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Apprenticeships expected to expand and diversify farm ownership in RI

Santa Toribio holding eggs

Photo caption: Santa Toribio, an apprentice at Pat’s Pastured Farm.

Santa Toribio’s introduction to animal husbandry came over two decades ago, when she was a university student in Santo Domingo studying veterinary sciences. However, prior to this past summer when she received an SCLT apprentice position at Pat’s Pastured Farm, she had never worked on a small-scale, sustainable livestock farm.

Santa is one of three apprentices who gained valuable knowledge and experience through SCLT’s expanded Farm Apprenticeship Program. The program was modeled on the success of apprenticeships offered at City Farm for more than a decade. Its goal is to provide paid, professional training to aspiring organic farmers. This year the program aimed at bolstering the careers of people of color and veterans, who have been traditionally denied access to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs designed to support small and mid-sized family farms.

The apprenticeships were funded through a USDA Socially Disadvantaged Veterans, Farmers, and Ranchers grant program, which responds to a legacy of discriminatory practices in some USDA agencies brought to light in a landmark court case in 1965. The USDA’s actions excluded African Americans, in particular, from lending, training and other programs that improved the livelihoods of thousands of rural white farmers during the previous century. As a result, the Section 2501 program was established in the 1990 Farm Bill.

Each of this year’s three farm apprentices brought his or her own talents and interests to the program. In addition to Santa, the other apprentices were David Kuma and Jamhal Latimer. David grew up gardening and had worked in a nursery and in landscaping. Jamhal is a Marine Corps vet with a newfound passion for healthy foods, after a lifelong diet that excluded vegetables, he said.

“My knowledge of farming was that you put a seed in the ground and you water it, and that was it,” he said, adding, “it was a huge jump” to learn all that he has about sustainable agriculture from the program.

Three Rhode Island farmers hosted the apprentices this year: Patrick McNiff of Pat’s Pastured in East Greenwich, and Ben Torpey of Scratch Farm and Christina Dedora of Blue Skys Farm, both in Cranston. Patrick, Ben and Christina led the apprentices through a range of farm work over the season – from harvesting to livestock de-parasiting – depending on the site. In addition to working with their mentors two full days per week, apprentices attended farm tours and workshops throughout the state, as well as the Northeast Organic Farming Association summer conference in August.

The partnership between mentors and apprentices exemplifies the relationships SCLT has fostered within the state’s farming sector: Patrick, Ben and Christina all started their farming careers at SCLT before launching their own businesses. SCLT staff look forward to perpetuating this cycle, having just received almost $600,000 through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to develop new and beginning farmers through workshops, mentorship and technical assistance over the next three years. More apprenticeships, similar to the ones offered in 2016, will be financed by this grant in 2017.

Having completed their apprenticeships at the beginning of September, Santa, David and Jamhal are considering their options for the future. David wants to spend next season working on a different local farm before starting his own operation. In the meantime, he plans to take advantage of SCLT’s market grower workshops and resources to strengthen his skill set.

Santa, who gave up her career to come to this country so she could live near her grandchildren, has a more complicated situation. Neither her degree in veterinary science, nor her master’s in animal surgery, are recognized here. Nevertheless, she plans to share what she learned about pasturing with her former colleagues at the Department of Health in the DR, who seek to increase the number of women livestock farmers in that country.

Jamhal plans to build on his experience in the near future by farming in an urban plot or assisting with school gardens. Eventually he wants to start his own nonprofit farm for veterans, the homeless and people struggling with substance abuse, where he plans to use the organic practices he learned at Blue Skys Farm.

SCLT will start recruiting beginning farmers for the 2017 Apprenticeship Program next spring. Please contact Laura Bozzi at laura@southsideclt.org if you are interested in receiving application information when it is available.

– Maggie Krueger, SCLT program associate




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