Jonny Steiger got a chance a few years ago to learn about farming firsthand and decide if it was the life for him through an Oregon program designed to “grow” a new crop of farmers to feed Americans.
“There’s a looming crisis in our farming community where there are not a lot of young people farming,” said Stu O’Neill, executive director of Rogue Farm Corps. “Young people aren’t growing up on the farm anymore.”
The average age of farmers in the United States was 57.1 years in 2007, the most recent federal data available, said Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Both the Oregon average — 57.5 years — and the Lane County average — 57.6 years — were slightly higher than the national.
Rogue Farm Corps started its FarmsNext program to address the need for fostering a new generation of farmers and ranchers.
The program, which offers hands-on training and classes in sustainable agriculture for aspiring farmers and ranchers, has proven so promising that it has expanded to Lane County, with a South Willamette Valley chapter starting up. And it is getting requests to expand to other parts of the state.
Steiger, 33, decided after his internship that farming was indeed the life for him. He and his partner, Tyson Fehrman, 30, today lease an 87-acre farm near Jacksonville and are themselves mentoring others through the FarmsNext program.
“We are training people who want to do what we are already doing,” Steiger said. “We’re training our own competitors.”
In Lane County, Organic Redneck in Leaburg, Berggren Farm near Walterville and Deck Family Farm in Junction City are all signing on to the nonprofit Rogue Farm Corps’ internship program. Each will host one or two unpaid students, who get training, a place to live and meals as well as a $400 monthly stipend in exchange for their full-time labor.
Students in the program also can earn college credit for their internship, although enrollment in an institution of higher education is not a prerequisite of the program, which takes between 1,200 and 1,500 hours to complete, O’Neill said.
FarmsNext has a 2014 budget of about $120,000, O’Neill said. The program is funded through a series of grants, private donations, tuition fees from students and membership fees from farmers, he said.
Each student pays $1,500 in tuition. Farmers in the Rogue Valley pay $1,000 per year, O’Neill said, but first-year farms in Lane County will be subsidized by another nonprofit organization, Cascade Pacific, which is helping with the expansion into Lane County.
Cascade Pacific secured a $25,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust that will cover a part-time employee, transportation costs for program instructors and a contract with Rogue Farm Corps, Cascade Pacific’s Jared Pruch said.
A Rogue Valley farms internship program has been around in some form since 2004, when it started off informally, O’Neill said.
“In 2010 we hit a point of change,” he said. “It became apparent the informal nature of it was running up against the realities of labor laws.”
The program unintentionally broke labor laws in such areas as paying hourly wages and carrying workers compensation insurance, he said. So organizers worked with the state Bureau of Labor Industries and the state Department of Agriculture to come up with the model it now uses; O’Neill said he is confident that its practices would hold up in a court of law.
That extra layer of legal protection is one reason Deck Family Farm in Junction City signed on, said Christine Deck, who owns the farm with her husband, John Deck.
The Deck farm, which sells organic, pasture-raised meats, usually has four or five unpaid interns. It plans to accept one or two interns from Rogue’s program.
FarmsNext’s curriculum includes visits to other farms and some classroom style teaching, which appealed to the Decks, Christine Deck said, in large part because it would allow all the farm’s interns to avail themselves of the learning opportunities, she said.
The program “fits well with what we are trying to do, which is rebuild the farming economy,” Deck said. The effort includes teaching young farmers the nuts and bolts of business, such as showing them how to price their food based on the cost of raising it.
Deck said that, in the nine years they have been in business, they have seen many other ranchers come and go because they set their prices too low. They ran out of money and lost momentum.
“We are constantly getting assaulted by underselling,” Deck said, adding that fair pricing is at the core of their sustainable business practices. “It’s a little selfish.
“I’d like (interns) to see the real reality. ... You do what you love to do because you are passionate about it, but if you don’t have business skills you won’t last long.”
O’Neill said the program last year received 80 applications from prospective students and had nine positions to offer. This year, the program will accept up to 20 students, and O’Neill said in coming years the program is on pace to double each year.
Steiger said he is a big program supporter not just because he is grateful for what he received, but also because he believes in its philosophy.
The number of commercial farms has been decreasing since World War II. The current trend is more very large farms and small ones that don’t support family farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
Steiger said he believes small farms can be workable, rather than having a food system that relies on large-scale farmers who each grow one crop. Sustainable agriculture and permaculture rely on crop diversity and soil health, he said.
It also will become increasingly important in the future for farmers to grow food as close as possible to where it will be consumed, he said.
“Moving out here it was eye opening to find out how much work it takes to grow food that people eat.... It was nice to see you didn’t have to go big or go home,” said Steiger, who moved to Oregon from Wisconsin.
Until the interns arrive, only Steiger and Fehrman live on their land, which they took over from retiring farmers. They use tractors to till fields and machines to bale hay, but other than that it’s manual labor.
They save seeds, plant in trays, plant seedlings out in fields, pull weeds and move above-ground irrigation pipes, among the constant stream of tasks associated with organic farming. Right now they have cabbage, kale, chard, salad greens and oca tubers growing.
Both once served at fine restaurants, but Steiger said while this lifestyle involves much hard work, it’s less stressful.
“We’re not farmers to be rich; we are farmers because we want a rich lifestyle.”