Have you ever felt like you don’t have the skills necessary to start your own farm? Do you often confuse a crop from a weed? If so, you certainly aren’t alone, and (likely) aren’t a lost cause. One of the greatest hurdles faced by new small scale farmers today is lack of farm knowledge. In a day and age when food is simply what is found in the grocery store and served at
restaurants, knowledge into its actual origins is limited. In fact, only 2% of people live on farms in America today resulting in very few people learning the methods of farming the traditional way of one generation passing down knowledge to the next. However, individuals without farming backgrounds are not without available resources for learning the art and science of farming. A number of universities across the country have resources available for beginning farmers. One option available here in mid-Michigan is at Michigan State University at the MSU Student Organic Farm.
The student organic farm started in 1999 and has since expanded to include 15 acres of organically produced vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs, and livestock. This production supports a year-round community supported agriculture (CSA), an on campus farm stand, and supplies produce to MSU’s dining halls. The production and distribution models implemented on the farm take a significant amount of knowledge and ability which is now available to non-MSU students through a 9-month long Organic Farmer Training Program (OFTP). This hands-on program is designed to teach people all the skills necessary to manage the production side of owning a farm as well as the business components necessary for being financially successful.
In order to help further explain the opportunities available to interested individuals through the OTFP, I travelled to the student organic farm (SOF) and met with the director of the OFTP, Jeremy Moghtader.
Jeremy has been farm manager at the SOF since 2004, and has been involved with the OFTP since its beginning in 2007. During my time talking with him, he discussed the importance of teaching people the information that is no longer passed on from parents to children. His students learn to sow seed, prune fruit trees, harvest vegetables, and raise cattle, pigs, and chickens. He emphasized the importance of year-round vegetable production for making a small scale farm profitable.
“People that enroll in our program are from all different walks of life. The students that are older often are looking to begin a second career and already have the land ready to go. Younger students in their 20’s are often looking for a manager type job that is less capital intense and lower commitment”
Further, if you are at a stage in life where you feel as though you are too young or too old to get into farming, that is likely not the case. Jeremy highlighted that in the OFTP program he has people enrolling in all different walks of life. Some students are older (even into their 60’s) and just now wanting to get into small scale food production. These older students often have more capital than the younger students and many times already have land and are just looking to develop the skill set necessary to utilize it. The younger generation of students are as young as a traditional undergraduate student simply looking for an alternative to the traditional educational system.
In addition to different ages, people join the program for different reasons. Some people join for more personal reasons such as health or concern for the environment. Others join for the simple reason that it makes economic sense. Land has gotten so expensive that it does not make economic sense to purchase a large tract of land for more conventional farming. Rather, a small plot of land is more obtainable for many people, making small scale intensive organic farming the more practical option.
Whatever your reason for wanting to learn how to manage and operate a small scale organic farm, and whatever your age, the OTFP program at MSU might be just what you need to push you past the threshold for success. Although no statistics are available in regards to the success of the students, Jeremy indicated that many graduates have gone on to do precisely what they had wanted to do when they applied to the program. For some students, that meant finding a management position at an organic farm or large CSA while other students (mostly the older ones) have successfully started up organic farms (whether for sole income, or as a hobby farm to supplement their current income) on land that they had already owned. One of the important aspects of the program is that every student is required to develop personal learning plans which allows them to format their learning to fit their ultimate goals.
If such a program does perk your interest, check out their website for more information. If the program does interest you, but you live in a different region in the USA and the distance is just too great, consider enrolling in similar programs available through the University of Vermont, and UC Santa Cruz. Buying food is a good option for many people, but learning to grow your own gives you a whole new appreciation as to the effort that goes into that food, and can even supply you with more food security in the future. As the old proverb goes, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Similarly, if you teach an individual to farm, they are fed for life, and that is exactly what these university programs are designed to do.
About the author: Grady is a graduate student in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University working with the USAID’s Legume Innovation Lab investigating the genetics responsible for disease resistance in common bean in East Africa. In addition to his research, he is involved in the Ecological Food and Farming Systems Specialization at MSU as his interests range beyond cultivar development and would someday like to start a small sustainable farm of his own.