Learning To Farm-The Ecological Agriculture Training (EAT) Cultural Center Way
So, as many of you know, in addition to operating Windy River Farm, I also run the Ecological Agriculture Training and Cultural Center. The EAT Center is a program of Five Keys Schools and Programs and serves as a gathering space where long-time, new and beginning and prospective farmers come together to learn, share and celebrate all things “Small Farm.” We offer a 10-month wisdom-based, science informed small farm apprenticeship where students combine classroom delivered theory with farm-based hands on practice. We provide in depth one day workshops and help local farmers and ranchers sell and distribute their products.
One thing I hear over and over is “you can’t teach someone to be a farmer,” and at first, I fought that notion. Mostly, because it damaged my pride and questioned the value of what I spent much of my time doing. Over time I have come to accept and even agree with the idea that you cannot teach a person to be a farmer.
Being a farmer or rancher takes a special kind of person. It requires determination, dedication and adaptation. Patience is a crucial element. It demands that every time you get knocked down, you get back up. It takes heart. Those things can’t really be taught, however, they can be learned. Some of us were lucky enough to have those traits instilled in us early in our life and others have the opportunity to acquire them as adults through experience and mentorship.
What can be taught, are practices that lead to good farming. We teach triple bottom line practices that sustain the natural, social and economic systems of the small farm and the farm community. We focus on soil health, biodiversity, conservation, direct marketing and community as the foundations of production models and systems. Cooperation instead of competition. We avoid taking political sides because neither the left nor the right seem to embrace the Whole Farm and Farm Community the way all of us would like.
We strive to teach more than a collection of tasks. Although, there are some critical and essential tasks that we know must be completed regularly. Livestock must be fed, crops irrigated, compost turned, product sold and bills paid for examples. We teach and practice these tasks and more regularlyas part of our program. Yet, as I wake before the sun, sip coffee and write this. I know that, instinctively, there is so much more to those simple tasks then it seems on the surface. Through years of carrying out those tasks, and observing outcomes from what I put in, what my neighbors put in, and how the natural system responds, I change, redirect and adapt. It is this ability to react, that makes us good farmers.
As a student at Prescott College in the early 1990s, I studied Natural History. I learned the importance of observation. Today, I spend much of my time in the field observing. Observing what birds are where on my farm. Are they seed eating sparrows or bug eating blue birds[T1] ? What shade of green are the leaves on my bush beans? How much has the corn grown over night? What animal tracks have crossed my recently formed beds? How well is the soil holding moisture? How much organic matter is in my soil? I record all of this in my field journal.
Through observation and recording I develop systems that work with the ecology of my farm. It allows each task to have the greatest impact with the most efficiency. It makes me a working member of the farm community, not merely the overseer or “manager” of a machine.
When we combine this system of ecological observation and cooperation of our piece of the planet with the basic tasks required to produce and provide a food, fiber or flower product, we learn to farm. I have been in and around the horticultural industry for 30 years and have run my own farm for more than a decade. I continue to learn every day and this is what the Ecological Agriculture Training Cultural Center and Farm are all about.