The next crop of organic farmers needs careful cultivation

The next crop of organic farmers needs careful cultivation


The Wall Street Journal this summer called it A Gap in the Organic Food Chain.”

The article by reporter Mark Peters began, “The Farm Belt isn't going organic fast enough to keep up with surging consumer demand, forcing makers of organic foods from milk to deli meats to look abroad for key commodities while struggling to recruit skeptical farmers at home.”

As every farmer knows, to harvest the crop, you’ve got to sow the seeds.

I thought about that this year as I made my annual trek to the National FFA convention in Louisville, Ky., earlier this month to encourage students to consider careers as bison ranchers and marketers. The 56,000 high school students gathering for three days in their blue corduroy jackets are only part of the equation. Accompanying those students are hundreds of adult sponsors, most of whom serve as the high school vocational agriculture instructors.

Those instructors are the mentors who help nurture the budding interest that students display for a career path in agriculture. Those instructors primarily come from a background in conventional agriculture. And, Monsanto, Dow and the other agribusiness giants flood those instructors with materials designed to sweep students along a similar path.

Where should the future of farming be headed and what resources are needed to get there?

But a significant number of those instructors would love to offer their students a glimpse into some alternative career paths, including organic production. So, this year, I asked them what support they needed to recruit those the next generation of farmers.

“Curriculum” was the common thread through most of the comments.

Brett Saunders, the vo-ag instructor at Montrose (Colorado) High School told me, “We have a lot of items to pick and choose from, but we need good curriculum that shows how they can make money.”

James Messiet, the ag instructor at Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton, Vt., noted that the technical studies are often being compromised in the rush to focus more on the core curriculum of math and science. “With the new math and science standards in our state, we need good material. If we aren’t careful, tech programs will be left behind.”

The vo-ag instructors need more than simply canned curriculum. They need mentors in the classroom, and in the field.

Tom Murray, the advisor at North Linn High School in Troy Mill, Iowa, said, “You have to have the curriculum, but you also need someone who knows the business. It’s very difficult for me to teach something that I’m not familiar with.”

Rachel Wethennton of High Springs, Fla., added, “We are a very low-budget program. We don’t really have any land around our school, so our garden is very small. We would love to have a farmer donate some acreage, and work with our students.”

Yup, every farmer knows that you have to plant the seeds before harvesting the crop. They also know that every crop requires careful attention before it reaches maturity.

Vocational ag teachers daily tend the fields where the future crop of farmers and ranchers are maturing. The titans of conventional agriculture are readily fertilizing those fields. How about the leaders in the organic food business?

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