By Polly Shyka
Nearly 25 years ago, Chellie Pingree apprenticed herself to Tony and Mary Bok and their farm in Midcoast Maine. This “dynamic and wonderful” student in her senior year at College of the Atlantic went on to design the Apprenticeship Program that has been a mainstay of MOFGA’s educational outreach for over two decades. It is no wonder that the diversity and vitality of a family farm inspired an experiential program that still thrives today.
Thrive it does, as Rosey Guest, the present program coordinator, attests. In each of the past five years, over 100 applications from apprentices and nearly 50 from farmers have been received. Farmers and apprentices put their needs and offerings on the table in the form of an application to the program. Rosey orchestrates an application swap between farmers and apprentices through the mail. Then the farmers and apprentices agree upon the duration and nature of the apprenticeship experience and commit to the match. The beauty of the arrangement is that no situation or experience is “typical.” Apprentices can choose from a veritable buffet of farm systems, thus gaining proficiencies in areas such as orchard health, vegetable farming, medicinal herb culture and use, and livestock and dairy animal care. The breadth of offerings is a direct reflection of the skills and knowledge held by MOFGA farmers.
The concept of apprenticeship grew out of the craft guilds of the Middle Ages. In those days, apprenticeships usually lasted seven years, with the master providing room and board as well as teachings about the tools and tricks of the trade. Today, the word ‘apprentice’ is rigidly defined by Federal and State Labor Departments, and farmers and their organizations are even advised to opt for the words ‘intern’ and ‘trainee’ instead. The basic exchange, “labor for learning,” as it has been put by MOFGA’s Apprenticeship Committee, is the understood, common denominator of apprenticeships and internships. Most farmers include room and board and a living stipend in their offerings.
Since the program’s inception, MOFGA farmers have exposed over 500 apprentices of varying ages to the workings of their farms. I can think of nearly two dozen individuals who were once MOFGA apprentices and are still actively involved in Maine agriculture in its myriad forms. Many more, however, have left Maine and perhaps even their agricultural aspirations behind. A great challenge lies in retaining more of these bright, agriculturally-minded and skilled people so that they may be the stewards and farmers of Maine’s tillable acreage in the coming decades.
A Journeyperson Program, designed by MOFGA’s Education Committee, will offer a logical “next step” for aspiring farmers who have some agricultural experience but are not yet prepared to buy and build their own farms and businesses. This exciting new opportunity that dovetails with the Apprenticeship Program is taking form this spring as a hands-on, MOFGA-sponsored program. Journeypersons will acquire advanced agricultural skills through experience and will design own their course of study. They will take part in monthly workshops on core concepts common to any farm system – site analysis, soil health and farm economics – lead by MOFGA staff and certified growers.
The workshops are only one segment of the program. Journeypersons, if they are not already living on farms, will be matched with farmers who have an interest in working with and mentoring advanced students of agriculture. Each farmer-journeyperson team will draft a learning contract that delineates the skills and proficiencies that the journeyperson seeks. The host farmer will sign on for those skills that she or he can teach, and an additional farmer will become part of the journeyperson’s “personal committee” to provide complementary training. A member of MOFGA’s education committee and MOFGA’s Executive Director will also serve on each journeyperson’s committee. The committee will not evaluate the journeyperson, per se; instead the program will culminate in a business plan that reflects the facets of each journeyperson’s agricultural goals and interests. The business plan will not only help refine the journeyperson’s vision but will also be an invaluable document when approaching lenders and in tracking the efficiency and growth of the farm system.
The Journeyperson Program exchange goes beyond “labor for learning.” It represents a substantial investment by each participant, including MOFGA, in the future of sustainable agriculture. The farmer-advisors will enjoy not only skilled labor but also a level of commitment, direction and initiative from the journeypersons that is rarely found in apprentices and farm workers. (Thanks to several grants that MOFGA has received, the farmer-advisors will actually be compensated for their contribution of time and expertise.) Farmer-advisors will benefit from better trained and skilled farmers, and MOFGA hopes that these new growers will go on to become certified growers and land stewards.
In its first year, the Journeyperson Program will take three to five participants. As the Unity Common Ground Fair site matures, the modern homestead will be a host farm for one or two program participants. For aspiring farmers, this program will foster the advanced skills and knowledge that are the foundation of vibrant and healthful farm systems.
About the author: Polly has been an apprentice and an (untitled) Journeyperson on several MOFGA farms and now serves on the MOFGA Board. She lives in Union with a bred heifer, some chickens, a lot of seedlings, and her partner, Prentice Grassi. She and Prentice are looking for farmland or farming situations so that they can both work full- time as growers. Polly is also working in Knox County with three agencies to start a mentoring program that matches youth from the Correctional System with qualified adult mentors in ongoing, one-to-one relationships.