State launches organic farming apprenticeship

Now, the state hopes to lead the industry in another way. Last week, it announced the country's first apprenticeship program for organic farming and gardening.

The program comes at a time of growing concern about the future of America's farms. The number of farms nationwide has been falling since World War II, and farmers are aging rapidly -- they are on average 57 years old. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called for 100,000 new farmers in the coming years.

But the most recent USDA agriculture census shows signs of optimism: The number of farms increased 4 percent from 2002 to 2007, and the new generation of farmers is younger -- 48 on average.

And in one major way, their farms are very different: They're half the size. Farms that began since 2003 are an average of 201 acres, compared to the overall farm average of 418 acres.

Apprentices in California's new program will work on even smaller farms, including a 5.8 acre education farm and garden at the College of Marin's Indian Valley campus. They will also complete 1,800 hours of paid, hands-on training at Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas.

It was at Fresh Run Farm that the idea for an apprenticeship program took root last summer.

Like many of his peers, owner Peter Martinelli had trained volunteers and interns on his 22.5-acre farm, where beets and kale grow alongside strawberries and potatoes. But after state inspectors cited two Marin farmers for using unpaid interns, Martinelli told an intern she could not continue working there. Angry about the policy, the intern wrote to Department of Industrial Relations Director John Duncan.

Duncan came to tour the farm and meet its workers. The more he heard and learned, the more he saw an opportunity for a structured apprenticeship program, he said.

"People want careers in this," said Duncan, a native of Marin familiar with the county's rural west. "This is how you can get people into that process."

In addition to training, apprentices in the organic farm program will take 11 courses at the College of Marin. Students should be able to complete the program within two years.

California recognizes 611 apprentice programs, from carpentry to cosmetology. The programs build workforces by connecting employers, educators and those eager to learn.

"It's going to be a huge boon," Martinelli said. "This is how we're going to rebuild a really strong workforce and pass along the knowledge of how to farm."

Martinelli's farm sits on the cattle ranch where he grew up. He started gardening at age 8, planting vegetables in his backyard. Organic farming has long been a grassroots movement, he said, but it's becoming more mainstream. Most of the farmers he trains today do not come from a rural background.

"It's not a technology, it's not a science. You learn it on the ground and just by being in it," he said.

The program has already enrolled two apprentices, including one who has worked at Fresh Run Farm for three seasons. A new class of apprentices is expected to be in the field this summer.

But Marin is just the start. Program partners say they are looking to expand organic farm apprenticeships with more farmers and schools in the state.

"We want more people to join in," Duncan said. "I predict we'll see some in the major organic farming areas."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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