Apprentice program helps budding local 'farmers' get down and dirty
Call it 'Green Acres,' Portland style. On a two-acre parcel in Troutdale, a new Multnomah County program is teaching former computer engineers and other city slickers how to become farmers.
They're not going back to the farm, like rich New Yorkers Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in the TV spoof. They're learning to bring farming back to the urban area.
During eight months of study in the Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship program, 13 students are learning the rudiments of organic farming. They get down in the dirt twice a week at the county's Troutdale farm and the Learning Gardens Laboratory in Southeast Portland, which is led by veteran instructor Weston Miller. Then they exchange their overalls for twice-a-month lectures at the county commissioners boardroom in inner Southeast Portland, where they study marketing, how to create a business plan and other technical subjects.
The idea for the program grew from the county's Food Action Plan, a 15-year strategy by the county Office of Sustainability to promote locally grown and healthy food, among other goals.
Multnomah County lost 21 percent of its farms in the five years prior to 2007, and 17 percent of its cultivated farm acreage, according to the most recent federal data.
The average Multnomah County farmer is 58, and many family farms have nobody willing to carry on the family business.
County leaders hope to reverse some of those trends, especially given the growing 'locavore' appetite for fresh, locally produced food.
'This is an amazing program,' says Matt Phillips, taking a break as the class plants red peppers at the Troutdale site.
Phillips, 35, a former Intel engineer, hopes to make a living by doing small-scale organic farming in urban backyards, selling to a regular corps of subscribers via a Community Supported Agriculture program.
Kazunori 'Kaz' Otomo, 37, a former software engineer, grew up in Japan, where his grandmother was a rice farmer. Otomo's dream is opening a business growing specialty Asian vegetables. 'I'm using this program to see if I'm really up to what I think I want to do,' he says, while dropping fertilizer into holes as the red-pepper starts are planted.
One of Phillips' and Otomo's classmates has already planted hundreds of blueberries on a plot of land. Another classmate is an herbalist who hopes to grow specialty herbs.
Mulnomah County is partnering with Oregon State University Extension on the internship program, and using a curriculum pioneered by the University of California Santa Cruz farm program.
Dan Bravin, who worked in small-scale farming for five years, coordinates the county program.The county saw a gap in training for people to do the type of small-scale intensive farming that is well-suited for organic and urban farming, Bravin says.
Not surprisingly, a program devised by the county sustainability office preaches organic farming.
'We don't use herbicides and pesticides, and we only use organic fertilizers,' Bravin says.
Someone working just one acre can gross as much as $100,000 raising organic fruits and vegetables, he says, citing numbers used by the small-plot intensive or SPIN Farming method. 'You have to be skilled at marketing, and you have to be a skilled grower to see that kind of return,' Bravin says.
He sees the price gap between organic and traditionally grown food narrowing in coming years, as the supply of oil drops and oil prices rise. Petroleum is used to make many farm chemicals, and for shipping produce around the world.
Though Bravin admits the nutritional value of organic foods isn't noticeably different, he's concerned about the environmental impact of all the chemicals used in modern agriculture.
'We do a lot of damage to aquifers, our underground water, by pouring herbicides and pesticides on the fields,' Bravin says. 'When I say pouring, I'm not exaggerating; they pour it on.'
Mainstream farmers feed plants, he says, while organic farmers learn to feed the soil.
The ultimate goal is to get more people farming in Multnomah County, Bravin says, and the program hopes to encourage participants to acquire land or gain jobs on farms to continue their education.
Learning to be a farmer can easily take three years or more, he says.
Like the TV farmer Oliver Wendell Douglas and folks in his adopted home of Hooterville, there's a bit of a culture gap between the new urban farmers being trained by Multnomah County and mainstream farmers. But that gap may be narrowing, as mainstream farmers see a profitable - and growing - niche for local organic foods.
'We're fine with all this,' says Barry Bushue, a third-generation farmer in Boring, and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
However, he says, it would have been nice, if Multnomah County wanted to land more jobs for local farmers, if they talked to the Farm Bureau before launching their program.
And it would be helpful, Bushue says, if the county really wants to promote access to locally grown food, if it wouldn't put up so many regulatory and costly barriers to farmers doing roadside produce stands.
Yet Bushue, 61, whose family owns Bushue's Family Farm in Boring, lauds the county for doing the internship program. Finding the next generation to run farms is a concern to many in the field, he says, including his own family.
While many mainstream farm groups aren't purists when it comes to using chemicals, many see the value in local farmers markets, U-pick operations and other ways to connect urbanites to their nearby food source, he says.
Bushue's son is experimenting with growing organic food on part of his farm. All farmers are trying to adopt more sustainable practices, he says.
Brent Searle, special assistant to Oregon Department of Agriculture director Katy Coba, says there are fewer training programs these days for young farmers. He laments the loss of Future Farmer of America programs in many high schools, and budget cuts to OSU Extension over the years.
Searle cautions, though, that many idealistic people enter farming with unrealistic ideas of what it takes. 'It's a tough way to make a living, and it's very risky,' he says.
As noted in a brochure Searle prepared for people considering the field, you need to be an entrepreneur to enter farming, and a lot more: 'Throw on top of this passion and business responsibility, the unpredictability of weather, the constant appetite of insects, the threat of disease and fungus, the temperamental nature of soil, the intricacies and fickleness of mechanized equipment, the tedious long days of physical hard labor, and the vacillating preferences of consumers about food, and you have the need for a person with a very high tolerance for risk, dirt and manure!'
Multnomah County farming in decline?
• Number of farmers in Multnomah County, 2002: 710
• Number in 2007: 563
• Acres farmed in Multnomah County, 2002: 34,329
• Acres farmed in 2007: 28,506
• Average age of Multnomah County farmer, 2007: 58.2 years old
• County farm and ranch sales, 2005: $78 million, 14th-highest among Oregon counties
• In 2010: $57 million, 23rd-highest
• In 2007, Multnomah County had the 11th-highest nursery sales of any county in the nation, and ranked 35th-highest in acreage planted in berries
• In 2007, 424 of Multnomah County's farmers were male; 139 were female
• For 254 of them, farming was their primary occupation
• 369 of the county farms had sales less than $10,000
• 38 had sales of $100,000 to $249,000
• 18 had sales of $250,000 to $499,000
• 28 had sales of more than $500,000
• So, You Want to be a Farmer? A Quick Guide to Getting Started in Oregon:
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture; Oregon Agricultural Information Network, OSU Extension; Oregon Department of Agriculture