Farm Advocacy Attorney Reflects on the CASFS Apprenticeship Program


Written by guest blogger, Neil Thapar, 2012 CASFS Apprenticeship Program graduate and attorney focused on agriculture issues.

The shorter days and cooler nights of fall remind me that the year is coming to an end. As the planting season winds down, this is a time for reflecting on the past year and planning for the one ahead.

For the 35-40 apprentices who just completed the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food System’s (CASFS) Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture at UC Santa Cruz, this past week vividly marked that transition. After six months of “farming boot camp”, where they each lived, worked and learned both the theory and practice of small-scale, capital-S sustainable agriculture, the apprentices have graduated as its newest class of proponents, practitioners and advocates.


Work day at the farm

As a graduate of the program myself, I feel both a sense of excitement and anxiety for this year’s graduates as they leave the peace and tranquility of the UCSC Farm and Chadwick Garden and enter their uncertain, yet fulfilling futures. As much as I’d like to believe it, the sustainable agriculture job market just isn’t the biggest one out there. Trust me, I’ve got personal experience. But it is growing. Thanks to a whole lot of movement building, awareness raising, and myth busting, a slow but seismic shift away from the current industrial model is making more and more room for a new economically viable, environmentally sustainable, and socially just food system.

CASFS is one of the organizations responsible for some of that progress. The flagship apprenticeship program is dedicated to the incredibly important mission of growing the next generation of food growers – the foundation upon which the sustainable food movement will stand.  And, as much as the small farm movement is growing in some areas of the country, there are still simply not enough people growing food, let alone sustainably.

Not only that, but farmers in America are also getting older. As they approach retirement age, farmers who want their land to stay in production need to have a pool of young, competent growers to choose from. But, with strict labor laws for commercial farms operating on-farm training programs for interns and volunteers, grooming a successor is becoming increasingly difficult. This is why I believe that the apprenticeship at CASFS is such an important piece of the puzzle. As a farm dedicated to experiential education, the apprenticeship offers future farmers a practical, skill-based opportunity to begin developing some of the muscle memory that makes them marketable to sun-setting farmers who are looking for replacements.

I began the apprenticeship open to the idea that I might become a farmer myself. Perhaps I would join that pool of farmers who would continue the work of those before me. Having just become a licensed attorney after spending the majority of my life in a southern California suburb not ever planting a thing in my life before I arrived at the farm last April, my path to becoming a farmer would have been unusual, if not unique.

Instead, my experience as an apprentice rooted in me a desire to support and advocate for all those whom I began to identify with, as I cultivated, planted, irrigated and harvested during my six months on the farm. As a CASFS apprentice, I was able to meet with farmers (shout out to Darryl Wong who hosted a field trip to Freewheelin’ Farm, and is now the Farm Site and Research Lands Manager at CASFS), migrant workers, food businesses, and urban community gardens – each a key component in a new food system I was beginning to imagine. CASFS emphasizes not only the practice of environmentally sustainable agriculture, but also encourages apprentices to become agents of social change.

As I think about all the places this year’s apprentices will return to, empowered and ready to work, I am grateful that a program like the apprenticeship at CASFS exists. Each new graduate of the apprenticeship program becomes a part of the sustainable food movement and creates a small tremor in that seismic shift towards a viable, sustainable, just food system. So whether or not we can celebrate the end of the government shutdown, we can celebrate the 35-40 newest apprentice alumni who represent CASFS’ continuing legacy as a driving force supporting the spread of sustainable agriculture.

If you’re interested in learning more about the CASFS Apprenticeship Program, visit their website and find information on the curriculum, application deadlines, tuition, financial aid and more.

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