Getting an Agriculture Education at the Farm School

From growing broccoli to developing a business plan, the farm school helped us hatch a plan.

Greenbank CSA Share

Alison carries a share from the Greenback CSA.

Alan Spaude-Filipczak

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My husband, Alan, and I wanted to become farmers. We wanted to make our livelihood growing food for a community and spend our future working a vegetable garden and tending animals. Overwhelmed and unsatisfied with the current industrial agriculture system, we were looking for a way to do something positive, to become a part of a sustainable future. That future was going to involve growing food. Inspired and passionate, we had only one problem: We didn’t know how to farm.

Perhaps that’s not entirely true. Alan had spent a season working as an intern on a family farm in Vermont, and I had done some work exchanges for produce at a few different farms, but our skills were limited. We knew enough to know that we liked farming, but if there was any way our dream was going to become a reality, a farm-based education would be of paramount importance.

Making the connection

After spending some quality time with the sustainable farm internship database on ATTRA, (the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website), we discovered the Greenbank Farm Training Center (GFTC) on Whidbey Island in Washington State’s Puget Sound. Its eight-month training program looked perfect, so we applied and were accepted.

The Greenbank Farm Training Center’s description fit our situation to a T. “Our program is designed for participants who, through experience, are committed to pursuing a career in sustainable agriculture and desire a formal and thorough academic and experiential education in the business and production aspects of small-scale sustainable farming.” Alan and I were looking for exactly that. Into the car our work pants went, and thus began the drive west from our home state of Wisconsin.

A large, bare field greeted us upon arrival. No cover crop. No fence. Almost no infrastructure. This field (it was too much of a struggle to call it a farm) was a five-acre parcel of land that the Greenbank Farm Training Center had leased from the publicly owned Greenbank Farm, a 500-acre historic loganberry farm located in the town of Greenbank. The GFTC was beginning its second season, and only a small portion of the field had been cultivated the year before. Our work would create this farm from the ground up. It was the perfect project for a bunch of young people dreaming about starting their own farms someday.

The eight of us in the program hailed from all over the country and had different farming backgrounds and worldviews, brought together by the desire for the same skill – the skill to grow food in a way that benefits the earth, our communities and ourselves. Sebastian Aguilar, program director and a successful farmer who raised his family by working the earth and growing produce, was prepared to lead us down the path under his superior tutelage.

Digging in

During that first month of the program, we spent a lot of time building – infrastructure, relationships, farming skills. We assembled a greenhouse, constructed a fence around our field using T-posts and an old fishing net, marked the field into sections and rows, secured our water source, and ran electricity out to the field. Our leader demonstrated basic skills, like how to use different hoes correctly and efficiently. We acquired the skill and knowledge needed to germinate seeds in a greenhouse, and then how to water the seedlings correctly so they didn’t damp off or dry out.

Agriculture and agribusiness – including its history, current state and future – made their way into the classroom, as did different methods for growing and marketing. The GFTC teaches all you need to know to start a small-scale organic farm, which includes learning everything from goal setting to reading soil tests.

During the rainy, windy Washington spring months, our group created a crop plan by figuring out what and how much of each vegetable we were going to grow. It felt good to be taking action and making a plan, but there was one important element missing. While we were planning to grow thousands of pounds of vegetables, from arugula to zucchini, there weren’t enough customers. Only a few of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members from the previous year had renewed their weekly vegetable subscriptions. We hoped to diversify our markets, but zero contracts were in place, verbal or written, for the 4,000 heads of lettuce and the hundreds of pounds of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes we were planning to grow.

Implementing the plan

It was one of the many real-life lessons at the Greenbank Farm Training Center: You have to sink into the realities of farm business, or any business for that matter. If you have a service, you need someone to serve. We created posters and brochures, placing them at libraries and grocery stores around the island. We took out advertising space in the local newspapers; set up a table at events; and created a blog, a Facebook page and a newsletter. The group designed a logo, trying to brand ourselves, and screen-printed the image onto T-shirts that we wore around town, hoping to pique the interest of local foodies.

Fortunately, it worked. By the end of May, 45 CSA members had signed up and paid (only five short of our goal), two grocery stores committed to buying produce, and a hospital came aboard, excited to serve organic, local vegetables from our farm at its cafeteria’s salad bar. We had a farmers’ market where we could sell vegetables and the organic bedding plants we had started in the greenhouse. Now that there was somewhere for the produce to go, the next step was to grow it well.

As June hit, a rhythm set in and the weeks began to tick by. On Monday mornings, we walked our field, monitoring the plants, noticing changes and writing a weekly to-do list. On Tuesday and Friday mornings, our chores included harvesting, washing, assembling and delivering our CSA shares and harvested lettuce, carrots, Swiss chard and other veggies to our grocery store accounts. Wednesday and Thursday mornings were work time, and, in the afternoons, school was in session. One day a month, the group took a field trip to another farm to gain new insights and talk with different producers. On Fridays, we finished the last of our weekly tasks and spent the afternoons asking questions and taking turns giving presentations about agricultural topics. Saturdays were free, and the farmers’ market took top priority on Sunday.

The classroom topics matched the projects in the field. After a lesson on compost, we built our composting system out of reused wood pallets, and we drove the tractor after our talk on tillage. Studies focused on different methods of irrigation right when the heat of summer hit. We covered cover crops while broadcasting a variety of grass and legume mixes onto the bare portions of the field.

Cooperative efforts

The eight of us had to work together to manage the field, so we made a schedule. We might be in charge of weeding one week and answering e-mails and phone calls from customers the next week. Changes in the field and the environment prompted constant learning and adaptation. Low fertility, cabbage root maggot and a cold summer were just a few of the issues endured. But this was our year, and sometimes as farmers you have to solve problems on the fly and adapt to the conditions. It was another real-world lesson: In farming, there are always things out of your control. As the days grew shorter and the season moved on, each of us became more efficient; we were faster weeders, quicker pickers and smarter farmers.

Thankfully, the focus wasn’t always solely on production, which allowed us to participate in a variety of projects with several other organizations and businesses. Sebastian landed a seed-growing contract with High Mowing Organic Seed Co. We grew 45 pounds of organic Golden Frill mustard seed for High Mowing to sell in its catalog. The Organic Seed Alliance chose us to be one of its field sites for variety trials with the Northern Organic Variety Improvement Collaborative. The trials tested size, shape, color, taste and vigor of different varieties of sweet corn, butternut squash, snap peas, broccoli and carrots. We also hosted a seed-saving workshop, grew grain for our personal use, and experimented with more than 20 tomato varieties, trying to find the most suitable one.

In addition to farming and classroom curriculum, each participant reported once a month on a book of his or her own choosing. This way, everyone didn’t have to read One Straw Revolution or Growing Great Garlic to reap the benefits of the wisdom within the pages. Each student also completed three research projects. Topics covered everything from starting a goat dairy to growing barley and hops for beer brewing to pastured poultry options. I researched shiitake mushroom production and beekeeping, agricultural ventures that interested me but weren’t covered in our curriculum. It wasn’t a matter of getting college credit; we were benefiting our futures and ourselves.

Stepping into the future

Our third and final research project was to write a business plan. On the recommendation of our program director, Alan and I wrote our plan as if it were eight to 10 years in the future. Our plan includes the essential information included in any business plan: vision, mission, values, goals, strategies to meet those goals, desired income, estimated labor hours, a market analysis, marketing strategies, cash-flow spread sheets, and crop plan. We created a living document that we’ll edit and modify as time goes by and our lives change. As for now, I’m confident this is something we could actually take to the bank.

So, what now? On the program’s website, the Greenbank Farm Training Center’s staff states, “Our goal is to have participants acquire the skills and knowledge to confidently enter the growing field of sustainable agricultural producers.”

Alan and I got what we wanted: the knowledge to start a farm business and the farming skills to succeed. Certain realities are required to operate a small-farm business, and we have stopped fantasizing about what our life could be like out on the farm. Instead, we are taking action and working toward our goal.

We’ve moved home, to northern Wisconsin, where we want to raise a family and grow food. We rent a house in town, and plug away at jobs to save money so we can someday have those 10 acres in the country.

For now, we are making connections in the community, getting to know other farmers, and I’ve joined the local beekeeping group. Alan has been getting friendly with the folks at City Hall, checking on the laws relating to keeping chickens in the city.

Next year, we won’t provide even half of our family’s income by being farmers, but that doesn’t mean we won’t grow food for our family and our community. We are looking into leasing small plots of land. My hive boxes are on order, and I have placed my bees on hold. Alan is planning to set up a small produce tent near the local gas station, possibly collaborating with other growers. It’s a small start, but we’re one step closer to our dream.    

Grit Blogger Alison Spaude-Filipczak is a woman with a clear vision of where she’s headed. Visit the Greenback Farm Training Center online at the Northwest Agriculture Business Center’s website at www.AgBizCenter.org/node/45.