By Rachel Bertone for Growing Oregon magazine
Families own the majority of the nation’s farms, and when it’s time to pass on that legacy, a farmer usually looks to his children. When a young entrepreneur who doesn’t come from a family farm is interested in a career in agriculture, there’s a challenge in even knowing where to start.
“Most folks that come to our program have little to no experience farming, and they’re inspired to learn,” says Stu O’Neill, executive director of Rogue Farm Corps.
The organization was started by a group of first-generation organic farmers who wanted to help those with no previous background enter the field. Students come from all over the country, and many are from urban and suburban areas.
“Without a generational transfer of knowledge, it’s hard to start out as a farmer,” O’Neill says.
The educational internship program at Rogue Farm Corps, called FarmsNext, allows new farmers of all kinds to act as interns on organic farms in Oregon.
“The interns work side-by-side with real farmers,” O’Neill says. “We don’t sugarcoat anything, because real-world experience is crucial. It’s understanding whether or not they can make it as a farmer.”
Garry Stephenson, director at Oregon State University’s Small Farm Center, agrees, adding that many beginning farmers, whether organic or conventional, need training in how to farm and run a farm business.
The Small Farms Program offers courses on farm management and growing crops. “Our goal is to balance the art and science of farming with farm business management,” Stephenson says.
Both men emphasize that beginning farmers are extremely passionate people who see farming as a way to make a difference.
“I equate it to young people having a desire to get back to something that’s real and authentic,” O’Neill says. “They want to change the world with their hands and bodies.”