The Apprentice
It’s not just a way to trump up cheap labor, says Brookfield Farm’s manager, but a committed partnership that requires a real investment from both farmer and student.

By Dan Sullivan

August 31, 2004: To study the history of Brookfield Farm on the outskirts of Amherst, Mass., is to chart the course of the CSA movement itself. The third community supported farm ever to be established in the U.S.—following in the footsteps of two relative neighbors an hour’s drive away to the west and northeast—the CSA struggled economically from its mid-’80s beginning but thrives today due to sound management and a renaissance among the eating public for healthy, local food.

Under the ownership of the nonprofit Biodynamic Farmland Conservation Trust since 1987, the farm’s mission to “create and support responsible agriculture” is carried out in no small part by educating new farmers through an intensive apprenticeship program. The alumni roster of this total immersion into small-scale farming reads like a Who’s Who of sustainable agriculture: Don Zasada, director of agriculture for The Food Project ; Jenny Hausman, CSA manager for Appleton Farms; Paul Bucciaglia, owner of Fort Hill Farm, to name a few.

So what makes this apprenticeship program so successful?

“I think responsibility is the key,” says Casey Steinberg, assistant farm manager and veteran of the organic farming apprenticeship circuit (including right here at Brookfield Farm).

“I’ve always felt valued and appreciated here,” says Steinberg. “I think it’s common for apprentices to report being taken for granted…that all they did was hoe all day. Here, apprentices are given a significant amount of responsibility.”

Illustrative of that philosophy is the farm’s tractor policy. “Each apprentice is assigned a tractor, explains Steinberg. “That tractor is theirs. They learn how to take care of it, and any job that the tractor does is theirs.”

In a world where having trainees can be a liability as far as maintenance costs, Steinberg says, one user per tractor actually keeps those costs down.

“There’s a difference between being under worked and your skills being underserved,” says Steinberg. “If you’re only asked to do nominal tasks, you’re not going to invest in the place.”

Other novel perks of Brookfield Farm’s apprenticeship program, Steinberg says with just a hint of sarcasm, include hot water and electricity.

A CSA is born

Brookfield Farm’s CSA began in 1986 with 55 member households and 4 acres under production. Today, 25 vegetable-producing acres fulfill 520 memberships at $400 each. Do the math, and that’s just $218,000 to cover salaries, apprentice stipends and all other operating costs.

“That’s it; that’s all there is,” Steinberg says, fielding a question during a recent farm tour.

Well, not quite.

The first capital campaign in the farm’s history was launched in June 2003 and raised $150,000 in just 6 months; the money is being used to build a new barn and renovate existing structures. The overwhelming success of the campaign speaks to the less-tangible side benefits shareholders receive inside each brimming box of vegetables or stroll into the popular pick-your-own section of the farm.

“This farm provides health care for the community as well as for the farmers,” says former Brookfield Farm apprentice and one-time assistant manager Sue Wasseluk. “The CSA model brings people out here to experience the farm; it’s their farm, too.”

After apprenticing for two years and working as assistant managing for another two, Wasseluk went back to college in order to explore whether or not another career path was even an option. “I conclusively determined, hell no,” she says, her hardy laugh intoning a mixture of excitement and resignation.

“To me, this work is tangible…It’s all about how you want to spent your time and live. Do you put in the hours to make money to buy things to support yourself, or do you let the actual work be what supports you?”

Like many young people drawn to this type of farming, Wasseluk speaks about the pull of sustainable agriculture in terms of a deep calling or vocation.

“It’s not for everybody,” she concedes. “In our modern condition, there are so many choices. You don’t have to do this, and why would you want to, unless you felt like you really needed this on some level?”

Wasseluk is part of a growing contingent of young farmers brand new to agriculture who are discovering intrinsic value in a bygone way of life even as it’s being largely rejected by the sons and daughters of traditional farming families. That she and her contemporaries are going against the tide is not lost on her.

“I only hope there are enough newbies to keep the land in production instead of being developed,” she says.

This fall, Wasseluk is headed to Italy with her backpack to “stomp on some grapes” while touring small farms there. “I just want to see how the things I like to eat are grown,” she says. “That’s how farmers go on vacation—they go work on other people’s farms.”

A model program

Word has gotten out that one of Brookfield Farm’s most consistently successful crops is competent organic farmers. Consequently, vying for the three spots for apprenticeships—which run April 1 to Thanksgiving each year—has become more competitive. (There’s also a long waiting list for farm shares.)

“Frequently, out of three places, only one comes up in a year,” says Dan Kaplan, farm and apprenticeship program manager since 1995. “Most stay for more than one year, depending on how much experience they had before they got here.

“Because of the size and focus of the farm, we tend to be able to select people who are somewhat further down the road. It’s not like we’re looking for all entry level—I like to take maybe one. I think it’s kind of a self-selective group.”

Apprenticeship at a Glance

Brookfield Farm: Amherst, Mass.

Time commitment: April 1 to the day before Thanksgiving (most apprentices stay on more than one year; partial-season apprenticeships not considered).

Work schedule: Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-5 p.m. (1-hour breaks for breakfast and lunch). Saturdays until noon. Rotating chores with other apprentices every third weekend.

Compensation: $500/month stipend, housing, farm produce, weekday lunches at farmhouse, full health insurance, comprehensive knowledge on how to run an organic farm.

Other perks: All apprentices encouraged to take part in CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program. In order to broaden their experience base, interns from participating organic and biodynamic farms in the Northeast gather at a different farm one day every other week for a farm overview and topic-specific workshop.

To apply: Send a letter of intent and resume to Brookfield Farms info@brookfieldfarm.org, 24 Hulst Rd., Amherst, MA 01002, C/O
Dan Kaplan. (One to three spots open up each year.)

For more information: www.brookfieldfarm.org/appr_details.html

Kaplan’s advice for anyone wishing to turn in an application? Do so early.

“If you don’t talk to me by November, you usually don’t get hired. It’s first come, first served.”

What Brookfield Farm’s apprenticeship program is decidedly not, says Kaplan, is a way to recruit cheap labor. Both farmer and apprentice invest time into developing all the skills necessary to become a farm manager, he says. This means skill building across a wide range of tasks—from soil preparation to harvest, tractor work to hand cultivating, administration to marketing—and playing an active roll in the evolving experiment that is the essence of organic farming, not just developing a few skills efficiently as might be the approach in a typical farmer/laborer relationship.

“You can’t learn to run a small farm in agriculture school,” Kaplan says, visibly proud of the program he’s spent nearly a decade fine-tuning. “We can pretty much get people in and out in three years; many have become very successful.”

Like his right-hand man Casey Steinberg, Kaplan’s own wide range of experiences as an apprentice, both good and bad, have helped shape the farmer—and mentor—that he is today.

“The big thing, I think, is the fact that I was an apprentice; that’s how I learned how to be a farmer. I like having apprentices, and it does play to my strengths. In order to be a good teacher, you’ve got to be able to deal with people and all their crazy crap.”

It also helps to have the support of a foundation firmly committed to educating a new generation of ecology-minded farmers, he says.

“Apprenticeships fit with this farm’s mission as a nonprofit: to use the resources of the nonprofit to educate people in all aspects of sustainable, biodynamic agriculture. These apprenticeships are a great way to meet that mission.”

There’s one major drawback to such a successful program, Kaplan says, well within earshot of his crew.

“I can’t get them to leave; they don’t want to go…and that is a little bit of a problem. I can’t give everybody a job.”

Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.