Students gain hands-on experience in small-scale farming
Part-time Portland program focuses on organic urban setting
BY PATTY MAMULA
For the Capital Press
PORTLAND -- Some farms require hundreds of acres, but a unique course offered in Portland allows its students to "farm" in the city.
Called the Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship, the partnership between Multnomah County and Oregon State University Extension combines formal and hands-on training.
"BUFA provides the lowest rung of entry for people without skills to get into agriculture as a career," Weston Miller, lead instructor from the extension's Urban Horticulture Department, said.
"We've received hundreds of requests from people interested in small-scale farming, as small as one-quarter acre, and others interested in managing community and school gardens," he said. "So, we put together a boot camp-style training with hand-scale tools and horticulture to give participants a good slate of skills and knowledge of how to create a business plan."
The eight-month course is in its second year and extends over the growing season from April to November. The 2011 pilot program had 17 participants. Up to 30 people will be selected from the 47 applicants for this year's course.
Participants attend classroom training one evening a month and field trips one Saturday a month. They get hands-on experience at two different sites.
On Tuesdays they work on intensive 100 square-foot plots and learn about hand-scale gardening at the Learning Gardens Lab in southeast Portland. They grow vegetables and cut flowers and manage berries and tree fruit as well as perennial landscapes. The harvest is divided among participants and this year they will practice direct sales by working at two local farmers' markets.
On Thursdays they work at the CROPS (Community Reaps our Produce and Shares) site in Troutdale. This four-acre garden raises produce for the Oregon Food Bank, growing more than 15 tons of organic vegetables last year. Dan Bravin, one of the BUFA lead instructors, manages the site for the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability.
The complete program requires about 600 hours, and some participants choose the option without field training that involves 125 hours.
"I learned about proven ways to increase yields, fight pests and just generally manage small-scale vegetable production," Beth Martin, a graduate of last year's course, said. "I plan to utilize the skills I've learned and information I have access to in expanding my current vegetable/herb garden, as well as to create a small CSA-type model for interested clients in my nutritional therapy practice."
Nathan Hoover, another graduate who wanted to learn how to supplement his seasonal tour guide income, said, "I gained a network of friends and fellow farmers. I acquired probably more hands-on knowledge than I would have gotten working on a farm for a full season, and it was offered in a comprehensive and organized way and most of all I found my confidence and passion for farming."
Ideas for using his new expertise include getting involved in his neighborhood's urban agriculture committee, starting a small eight-member CSA, helping others develop productive gardens and offering walking tours themed on urban agriculture and local food security.
"This part-time program is specifically for organic small scale and urban settings. We encourage people to think of it as a sideline," Miller said. "We want people to continue to build their skills, to work for someone else or to start small scale with low risk. We're trying to keep people from getting in over their heads."
The instructors' salaries basically cover funding for the program. The calculated cost per student for the program is the same as tuition -- $3,000. The option without the field training is $1,200. Scholarships are available.