New apprenticeship program creates pathway for organic vegetable farmers to train and retain skilled workers

Kelsey Adams
Apprenticeship collaborators, including Julie Dawson and Claire Strader, at the Spring Green Kick-Off event on Aug. 29, 2018.

The principles and practices of farming are best learned as one would learn any other skilled profession: through experience and training by experts in the field. But recent demographic trends tell a different story.

Nearly 75 percent of aspiring farmers under the age of 40 did not grow up on a farm, antiquating the traditional tale of knowledge transfer from experienced farmers to beginning farmers — an echoing theme amongst undergraduates in today’s classrooms.

“Students wanted to know where they could find positive internships and training opportunities for hands-on learning,” said Julie Dawson, University of Wisconsin-Extension horticulture educator and UW-Madison assistant professor of horticulture. “This really brought out the need for a more comprehensive training program. We don’t expect other skilled trades to learn their profession on their own, so it doesn’t make sense for farmers to have to do so.”

The new Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Registered Apprenticeship program responds to these needs by providing accessible, hands-on training for beginning farmers who wish to pursue a career in organic agriculture. Inspired by the success of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship — the first registered agricultural apprenticeship in the country — the program was developed through a collaborative effort involving organic farmers, the Department of Workforce Development, FairShare CSA Coalition farmers, UW-Madison and UW-Extension.

“Apprenticeship is an excellent fit for vegetable farming because so much of how we learn to grow food — is by growing food,” said Claire Strader, UW-Extension Dane County organic and small scale produce educator.

Informal internships and apprenticeships in organic vegetable farming have been around the United States for decades, yet established farmers struggle to find reliable, skilled farm workers to meet the fast-growing demands of the organic food market. Currently, many farms train employees through a variety of informal, non-standardized training methods.

This new apprenticeship fills an educational gap that is often a barrier to farmworkers who wish to pursue a career in organic agriculture. The program is the first of its kind in the nation, combining formal, on-farm experience with coursework delivered through the Wisconsin Technical College System.

“The classroom is the place where apprentices will be able to dig into concepts that are harder to learn in the field, concepts that will support and expand their on-the-job training,” said Strader. The two-growing season training follows a competency-based curriculum, carefully crafted with extensive input from farmers and other agricultural educators from across the state.

Dawson and WTCS instructor Valerie Dantoin worked closely with two farmers to develop the course curriculum, which makes up about 10 percent of the program. Apprentices spend the remaining 90 percent in the field learning how to do every task an organic vegetable farm manager will need to do. Participants who complete the program are then ready to step into managerial roles, often on the farms where they apprenticed, or potentially start a farm of their own.

The program was reviewed and approved by the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards on June 1, 2018. Dawson believes the formal recognition of the training as the first state-accredited apprenticeship for organic vegetable farming in the United States is extremely valuable.

“Right now, it can be difficult for beginning farmers to articulate what they have learned in various internships and jobs,” explained Dawson. “A formally recognized program tells employers, loan officers, etc. what graduates know how to do,” she continues. “This will facilitate better job opportunities and better access to capital, land and other valuable resources.”

The program is leading the way to position future farmers for long-term academic and economic success. Since its early-June approval, several other states have shown interest in developing a similar apprenticeship program. The group is currently seeking federal recognition of the apprenticeship materials with the Department of Workforce Development, which would make them available to other states.

About fifty people gathered in Spring Green to attend the kick-off event held on August 29 to learn more about the program, celebrate the first farmer-apprentice pair, and take a tour of the organic farm site, Fazenda Boa Terra.

Down the line, Dawson, Strader and their teams will be involved in assessing – and improving – the program, including checking-in with apprentices and farmers on a regular basis, collecting formal evaluations of the program, and compiling feedback that can help guide program improvements.

To find out how you can be involved as a farmer-educator or an apprentice, visit at