• Monday, February 19, 2018

Enlisting the Next Generation of Oregon Farmers

A typical day on the farm starts at sunrise. Whether that means getting up early to feed the livestock or going to the farmers’ market to sell what they produce, farmers live and work their entire lives and through every season on the piece of land they often also call home. Across the state of Oregon, it’s easy to see that our farms are rich with crops grown from the labors of our farmers.

But many of our farmers are now reaching the age of retirement. Who will work their land after they are gone?

Land succession is a very real problem we face in our state. Oregon State University’s Austin Family Business Program offers workshops and one-on-one help to plan for transferring farm management to the family’s next generation or to another successor. What agriculture in Oregon has lacked is a network between those who have the desire to teach farming and those that have the desire to learn, but Rogue Farm Corps (RFC) wants to find a way to address this crucial need.

According to the most recent U.S. census, the average age of the farmer is 65 years old, which is near the age that people in the United States start retiring. For each farmer under 35 years old, there are six over 65. Those who run the Rogue Farm Corps program are fully dedicated to building the bridge between the farmers who have lived, worked, and produced on the land, and the next generation of farmers-in-the-making. Megan Fehrman, RFC’s Internship and Apprenticeship Coordinator, and the rest of the RFC team are making sure that those who want to get involved in farming are given real-world experience and guidance working and managing Oregon’s rich soil and farming enterprises.

Megan’s work with Rogue Farm Corps began as a member of its advisory board a couple of years after its inception in 2003. Previously she had been working with an organization that required her to travel the state to survey the welfare of Oregon’s farmers. On the road, and with increasing frequency, she was hearing from farmers that there wasn’t anyone around who would be able to take care of their land after they had retired. These conversations made it clear that there was a need to connect the younger generation of incoming farmers-to-be with these farmers who have a lifetime of knowledge, skill, and land to pass on.

These days, Megan oversees all the RFC program coordinators in all sectors of the state, ensuring that everyone is placed on a farm she hopes they will grow to love. Currently, the Rogue Farm Corps has 23 host farms and more than 40 students involved. What started out as a program operating solely out of the Rogue Valley now spans across the entire state and includes the Rogue Valley, Central Oregon, South Willamette, and the Portland metro area. Each sector has its own coordinator and in each of those sectors there are at least four farms willing to host and teach the students in the program.

The program offers students either an internship or an apprenticeship. Most students become interns unless they have a comparable amount of farming experience before they start the program. If they want to continue their education after the internship, they’ll become an apprentice in the program where they’ll learn more about how to run the farm at a managerial level. While many of those who apply to the program are typically college graduates around the age of 23, their applicants range from 18 to 55.

The intern program is primarily geared towards giving participants a first-hand look at what life on a farm is actually like. Each intern is paired with a farmer to learn everything they can about the farm—24/7—for several months. Many interns who enroll in the program have limited knowledge of the agricultural industry and farm life—how to read an animal’s behavior, how to prepare the soil, or even the natural rhythms of the planting and harvesting seasons. Knowledge and skills like these are crucial to successful farming. By the time each intern leaves the program, they’ve gained an inside look and experience with farming life.

With these common themes and lessons in mind, each farmer across the state creates an educational program and curriculum unique to their farm. Megan explains, “That’s how we’ve intentionally structured the educational curriculum. Some programs are purely vegetable based, some are purely animal based, and some are a mix of both kinds of operations. It’s RFC’s mission to make the next generation of farmers just as diverse as the generation of working farmers we have now.”

The apprenticeship portion of the Rogue Farm Corps program has a more advanced structure and is generally reserved for students who either have completed the internship program or have already had some solid farming experience under their belt. Those in the apprenticeship program are there because they want to learn how to run and manage their own farm. “There is so much more to running a farm than just farming,” Megan says. “You have to advertise, you have to manage the books, and you have to make sure you know how to manage people. Ultimately when you’re running a farm, you’re running a small business and we want to make sure future farmers are prepared for that.”

The goals of the Rogue Farm Corps program are simple: to bridge the gap between today’s farmers and the farmers of the future by ensuring that today’s farmers are passing on their knowledge to the next generation, and that the land they have to offer is being turned over to educated hands that want to get in the dirt. Every year since 2003, Rogue Farm Corps sees a greater number of people express interest in being a part of their program. More farmers from across the state are asking for students to teach.

Megan knows there is still much to do to significantly impact Oregon’s land succession issue, but she feels hopeful that the Rogue Farm Corps programs are well on their way to being part of the solution.

Read more about farm succession: Passing Down the Farm Receives New Emphasis

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