When most job applicants say they have experience “in the field,” they don’t actually mean tilling, seeding and harvesting the land. For a group of aspiring farmers in Northwest Arkansas—this is exactly the resume they are building.
“In many professions, they say you need 10,000 hours to become an expert,” says Heather Friedrich, program manager for the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food at the University of Arkansas. “When you become a farmer, you can go ahead and double that,” she jokes of the varied roles the profession takes on, from soil scientist to business manager to marketing professional. “Anyone can throw some seed out. But if you want to make a living, the right training is an absolute requirement.”
At the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food, the field is the classroom. It’s where the center trains new farmers and supports existing ones through a tiered offering of hands-on coursework, local apprenticeships and advanced extension programming.
The goal? To continue Arkansas’ legacy of fruit, vegetable and livestock production by preparing the next generation to carry on these traditional livelihoods.
The Center for Arkansas Farms and Food is a regional partner of Northwest Arkansas Food Systems, an effort by the Walton Family Foundation to grow more local food and get it into the hands of local people.
Farmers, after all, are an essential component of a vibrant local food system. But as established farmers prepare to retire, and land becomes more expensive, this heritage is disappearing, contributing to the loss of both local farms and generational knowledge.
During the pandemic, however, the reality of the unseen pressure on our food supply chain became evident for the first time in most Americans’ lives. Many basic necessities were located too far from consumers.
“As farmers age and food production becomes more concentrated, there is a deficit that we need to be preparing for,” says Heather. “Growing local food plays a really important role in having a secure food system.”
To get there, the center meets students of all experience levels where they are and builds on their skills through beginner, intermediate and advanced coursework.
The center’s Farm School is the first step for those interested in farming but who have little or no experience. At a cost of roughly $2,000, the comprehensive program runs for 11 months at the university’s farm research station in Fayetteville. It is now accepting applications for its inaugural fall 2020 class.
The program combines experiential learning with core knowledge classes in market intensive and mechanized agriculture, production, business and legal issues. Students gain an in-depth understanding of what it takes to begin and sustain a successful farming operation.
“They create their own crop and business plans, and we give them the tools to successfully implement it on their own land,” says Heather.
For students with some experience, like Frank Ostapowicz of Clinton, Arkansas, the center’s apprenticeship program matches each student’s areas of interest with local mentor farms.
Apprentices learn and work alongside successful farmers, getting a taste of “farm life” before embarking on their own business.
Frank has long had an interest in the connections between how growing, cooking and consuming the right kind of food can serve as an act of self-care—and care for the planet.
He studied horticulture at the University of Arkansas before a stint in Hawaii, serving farm-to-table cuisine at a local restaurant. The experience sparked a renewed joy in cooking and growing food. Shortly after, Frank returned to Arkansas and enrolled at Brightwater, the culinary school at the NorthWest Arkansas Community College.
“The local farmers in Hawaii produced such healthy, vital food for their community. I want to give people here that same experience of eating something that was harvested right where you live,” says Frank.
He has set his sights on farmers market-scale production for now, producing high turnover crops like greens and herbs on an acre of land.
Through the center’s apprenticeship program, Frank is gaining critical experience in the field at two area businesses—Appel Farms, a “U-Pick” fruit and vegetable operation in Springdale and dH Farm in West Fork, an integrated produce and pasture-fed poultry, sheep and hog operation.
“It’s given me a better perspective on time management, and what I need to do every day to spread myself around the farm to make it be successful,” says Frank of his internships. “It’s doable, as long as you put the right amount of energy and effort in.”
Finally, for existing farmers in the area, the center offers cooperative extension programs to help experienced farmers expand and scale their businesses and learn new growing practices.
Through Farm School training, apprenticeships and more, Heather believes the center is creating fertile ground for a vibrant future local food system.
“When students are done with us, they will still have relationships with their instructors and the farmers they have worked with,” she says. “It’s a ripple that begins in our farm community and extends right onto consumers’ plates.”