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Young farmers cultivated through internship program

Bend Bulletin

EUGENE — Jonny Steiger got a chance a few years ago to learn about farming and decide if it was the life for him through an Oregon program designed to “grow” a new crop of farmers to feed Americans.

“There’s a looming crisis in our farming community where there are not a lot of young people farming,” said Stu O’Neill, executive director of Rogue Farm Corps. “Young people aren’t growing up on the farm anymore.”

The average age of farmers in the United States was 57.1 in 2007, the most recent federal data available, said Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The Oregon average — 57.5 — is slightly higher.

Rogue Farm Corps started its FarmsNext program to address the need for fostering a new generation of farmers and ranchers.

The program, which offers hands-on training and classes in sustainable agriculture for aspiring farmers and ranchers, has proven so promising that it has expanded to Lane County, with a South Willamette Valley chapter starting up. And it is getting requests to expand to other parts of the state.

Steiger, 33, decided after his internship that farming was indeed the life for him. He and his business partner, Tyson Fehrman, 30, today lease an 87-acre farm near Jacksonville and are themselves mentoring others through the FarmsNext program.

“We are training people who want to do what we are already doing,” Steiger said. “We’re training our own competitors.”

In Lane County, Organic Redneck in Leaburg, Berggren Farm near Walterville and Deck Family Farm in Junction City are all signing on to the nonprofit Rogue Farm Corps’ internship program. Each will host one or two unpaid students, who get training, a place to live and meals, as well as a $400 monthly stipend in exchange for their full-time labor.

Students in the program also can earn college credit for their internship, although enrollment in an institution of higher education is not a prerequisite of the program, which takes between 1,200 and 1,500 hours to complete, O’Neill said.

FarmsNext has a 2014 budget of about $120,000, O’Neill said, and is funded through a series of grants, private donations, tuition fees from students and membership fees from farmers.

Each student pays $1,500 in tuition. Farmers in the Rogue Valley pay $1,000 per year, O’Neill said, but first-year farms in Lane County will be subsidized by another nonprofit organization — Cascade Pacific, which is helping with the expansion into Lane County.

Cascade Pacific secured a $25,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust that will cover a part-time employee, transportation costs for program instructors and a contract with Rogue Farm Corps, Cascade Pacific’s Jared Pruch said.

A Rogue Valley farms internship program has been around in some form since 2004, when it started off informally, O’Neill said.

“In 2010 we hit a point of change,” he said. “It became apparent the informal nature of it was running up against the realities of labor laws.”

The program unintentionally broke labor laws in such areas as paying hourly wages and carrying workers compensation insurance, he said. So organizers worked with state agencies to come up with the model it now uses.

Click here to read the original story from the Bend Bulletin.