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Growing people who grow

Kansas City, Missouri – If you’re an aspiring aggie, or want to plow your entrepreneurial energy into organic farming, the market is ripe. An example of the growing demand for organic food producers is the Growing Growers program, which trains and places future farmers in an apprenticeship program on farms in the Kansas City area.

The program was created by the region’s graying organic farmers as they began looking for the next generation of producers to replace them. The founders believe the best way to learn about farming is from farmers, through hands-on experience and informal training.

The idealistic dream of “I’m gonna retire to the farm and make a little pocket money selling organic vegetables” meets the “mud, sweat and fears” of real life on the farm. The goal is to shorten the learning curve for new farmers who can train and fast track into the organic farming business in one growing season.

Success of the 3-year-old program is based “on whether the apprentices go on to start their own farms. Out of last year’s apprentices, several have started their own small operations,” says Katherine Kelly, Growing Growers program manager. Additional information is on the Web site at www.GrowingGrowers.org.

“Some of the applicants like the idea of farming better than the reality,” Kelly says, “and this quickly becomes clear when they interview with the farmer for the apprenticeship position.”

It’s not just the fear of E. coli in spinach or the attraction of locally grown food that drives this trend to organics. Census figures indicate that the traditional family farm is disappearing in America. But niche markets, small organic gardening operations, are growing.

The number of organic farmers has increased steadily by rates of approximately 20 percent per year for more than 10 years, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Consumer demand for locally grown foods, for knowing where their food comes from and how it grew, makes organic an attractive economic option to many new small farmers. In 1994, there were fewer than 3,000 certified organic growers in the United States. In 2006, the number burgeoned to approximately 10,000 certified organic producers.

Organic food producers are selling to natural food stores, major supermarkets and direct to consumers through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and farmers’ markets. Many restaurant chefs across the country are demanding locally grown organic produce because they want superior quality and taste.

“My personal observation is that the demand for organic food is outstripping the supply. That does not mean that consumers can’t find products labeled organic on the shelf, nor does it mean that small organic farmers are making enough money to get by. It means large players like Wal-Mart are entering the organic food business and are buying large quantities of products at low prices. The domestic supply is insufficient, so they source from overseas,” says Organic Volunteers Director Ethan Schaffer.

Organic Volunteers is the largest internship program for organic farming in the country. Their primary goal is to train the next generation of organic farmers. Schaffer quotes a member to highlight how people use the program to become farmers:

“I found my first organic farm to volunteer at (Genesis Farm in New Jersey) through you in 2005. I worked again at an organic CSA this season (Brook Farm, New Paltz) and will go to a third next season before starting my own in 2008 (hopefully!). You made it easy for me to find the starting point of a huge change in my life,” says Organic Volunteers member Veronica Santo.

According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, the majority of small farms sell produce within 100 miles of home. Word of mouth is the small farmer’s strongest marketing tool. Reassured by talking directly to growers, shoppers are buying organically certified food with confidence.

To learn more about organic certification and organic production, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service is a starting point. The Web site is www.ATTRA.org, or call the toll-free number, (800) 346-9140 (English) or (800) 411-3222 (Español). ATTRA publications include information on sustainable farming internships and apprenticeships.

Published on May 1, 2007

Grit Magazine

Live The Good Life with GRIT!