Farmer group helps beginners learn the ropes
Mentors pass their knowledge to new organic growers
By STEVE BROWN
An aspiring young farmer needs two things: skills and land.
Sno-Valley Tilth, a group of organic farmers in Washington's Snoqualmie Valley, are finding ways to provide both.
"It's the local farmers themselves who have the knowledge base for what these young people need," Erick Haakenson said after Sno-Valley Tilth's second mentoring get-together in as many years. It brought in about 30 interested people.
Last year, he said, four people started farming. Two are still in it.
"We're just one small, little valley," Haakenson said. "It's comes down to local people helping young people. If we create two new farmers every year, in 10 years that's 20 new farmers in this valley."
Haakenson said he's at the top of the bell curve in the nation's aging-farmer trend. At 59 years old, he's got a lot of practical life experience. "When you get to this age, it's not just about another crop, but an interest in how to pass the knowledge along."
The mentors are a locally driven effort to provide one-on-one relationships between experienced farmers and those who are ready to "make the jump," he said. "It's different from interning. We're going for a segment interested in farming, those who are right on the cusp."
Another difference: These are people who will be working the land themselves, starting their own independent farm. Once the initial connection is made, Haakenson said, most advice is passed along by phone or, if there's no emergency, by e-mail. "The mentees, I guess you'd call them, understand I've got a farm to run, too."
Since Sno-Valley Tilth is all local people, "We know where the land is." The group works to match beginning farmers with land, and several landowners have gotten involved.
"You don't need much acreage for direct marketing," he said. "Someone who owns five acres of bottomland just in grass might be interested in having it farmed, especially people who are getting an agricultural tax deduction for land that is now fallow."
Haakenson said it's not only young people who are ready to make the jump into farming. "We're also connecting with people older than I expected. They're tired of the work they're doing."
Farming isn't like other industries, where successful tactics are often held closely and there's little interaction with competitors, he said. "People say, 'Aren't you cutting your own throat? Revealing your secrets?' I don't have any secrets. Everybody needs to eat."
Haakenson predicted that the global economy will be cut back by the increasing cost of fuel, developing local economies and lowering the cost of food. "The more farmers there are, they all flourish," he said. "If we develop our little valley, it helps everyone."
Washington FarmLink will sponsor a land-seeker and new farmer workshop from 4-8 p.m. May 2 in Everett, Wash. The event also will be webcast.
Information and registration (by April 25): http://cascadeharvest.org/
A landowner workshop is scheduled for May 16.