice organization.The program is run by the Chicago Botanic Garden and one of Chicago’s city colleges (Full disclosure: I teach in the city colleges, too, but have no connection with Windy City Harvest.)

One Windy City Harvest alum that I have followed over the years is named David Henderson. After graduating from the program in 2010, he found work at City Farm, a well-regarded farm on Chicago’s North Side. When his boss left, Henderson moved up to help run an operation that yields 25,000 pounds of produce each year. Henderson sees himself farming indefinitely. “My goal a few years down the road is still to move back to North Carolina, where I am from, and start a farm of my own,” Henderson says. (For more of Henderson’s story, click here.)

Say you’ve already farmed a bit, loved it, and have visions of one day owning your own spread: 10 acres, a barn, cows and chickens, the whole thing. In an industry dominated by global agribusinesses, how does one launch farm without joining the legions of bankrupt family farmers?

Farm incubators equip young farmers with both the technical skills and the business savvy they need to compete in the fierce, burgeoning market for locally grown produce. At Kinsman Farm in Cleveland, the Ohio State University Extension gives would-be farmers quarter-acre starter plots and helps develop their business plans. There’s financial support, too. “The City of Cleveland recently received private funds to expand its Gardening for Greenbacks Program,” explains Marie Barni of the OSU Extension. “Our urban farmers can now receive a $5,000 grant to help start their farming microenterprise.”

There are also farm incubators in Rhode Island, North Carolina, Oregon, St. Louis, and Seattle. Nuestras Raices, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, is an incubator that, like Kinsman, provides land, training, loans, and marketing to beginning Latino farmers. In Kansas City, Kansas, New Roots for Refugees is a six-acre incubator that serves recent immigrants, many of whom farmed in their native countries, as they launch market farms to support their families.

There is considerable skepticism among city planners about whether urban farms are an effective tool for creating jobs and rebuilding economies like Cleveland’s. But there is little doubt that the nation needs more farmers. According to the USDA, the average American farmer is 58 years old.