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January 4, 2017

So, you want to get your hands into the soil

Contributed Photo
Workshops such as this one at the Fauquier Education Farm cover topics ranging from soil health to agricultural marketing.
By Jim Hankins
Fauquier Education Farm
Executive Director


Most of us in this community who know someone with that drive to move to the country, learn more about growing food, raising some animals and living closer to the land. Quite often, these folks are not coming from farming backgrounds and, while their dreams are big and beautiful, their practical knowledge base might not be ready to support such elaborate ideas.

We often see people who are spending large amounts of money chasing that dream but not meeting with success or quickly getting in way over their heads, over worked, and frustrated.

Fortunately, there are quite a few people with this drive and numerous ways for them to broaden that practical knowledge base and help them become more successful. We live in a time where growing our own food, or at least knowing how it is grown, is of great interest to a lot of people. Just as importantly the sense of community among people who want to live closer to the land means that quite a few folks are out there encouraging and supporting new farmers, freely sharing with each other what has worked and what hasn’t.

Since 2011, the Northern Piedmont Beginning Farmer Program has been an important learning resource for individuals throughout our region who are interested in launching a farming business of their own. These classes are put on through a partnership of the Virginia Cooperative Extension offices of Fauquier, Rappahannock and Culpeper counties, the Fauquier Office of Agriculture Development and the Fauquier Education Farm.

Using the curriculum developed by the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition, and funded through a USDA Beginning Farmer grant, these classes are intended to help the new farmer form a realistic plan of steps to start their business while helping them see some of the pitfalls, opportunities and realities in a farm operation. These new farmers should also complete the classes with a new awareness of the many local, state and federal agencies and non-profits whose job is to support agriculture and assist new farmers.

For 2017, there will be two different Beginning Farmer courses offered by the Northern Piedmont Program. The Fauquier Education Farm also will partner with the Piedmont Environmental Council to offer a pair of workshops on land acquisition in March.

The first is the class that has been taught since 2011. It is called the Northern Piedmont Beginning Farmer program and uses the teaching modules from the Virginia Beginning Farmer that cover: An Introduction to Whole Farm Planning, Marketing and Farm Business Planning. This is a seven-week course that meets on Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Fauquier Extension office in Warrenton and has two Saturday labs.

This class is taught by Cooperative Extension agents from the surrounding counties, the Education Farm Director and two more outside speakers. This is an intensive first look at the nuts and bolts operation of a farm business for the beginner. We want our students to come out of the course with a written plan of action and a realistic view of what they are getting into. It is a rare opportunity to get so many agriculture professionals in one room to help guide our students to the information they need most to make informed decisions for their future.

It is also important to point out that this should be the beginning of a long relationship between our students and the ag professionals we bring them in contact with. A vitally important part of the course is familiarizing the students with on-going programs that support their success and continue to teach agriculture best practices in business, and production. Most of our students are surprised at how much support there is for the new farmer and are grateful to learn how to access that support.

The Northern Piedmont Program starts Feb. 1. There is a class fee of $100 per person and $150 for couples. If the fee is a burden, there are scholarships available through a generous donation from one of our former students. There will be full contact information at the bottom of this column.

In 2017, we are also pleased to once again be presenting our, Introduction to Getting Your Hands Dirty course. We first offered this course in 2016 as part of a Mini-Grant Proposal with the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition. These mini-grant funds were made available to help address new program needs that the coalition partners had identified.

We developed this program to give a very practical, beginners level course on field grown crop production. Our original Northern Piedmont course was great at addressing the business of farming, but for many of our students there was still a large need for a “how to farm” course. The Intro to Getting Your Hands Dirty course is also of much greater use to the many folks who are still exploring. These are the folks who want to learn more about farming but are not ready to consider launching a business, they just want to feed their families and friends.

The Introduction to Getting Your Hands Dirty course is a six-week course that will also meet on Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Fauquier Extension office in Warrenton and will have three Saturday labs. The course topics will be: Basic Soil Health, Amending Soils, Crop Selection and Planting Techniques, Weed Control, Pest Control and Infrastructure Needs.

The expected outcomes from this course would be to give these new farmers a basic level understanding of the complex interrelationship between soil health and crops, as well as a basic level understanding of how to manipulate each part for greatest production. We want to expose these learners to the basic level tools of farming, how they work and why we use them. They should also know by the end of the course about basic level techniques for selecting, planting, maintaining and harvesting commercial crops.

We also expect these new farmers to become familiar with other on-going Extension programs that will help broaden their knowledge base and help them see new opportunities they may not have previously thought of. We further expect that by completing this course that these new farmers will better understand what is being said in the other Extension workshops which are often addressing more experienced farmers.

The Introduction to Getting Your Hands Dirty course will begin March 29 and like the Northern Piedmont course has a class fee of $100 per person or $150 for couples, and scholarships are available for this course as well. This course is taught by Tim Ohlwiler, horticulture agent for Fauquier Extension, and Jim Hankins, executive director of the Fauquier Education Farm. Many our students last year signed up for both courses and the evaluations they returned to us afterwards said they were very glad they did.

The hard reality is you cannot expect to take a course for a few weeks and come out knowing everything you need to know to farm. These courses are intended to help people get the best start that they can on a life long journey of learning, and we hope to save as many people as we can from making serious financial mistakes. These courses do not sugar coat the realities of farming, it can often be very hard work with small financial rewards. We want our students to be able to make fully informed decisions as they move forward.

With some people, we do count it as a success if we have helped them see that maybe this isn’t the right way to spend their carefully saved retirement funds. And with those that do make the plunge into farming, we want them to have access to every bit of support there is available. As I said earlier, we live in a time with a huge up swell of interest in getting back to the land and fortunately there are thousands of other folks who have already taken that plunge and are willing to help where they can. Don’t believe anyone who says it’s easy, but don’t believe anyone who tells you you’ve got to do it on your own either.

For more information about the courses offered by the Northern Piedmont Beginning Farmer Program, please check out the Agriculture Education section of our Fauquier Education Farm website, fauquiereducationfarm.org Also for more information about the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition go to vabeginningfarmer.org Or please contact Jim Hankins at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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