Planting the seed for new farmers
Aluna Michelle has plans for the three acres she rents in Medford. Over there in the freshly tilled beds, she’ll plant berries. By the greenhouse, she hopes to grow herbs. She’ll sell her produce at a farmstand by the railroad tracks. Near a gulley, she’d like to create hedgerows for beetles and pollinators. And that fence over there may one day be hidden by thornless blackberries.
The former grant writer and environmental educator moved from Florida to Oregon to work this farm, called HappyDirt Veggie Patch, with her business partner, Matt Suhr. She had some experience farming already but wanted to learn more about the local conditions. So she contacted the small farms program at Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center.
[caption caption="Through classroom and hands-on courses, the Oregon State University Extension Service helps agricultural greenhorns decide if the farming life is for them, what they should do with their land, how to grow fruits and vegetables, and how to market them."][/caption]
Now she’s a self-described “Extension junkie.” She started with Extension’s six-part Growing Farms class for aspiring farmers. At the same time, she enrolled in Extension’s Master Gardener training to polish her green thumb. When summer rolled around, she found herself planting vegetables at OSU’s research farm in Central Point as a student in Extension’s seven-month Growing Agripreneurs program.
“It was a bit of a crazy year with all those classes,” she said.
The Growing Farms and Growing Agripreneurs trainings are just two of the courses offered by the southern Oregon arm of Extension’s statewide small farms program. Through a series of classroom and hands-on courses, the program helps agricultural greenhorns–like retirees who’ve bought a few acres and ambitious Generation Xers and Yers who are looking for back-to-the-land vocations–decide if the farming life is for them. They’re asked to ponder serious questions: Are you willing to go out in freezing weather and break ice on the water trough or help deliver a newborn calf? Do you like to mix your personal life and work life? And what happens if someone gets sick from your product? The nascent farmers also learn what they should do with their land; how to raise fruits, vegetables, and livestock; and how to market their goods.
Offerings include an evening class called What can I do with my Small Farm? That’s followed by a four-week class called Exploring the Small Farm Dream that teaches people what it takes to start and run a farm. About 80 people have graduated from it in the past five years in southern Oregon, said Maud Powell, who coordinates the small farms program in Jackson and Josephine counties.
Graduates are then eligible for the Growing Farms class, which is also offered online. About 150 people in those two counties have completed the in-class version since 2007, she said. Graduates can then sign up for the Growing Agripreneurs course, which includes farm tours and mentoring and has produced about 20 graduates. Extension also started southern Oregon’s League of Women Farmers networking group.
Powell and her staff have also taught or helped organize classes on hiring labor, managing pasture, extending the growing season into winter, and raising goats and poultry. In addition, they address farmers’ concerns via phone, email, and farm visits. Inquiries have ranged from how to set up a farmstand to how to control weeds. They also hosted information sessions for growers on how to apply for federal grants to acquire greenhouses.
Thanks to that, Aluna Michelle now has a greenhouse on her farm. Michelle is grateful for how the small farms program hooked her up with the greenhouse, but more than anything, she’s appreciates the connections that Extension has helped her form.
“It encourages people to share knowledge and to support each other,” she said. “That’s just one of the reasons that I’m so appreciative of the Extension Service.”