Cooperative Farm Education Program Takes Root in Southern Oregon

Author: Stu O’Neill, Rogue Farm Corps - Jacksonville, OR

Publish Date: Fall 2009

In the fall of 2003, a group of farmers in the Little Applegate Valley came together to talk about the importance of education, mentoring, and internships for beginning farmers. Like so many others, this group got their start in agriculture by interning on numerous small farms across the West, and knew first-hand how quality mentoring helps interns learn the skills necessary to become farmers. Recognizing the urgent need to train a new generation, they formed an educational non-profit to carry out the mission.

In 2007, with the support of a grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), three of these farmers designed a curriculum and handbook for training interns on their farms. This 27-module curriculum is intended to expose interns to numerous aspects of farming and create a well-rounded educational experience to go along with the day-to-day work on the farm, combining in-field exercises and classroom discussions.

Taking the idea of mentoring interns one step further, farmers in the Little Applegate Valley began experimenting with sharing the responsibility of teaching this curriculum to their interns each season. This would allow the farmers to deepen their commitment to quality mentoring by exposing their interns to different farms and perspectives throughout the community.

Rogue Farm Corps is the product of these conversations and experiments. The mission of Rogue Farm Corps is to create hands-on educational programs to train the next generation of farmers and land stewards, to support our cooperative agricultural economy, and serve as a model for other communities.

Farms Next: Training the Next Generation

Rogue Farm Corps Farms Next Internship Training program offers beginning farmers the opportunity to expand their knowledge and experience of sustainable agriculture by creating an exchange of information and skills across a broad spectrum of small farms and ranches in our community. In 2009, the program has grown to serve fifteen interns on nine farms, with three additional farmers participating as instructors.

Interns participating in the Farms Next program live and work full time on a host farm, learning in-depth skills unique to the host farmers' operation. Participating farms span the entire region of Southern Oregon from Ashland to the Applegate to Grants Pass. Two to three days per month, interns gather together for a tour and class on one of the participating farms, experiencing the diversity of agricultural operations in our community. This benefits the intern by exposing them to numerous local farmers and offering instruction in agricultural systems that might not be employed on their host farm. And this benefits the farmers by sharing the responsibility of mentorship across the community. In addition to the hands-on educational offerings, participants in the Farms Next program are offered a sense of community and social networking unavailable to many farm internship programs.

Supporting Our Agricultural Economy

Farm internships provide quality hands-on opportunities for beginning farmers. Well-trained interns are in a better position to become successful producers, increasing the pool of farmers in our community.

The number of small farms in the U.S. is declining. In addition, with the population of farmers aging, attracting beginning farmers is vital to our food security. In 2007, the average age of farmers in the U.S. was 56. In contrast, the number of people interested in sustainable small-scale agriculture is increasing.

Small farms face major financial obstacles in running economically viable operations. A 1997 USDA report stated that the average farm grossing under $50,000 a year had negative cash flow from farm income. Interns provide small farms an opportunity to exchange education and mentorship for much needed help on the farm.

 The community of small farms and ranches is creating a new sustainable agricultural economy as consumer demand for local and organic foods increases. This niche is revitalizing rural communities across Oregon and increasing the viability of small farms. In order to meet the needs of this growing sector of our economy, beginning farmers need a venue to learn the valuable skills necessary to manage their own farms and contribute to the development of a strong agricultural community.

Creating a Food Secure Future

 The return of the small family farm is a cornerstone of our transition from a food system based on multinational agribusiness to one based on community resiliency, sustainability, and a strong local economy. Most of us are aware of the dangers of continuing the current model as the base of our food system: consolidation of farmland, poor labor conditions, GMOs, environmental degradation from chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and so much more.

Viable small family farms offer us another way forward. In Southern Oregon, we are privileged to have numerous farms and supporting organizations that are leading the way. Together we can create a food system based on the preservation of farmland, cooperation, and a strong local economy with respect for labor and the environment.

There are many efforts underway to ensure that small family farms are able to prosper and thrive. Quality farm education is one important piece of the puzzle. Rogue Farm Corps would like to partner with local farmers who are interested in mentoring the next generation and beginning farmers looking for opportunities to learn. Together we can create a food-secure future.

Contact Information:
Stuart O’Neill Melyn Smith
Executive Director Program Director
Rogue Farm Corps
PO Box 624
Jacksonville, OR 97530