New Farmer Training Seeks To Boost Ranks Of Food Producers

Jan 16, 2015

New farmers Jon Steiger and Tyson Fehrman -- graduates of the Rogue Farm Corps' hands-on farmer training program -- on their 87-acre farm in the Applegate Valley.
Credit Liam Moriarty/JPR

It used to be that if your parents were farmers, you became one, too. And eventually you passed the family farm down to your children. These days? Not so much. In fact, the average American farmer is nearly 60 years old, and young farmers aren’t coming up in nearly the numbers needed.

Now, a non-profit in Oregon is running a two-year hands-on course to train aspiring farmers in everything from seeds to livestock to reading a spreadsheet.

JPR went to southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley to visit a farm couple starting their own operation after graduating the course.

Jon Steiger tosses buckets of sprouted grain to his nearly 200 free-range chickens. They press against the fence and jostle each other to get to their breakfast.

Steiger explains that the hens get a lot of their nutrition from picking around for bugs and seeds in the soil.

JON STEIGER: “Chickens are one of those things where, what you put in them is immediately the product you get out of them. So the better they eat, the better the eggs. And if you’re at the farmers market and you’ve had our eggs, our yolks are bright gold, and that’s what people like.”

In addition to eggs, Steiger and his husband Tyson Fehrman have several cows they milk, as well as a few pigs and beef cattle for meat. They’re also building a small creamery, with plans to expand the dairy herd and make artisanal cheeses.

Both men grew up on farms in Wisconsin. In fact, Steiger’s family runs a 1,400-acre dairy operation with 700 cows.  But, he says, that’s not the kind of farming he and Fehrman wanted to do on their 87 acres of hilly pasture land.  

JON STEIGER: “On a small scale was really the direction we wanted to go. It was determined by the land. You can only put so many animals on the land before you start to run it down.”

That concern for taking care of the land is a key part of the ethic behind the Rogue Farm Corps training program. Farm Corps director Stu O’Neill says, “The foundation of farming is good soil. And so we’re trying to create a system where that’s the first and foremost responsibility for the stewards of the land. Farmers are stewards of the land.”

O’Neill sees the aging of America’s farmers as just part of a larger picture. O'Neill says, “In the next 10 to 20 years, about half of American farmland is slated to change hands. And what is going to happen to that farmland? Who is going to take over that farmland? Is it going to be consolidated into mega-industrial farms? Is it going to be paved over for development? Or is it going to go into the hands of young farmers who are growing food for their local and regional economies?”

By training that next generation of farmers, O’Neill says, groups like his can help steer agriculture in a healthier direction.

There’s apparently no shortage of people who think they’d like to be farmers. In fact, the Farm Corps program is meant in part to be a reality check for would-be farmers who grew up in cities or suburbs.

MEGAN FEHRMAN: “We have sort of a slogan that we say: Crushing Hopes and Dreams Since 2004.”

Megan Fehrman is Education Director for Rogue Farm Corps. She’s also Tyson Fehrman’s sister and lives here on the farm with Tyson and Jon.  She says the program – which has students living and learning on working farms – gives them a warts-and-all experience of the life they’re setting themselves up for.

MEGAN FEHRMAN: “There’s a million things that can happen before you have your coffee in the morning. And you just kind of always have to be on your toes and ready to take on challenges you didn’t see coming. So if you don’t have that flexibility, this is really going to be a hard occupation for you.”

Steiger and Fehrman say they’ve had their share of those frustrating days. But they say the rewards are also great.

JON STEIGER: “Most of that occurs at dinner. We eat really, really well.”

TYSON FEHRMAN: “You know, we’re also our own business owners. We get to work outside at our own pace. There’s a quality of life about it.”

The couple is so sold on the value the Rogue Farm Corps training had for them that they’re preparing to take on a student of their own this spring. Rogue Farm Corps director Stu O’Neill says that spirit embodies the essence of the project: to rebuild rural communities that are based on stewardship of the land.

STU O’NEILL: “And everybody plays a role. Whether you’re just making your food purchasing choices at the grocery store or the farmer’s market. When you support your local farmer with your dollars that money stays in your community and helps rebuild the vitality of that whole community.”

The Rogue Farm Corps has expanded its programs to Portland, central  Oregon and the south Willamette Valley. The group has graduated nearly 100 farmers from its program since it began in 2010, and hopes to train up to 35 more starting this spring.