By Jordan MW
It didn’t take long for me to learn that I wasn’t alone in being drawn to organic farming by big ideas surrounding the food movement, yet I was surprised with the frustration that some farmers had with this trend of people flocking out of cities high on idealism with little to no experience. I heard stories of WWOOFers and apprentices expecting there to be a broad swathe of interesting farm related experiences to be had, and being shocked at the monotonous, fast paced, dirty and sometimes ethically challenging nature of the work. The more conversations I had, the more stories I heard of struggle, for both farmers and students of farming. This made me wonder why learning about organic farming seems so complicated in these early stages, and how big ideas continue to pull people into this messy but intensely satisfying career. Is there a way to keep idealism alive and well while being open and honest about the nature of the work? Is there a way to develop fair, helpful and accessible learning experiences that work for both farmers and students of farming? I think so, but it’s different for everyone and is dependent on who they are and what they’re looking for. There are so many corridors that can be explored, and as the growing season approaches, it’s good to know some of the options out there.
Developing a healthy idealism — reading, workshops, courses, certificates, conversations, dreaming.
It’s important to be excited about what you’re getting into. The clearer that you are on what you want, the more rewarding the experience becomes. Look up the closest organic market, permaculture group, urban agriculture project, and see what people are saying, what they’re reading and what moves them. This will give a good idea of the buzzwords that’ll lead you to learning resources (is it permaculture or biodynamics? CSA or community garden? apiary or aquaculture? homestead or urban ag?). Look at bulletin boards and facebook groups for workshops, events, conferences, certificates and courses. These are great places to further develop ideas of what you’re interested in. Keep reading and planning and dreaming about what you’d like to see and learn about. If you imagine a fantasy food project that you’d want to grow, it likely already exists somewhere and may be a resource for you to draw knowledge and experience from.
Cultivating experience — volunteering, work stays, apprenticeships
Learning to farm can take a long time, and this is okay. Some people have a knack for farming and can start their own project after a single apprenticeship, but what’s more common is a longer, slower learning trajectory. If you’re on the fence about farming, and overall enjoy your life in the city (or are really bound with commitments), keep developing relationships with urban projects and communities. Volunteering is really valuable and can give one a taste for the work without being too laden with expectations.
However, if you’re itching to go all in, I’d suggest to start making plans and maps of food projects and places that interest you. For the rookie farmer, timing is everything. I’d suggest looking for a gap in your life of at least 3 months around the growing season to do farm touring by bike, bus, or car. In Canada, the growing season can start as early as March – usually on the west coast – but is more commonly May-October. It’s great to do plenty of farm-visits and short term work-stays to see what interests you and what’s a good fit. WWOOF international provides a platform that can turn this into an adventure. Don’t forget that Canada, USA and other northern hemisphere WWOOF organizations provide opportunities for March-October, while New Zealand, Australia, and other southern hemisphere WWOOF organizations provide opportunities for October-March. Most WWOOF organizations offer off-season work, but it’s substantially harder to find hosts.
Apprenticeships offer a more intense learning experience, taking on more hours and greater expectations, usually with room and board and a monthly stipend (aka a monthly flat rate gift-payment on top of accommodation and food). I highly suggest to do lots of volunteer/ room and board work stays first to get a feel for different kinds of projects, and eventually move into an apprenticeship that looks promising based on the experiences you’ve had. This is unless you know what you want, and feel comfortable with hard manual labour, being outdoors 8-12 hours a day, living away from a city and familiarity for 6 months. Honestly, some people can jump into apprenticeships with little to no problem, but I’m glad I was eased into an apprenticeship by first doing lots of WWOOFing. This isn’t to knock farming apprenticeships at all, my experience as an apprentice was intense but unspeakably valuable. To find farming apprenticeship programs, a quick google search of organic farm apprenticeships plus the part of the world you’d like to learn about will help you find one.
It’s important to note that one can never learn how to master organic farming, they can only keep learning how to adapt to the land, the workload of different seasons, the environment, the community, and marketing one’s product. One last point to make is that there’s nothing wrong with being an apprentice a familiar farm for multiple seasons, as building relationships with a farm that’s a good fit is a win-win situation for all involved.
The subtle middle ground — work, philosophy, complexities and advice
Get ready to get down and dirty with decaying produce, bugs, manure, water, weeds and rocks. Get ready to meet amazing people, have great conversations, and see different ways of living. Get ready for a 12 hour day of chaos, a sore back, aching joints, and being corrected time and time again for doing it all wrong. Get ready to eat food that you grew yourself, enjoying the simple pleasures of cooking and transforming food into delicacies.
Can one be fully prepared? I don’t think so, but the biggest things are patience, communication, and appreciation. Don’t rush, keep the adventure alive and take in as much as you can, wherever you are. Don’t blame a farm for not offering what you’re looking for – keep looking for what you want and go for it wholeheartedly. Be open about your hopes in learning – most hosts will find a way to accommodate one’s passion. Plan ahead – a month to 90 days ahead is wise – and commit for 2-6 week initial stays when WWOOFing… you can always return to a host that’s a good fit. Accept your hosts’ critiques of farming as wisdom to be considered, but keep on dreaming. Get to know the bigger picture; articles about working on organic farms and troubling aspects of worker protection and compensation help illuminate why farming education, apprenticeships and work stays need to be talked about, and how they play into the broader field of a burgeoning but struggling field of organic farming.
Enjoy the quiet. Unplug. Learn to play crib. Appreciate what’s present and start noticing what it’s like to live and eat seasonally on farms. Further, try to stay aware of what you’re being drawn towards. There’s lots of important roles to be played in the food movement from production to distribution to education. I’ve found farming to be quite introspective and meditative, so even if you drop out of farming, it’ll inform what you do next, adding humility, a new work ethic, new stories and new relationships to your life.
Farming is a rewarding path, but it’s good to be ready for some of the challenges, and to know that there isn’t really one single right way to go about learning. It’s easy to get lost in idealism and it’s easy to be discouraged by the work, but with hands in the ground and head in the sky, it’s a worthwhile adventure.