On the hunt for regenerative ag gurus

A previously Alberta-based apprenticeship program is breaking into Saskatchewan and Manitoba next year

The Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program wants to fill its roster for when it launches in Manitoba and Saskatchewan next year.

Dana Penrice, Prairie program manager, says five Manitoba farms have signed on as mentors for the paid apprenticeship program. The program will be opening applications for those apprenticeship slots in the near future.

Why it matters: Proponents say the program offers aspiring young farmers the chance to “get their hands dirty” amid a landscape where formal regenerative agriculture mentorship is hard to come by.

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The program recruits and matches apprentices with mentor farms, based on areas of interest. Apprenticeships typically kick off in April or May, and run anywhere from four to 10 months. In a typical year, that apprenticeship would also include a circuit of farm tours and the creation of a “learning cohort” among apprentices.

“Basically, we’re working with host farms that are kind of like leaders and educators in the regenerative farming movement and the kind of people who are really concerned with growing that next generation of farmers,” Penrice said.

“We work with them to create an apprenticeship program that fits their farm and kind of what their needs are,” she added.

The program counsels potential apprentices on which farms they might want to apply for, at which point the mentor farm chooses among the applicants.

Mentor farms are on the hook for the apprentice’s pay, Penrice said, although the program helps those farmers find and apply for government wage subsidy programs.

Young Agrarians participants in prior years take to the field.
photo: Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program

“We really want to invest in the next generation and it’s really hard for them to actually get started if they’re going to go and take a summer — if they’re students or something like that — if they’re going to take a summer and not get paid,” she said.

That does add an obstacle for some potential mentors, she acknowledged.

Apprentices are typically university-age aspiring farmers, Penrice said, while the program focuses on essential production skills, something Penrice says can range from basic equipment operation to soil health knowledge.

Filling the gap

For Troy Stozek of Fresh Roots Farm, the program is both a source of much-needed summer labour and a chance to pay his own mentorship experiences back.

“We have an apiary and a direct-marketing grass-fed beef and lamb business and a lot of it is really hands on,” he said. “We definitely need labour, and it’s just one of those ways we can kind of check both of those boxes off… do some of the knowledge sharing and transfer that we want to do in exchange for that much-needed labour.”

The farm also does hire local summer students, he said.

Stozek and his partner, Michelle Schram, started their mixed farm near Cartwright in 2011, on land previously farmed by Schram’s family. Before becoming so established, however, the couple spent their own share of time looking for guidance. Any childhood farm experience was more conventionally managed and marketed, Stozek said, while the couple’s aim was direct marketing and different modes of production.

Most of that mentorship was informal, according to Stozek — visits with similarly minded farmers met through various organizations. Most were also short, he said. While some stints ran for three to six months, most were more ad hoc.

There was some formal organization. Stozek spent time with WWOOF Canada (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization linking volunteer workers with organic production), while both he and his wife travelled with the same organization to South America for a cultural and educational exchange. But formal mentorships are rare, he said, and some programs are used more for travel experience rather than the nitty-gritty of starting one’s own farm.

It’s one of the things that sets Young Agrarians apart, Stozek argued.

“We really want to find people who are kind of invested in the idea of hopefully taking this experience and obtaining actual real-world skill to apply in a career of their own in agriculture,” he said.

“We want to find somebody who has, at the very least, has an interest in a wide diversity of stuff, because we do a wide diversity of stuff here,” he also said. “Tasks are quite varied and we have multiple enterprises.”

Program roots

The program has already gained a foothold in the westernmost Prairies. Four years ago, Penrice launched the program in Alberta, where she was living, after noting a dearth of formal education programming in regenerative agriculture.

In the early 2010s, Penrice was part of a project exploring new programming for Prairie farmers.

“What I saw was that B.C. and Ontario had a ton of apprenticeship programs, like formal ones, and what I was worried about was if potential new farmers, aspiring farmers from the Prairies, were going to B.C. and Ontario and never coming back,” she said.

Her search eventually led her to a program out of New Mexico. The program, run by the Quivira Coalition, was less about market gardening (something the Young Agrarians leaves room for, but which is not the main focus of most mentorships) and more about larger-scale production like holistic management ranching or organic grain. That program became the inspiration for what is now Young Agrarians in the Prairies.

Penrice hopes to have 20 mentors signed up this year — five from both Manitoba and Saskatchewan and 10 from Alberta.

So far, Manitoba mentors for 2021 span market gardens, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry, regenerative grain farming and organic grain farming.

Further details can be found at youngagrarians.org/apprenticeship-program.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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