In 1965, CBS aired a successful comedy called “Green Acres” that told the story of a successful New Yorker, Oliver Wendell Douglas (played by Eddie Albert) and his wife, Lisa (played by Eva Gabor), as they tried to become farmers. For six seasons, we followed their missteps On TV, it was funny; in real life, no so much.
Fortunately, for residents in the Southern Appalachian region, the Organic Growers School (OGS), now in its 30th year, is available to support farmers at all levels. Whether you have never planted a single crop or have an ongoing farming business, OGS has as program for you.
For those with no farming experience, the entry point is the Farm Dreams program. This year the workshop will be presented virtually on Nov. 9 and in person on Feb. 12, 2022.
Another entry point, The Farm Beginings workshop, was chosen by Stephanie Vinat and her husband, Jeremiah Batla.
“We had left our finance jobs in Los Angeles in 2017 and had spent two years traveling the world. We were introduced to permaculture while traveling in Costa Rica. It was through permaculture that we decided that we wanted to start our own farm and learned about the biodiversity of Western North Carolina. We were in Little Switzerland searching for a home and land in the area when we saw a posting in a restaurant for the Farm Beginnings workshop. My husband and I are both 2020 Farm Beginnings graduates. We also have attended two OGS spring conferences in 2019 and 2020.
“I knew farming in theory prior to my involvement with OGS. I had business experience from my previous career in finance, a certificate in permaculture design, and some gardening experience. I am now a full-time farmer and OGS certainly helped to bridge the gap,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie’s farm is called The Appalatin Farmstead, and it is located in Marshall, North Carolina. The website is theappalatinfarmstead.com.
Stephanie went on to say that “The OGS spring conferences are two of the best learning experiences of my adult life. The speakers and content are interesting and relevant. There is a wide variety of learning opportunities. I would recommend the OGS Spring Conference to hobby, aspiring and professional farmers. The Farm Beginnings program is ideal for new and aspiring farmers. It was a one-year commitment that prepared us for farming full time. The Farm Beginnings program provided us with access to excellent resources, inspiring mentors and the fundamentals of running a farm business.”
Olivia and Rocky Ramos got involved with OGS through the Farm Beginnings workshop and have since attended the spring conference and their Fall Harvest conference.
“We also participated in the CRAFT Network and the Apprentice Link Network,” Olivia said. We also took their Cuba trip. Their events are always well run and worthwhile, and the networks are very important to connect with other growers.”
Today, Olivia and Rocky run the Soil Shine Farm and Ferments located in Yancey County. They make value-added fermented products like sauerkraut, kimchi and seasonal pickles from the crops they grow. Their products can be found at the Yancey County Farmers Market every Saturday, as well as many retail locations in Yancey County, Mitchell County and Boone.
When asked if there was a particular OGS class that she would recommend, Olivia said, “All of their programs really complement each other to meet folks along their farming/gardening journey. Their Homestead Dreams course seems to share the reality of farming to the interested beginner. I would start there if I weren’t sure yet about farming as a career. Then I’d recommend finding an apprenticeship through Apprentice Link and joining the CRAFT network for more production training. And when you’re really ready to be the boss, which is a huge jump from being an apprentice, I’d highly recommend Farm Beginnings for the business start-up phase.”
From Apprentice to Farmer
Not everyone enters the OGS world through classes. Erica Fernbach and Karl Brandstaetter own and operate Seven Oaks Farm in Rutherford County and are in their first year of full production.
They both learned about OGS from working on farms that are part of their WNC CRAFT network.
“As apprentices working on separate CRAFT-member farms, we were each able to tour many other farms in the area, as well as attend OGS farming conferences and workshops. Karl also completed Farm Beginnings in 2019,” Erica said. “We had many years of combined farming/growing experience before moving to Western North Carolina, but participating in OGS tours and workshops and working on CRAFT-member farms helped prepare us to start our own farm in this particular area/climate. We would both strongly recommend apprenticing on multiple farms for multiple seasons to anyone interested in pursuing a career in farming.”
Erica and Karl met while working on separate CRAFT-member farms. They both attended a CRAFT tour at Belflower Farm in 2019, which helped provide the catalyst for eventually leasing land from the Belflower’s to start their own vegetable farm in 2020. They are now in full production.
“OGS programs can provide so much more than just technical knowledge and information,” Erica said. “They also create invaluable opportunities for networking, and cultivating friendships and community.”
When you are ready to get some hands-on experience, click on Apprentice Link https://organicgrowersschool.org/farmers/apprentice-link/, a tool that connects people who are serious about learning the sustainable farming trade with farmers who are willing to teach them in an apprenticeship stetting.
For those with at least one season of growing experience, the Farm Beginnings program is a yearlong training program that is part of a national collaborative. The program’s goals are to train the next generation of farmers in the many skills required to start and expand a successful farm business.
For more experienced farmers who want to improve and expand their farm business, there is the Journeyman Program, another yearlong program that provides advanced training opportunities and mentorship with well-established farmers in the region.
Both the Farm Beginnings and Journeyman Programs are currently accepting applications for the 2021-2022 class. Applications are due Sept. 18. Scholarships and other funding opportunities are available.
For those looking for support but not a formal training program, OGS offers mentor services that match people with a well-established farmer in the region for either 15 or 30 hours of mentorship.
The WNC Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmers Training (CRAFT) network brings together established farmers, farm apprentices and aspiring farmers for yearlong training in the art and science of sustainable agriculture.
For more information on the Organic Growers School, a registered 501 ©3 organization, visit https://organicgrowersschool.org.