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Training Farmers for the Twenty-First Century

Mary Ellen Donaldson

Who will produce our food? As organic products have captured a greater market share, the rise of industrial-scale organics has lead to massive consolidation and greater organic imports from China and Mexico. Although we recently exported organics, now imports exceed exports eight to one (USDA 2007). However, despite the trend during the 20th Century for our food to travel greater distances, this century may be heading for a model that is distinctly local and less energy intensive. An increasing number of disenchanted consumers are voting with their shopping baskets. As a result, "local is the new organic." The Organic Trade Association reports that the organic market is somewhat cooling in expansion from 20 percent per year, to 16 percent in 2005.

What's happening? With more imports of fruits and vegetables - and fewer people seeing the necessity for organic certification - organic farm acreage is not expanding (Phillpott, 2007, Grist), while local farms around urban centers are. Portland exemplifies this trend, with an apparently similar situation occurring in Thurston County. Consumers are choosing personal relationships with their farmer, as well as a less-developed landscape.

The Evergreen State College has a 35-year history of training students in ecological and organic agriculture - the small farm model. The Practice of Sustainable Agriculture (PSA) program not only stresses production of vegetables, but also diversification with animals, which are now recognized as critical to small-scale sustainability. Marketing, record keeping, and business planning round out the PSA training.

Students move to internships and then on to managing their own farms. The Ecological Agriculture (or Eco-Ag) program strives to develop a holistic perspective, and to foster agricultural-systems thinking with a scientific base. Out of this program, one Ecological Agriculture alumnus, Colin Barricklow, started a Tumwater favorite: the Kirsop Farm.

In addition to farming - after completing the Eco-Ag or PSA programs - some students move into positions in food justice and social development. For example, Saralynn Finn, a former Eco-Ag student, is currently the volunteer coordinator at Left Foot Organics. From the same Eco-Ag class as Barricklow, Ego-Ager Blue Peetz, in cooperation with Kim Gaffi, started the non-profit organization, Garden-Raised Urban Bounty (GruB) in an Evergreen community development project. This year, Eden Vardy, a Food Program student, is involved with The Foodshed Project aimed at developing a food cooperative brokerage for local organic products in the Olympia area (see Andrew McLeod's article in this issue).

The Portland Peak Oil Task Force published its official report last month, which explains that food prices will rise as we approach the end of using fossil fuels for food transportation, "further straining the ability of low-income households to put food on the table." What is the Task Force's advice? "Act Big and Act Now." The Peak Oil Task Force lays out the skills and action steps - the same skills that Evergreen nutures in its sustainable agriculture students - to transition away from the present oil-driven food system, and to move towards sustainable urban and rural communities that vie for local food from neighboring gardens and city farms.

The farmers of tomorrow are learning from Evergreen's mentored and community-centered agriculture programs to reconsider the independence of the farmer of old. Instead, the farmer of the 21st Century can rely on tools of engaged citizenship and community building, resourceful direct marketing, communicating with policymakers, stepping into leadership roles that "build the public will, community spirit and institutional capacity" (Peak Oil Task Force, 2007) to promote resounding resilient sustainable communities.

Mary Ellen Donaldson studied life sciences at Cornell University and the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine before graduating from Evergreen with a degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development. She plans to move to Portland, Maine June 1st to dedicate herself to making a difference in her home state.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22