Getting a good farming education these days is a challenge.
While many universities offer degrees in conventional agriculture,
most degrees are specialized and don't afford the broad base of
knowledge and skills needed to farm well.
The university approach is science based. Although it includes parts and
pieces of what a small farmer needs, it is more oriented toward the farmer
who's interested in large-scale production. For those of us who value
tradition, moderation, and simplicity, the university may fall short.
In 1995 I finished a four-year program at Warren Wilson College
Swannanoa, North Carolina. The college's roots are in farming, as it
evolved from the Asheville Farm School for boys. Warren Wilson offers
majors in the classical disciplines. Each student is required to work 15
hours a week and to complete 80 hours of community service prior
Students farm a good part of the 1,000-acre campus, with its 150 head of
beef cattle, 300 head of hogs, plenty of corn and pasture, a 5-acre organic
garden, and a large woodlot. Students also do carpentry, electrical work,
plumbing, and other jobs to keep the campus going.
Warren Wilson offers a degree in Integrative Studies, in which a self-
motivated student may develop a theme that may be best explored from
various perspectives or disciplines. By contrast, the usual university
approach is to study a subject from the perspective of a single discipline,
such as science or agriculture. The course work chosen by the Integrative
Studies student must support the chosen theme, as articulated in the
student's proposal. The course work culminates in an extensive thesis.
Most people would consider my degree to be non-traditional, even though
its contents celebrate the tradition of farming. The title of my Integrative
Studies degree is "Good Farming." It includes science-oriented classes such
as Plant Propagation and Plant Biology complemented by such classes as
Environmental Ethics and Philosophy of Technology.
During one semester I worked on horse-powered farms, gaining the skills I
would need to integrate horses into my farming plans. I had some
experience with horses and some experience farming. Both are important for
someone wanting to learn how to farm with horses.
Since driving is only part of farming with horses, my apprenticeship included
much more than learning to drive. I needed to learn how to weld, how to
repair machinery, how to castrate pigs, and various other skills. Those who
enter into an apprenticeship should not assume they are engaging in an
intensive driving clinic. Those who expect constant instruction can pay their
money like the rest.
The farmer who takes on an apprentice must make a livelihood and
therefore must benefit from the apprenticeship. The apprentice must expect
to shovel manure (which strengthens the spirit) and participate in all the
other mundane tasks necessary to keep a farm going.
If I had seen only the romance of farming with horses, my attitude would
easily have been perceived by the apprenticing farmers. If I had gotten a
position anyway, I would have been disappointed and would have caused
confusion in the apprenticeship situation. The farmer and I could have
worked through it, but it would have been more challenging.
When I became certain that I wanted to apprentice to a horse-powered farm,
I began planting seeds anywhere I thought they might bear fruit. I needed
my apprenticeship to work out, so I made it happen. I had to be assertive,
always wondering if I was bothering folks or putting them out. Some people
had never given the idea much thought, but left the door open. Others were
certain they could not accommodate an apprentice.
Gradually I began to receive hopeful letters and calls. My seeds were
sprouting. I followed up with calls and letters, and finally settled on the
situations that would best fit my four-month semester. I would start early
and drive out to Minnesota in time to make hay and tip oat shocks.
Then I'd move on to New Hampshire for a couple of months, and finish up
at Sterling College
, a small school in Northern Vermont that offers a
draft horse program.
My apprenticeships taught me a variety of approaches from different
farmers. I learned about horse-powered technology and how it can fit in
modern agriculture. The apprenticeships broadened my knowledge base in
general and gave me a historical context for agricultural technology.
Today I co-manage the Warren Wilson College Farm, a 275-acre mountain
farm consisting of 100 acres bottom land and the rest in permanent hay and
pasture. We have a cow-calf herd of 75 cows and a sow herd of 25. We
market our beef and pork in the local area and sell custom mixed feed from
our corn, wheat, and barley. We also maintain a small laying flock for egg
sales. Our most important crop is students, who learn the good work of
arming and perform the daily tasks that keep the farm running smoothly.
To anyone who is searching for a farm to learn how to work with horses,
I offer this advice:
Learn how to farm first so you'll have some basic skills to offer. The elements in
horse farming are the same as in tractor farming. Most horse-powered farms
also use PTO and hydraulic power. The farmer/apprentice relationship must be
mutually beneficial — the farmer will provide room and board in exchange
Know the situation you are entering. Often it will be a family situation, where
flexibility is a must. If you don't easily get along with people, maybe an
apprenticeship isn't for you. Otherwise, ask questions about food and housing,
the farm, and family interests. Ask with open curiosity, not with critical
judgement. Expect spartan quarters and bland meals and maybe you will be
surprised with royal treatment.
If you really want horse-powered farming skills, you will make the sacrifices necessary to get them. If you love hard work and want the skills, folks out there are willing to help you.
of Asheville, North Carolina, is the inspiration behind the
Good Farming Apprenticeship Network. He wrote this article for the
issue of Rural Heritage
. In subsequent issues he described the
apprenticeships he underwent to complete his degree in Good Farming from
Warren Wilson College.