Regional farming alliance strengthens educational, networking opportunities for apprentices

Ryan Dinger, an apprentice at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, works with others to weed and cover the blueberry bushes.

Ryan Dinger, an apprentice at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, works with others to weed and cover the blueberry bushes. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Megan Van Alphen, and Ellie Xie, both in the apprenticeship program at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, weed and cover the blueberry bushes.

Megan Van Alphen, and Ellie Xie, both in the apprenticeship program at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, weed and cover the blueberry bushes. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kerry Taylor, a manager at Brookfield Farm in Amherst.

Kerry Taylor, a manager at Brookfield Farm in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kerry Taylor, a manager at Brookfield Farm in Amherst.

Kerry Taylor, a manager at Brookfield Farm in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Ryan Dinger, an apprentice at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, works with others to weed and cover the blueberry bushes.

Ryan Dinger, an apprentice at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, works with others to weed and cover the blueberry bushes. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-21-2024 10:19 AM

In 1994, a new movement began to grow out of the Pioneer Valley, Berkshires and Hudson Valley, as a group of organic farmers banded together to form a cooperative educational program for farm apprentices.

That year marked the birth of the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, or CRAFT, which served as the blueprint for CRAFT networks in eastern Massachusetts, New England and around the country. The program brings together farms from across western Massachusetts and eastern New York and opens up their doors for farm visits, where apprentices can spend a few hours with a farmer and each other to learn about farming techniques and how to run an agricultural business, while also providing an opportunity to network.

As other programs have flourished, though, the original CRAFT group has seen its membership decrease. Now, 30 years after its founding, the group that started it all is looking to revitalize itself by looking to what its descendants have done.

“All these years have passed and there’s been a huge boom in small farms and organic farming, and the labor market has changed and people have moved away from apprenticeships because they want straightforward employment models,” said Kerry Taylor of Brookfield Farm in Amherst, which is a member of the CRAFT program. “What we’re looking to do now is revitalize our program. … Hopefully we can build a new network of support for people who are young and need support and are getting started in farming.”

In the past, the CRAFT program’s farm visits — taking place from April through October — were open to apprentices at member farms only. This year, however, Don Zasada, who operates Williamstown’s Caretaker Farm and is the CRAFT program’s liaison, said they are going to open up the farm visits to a wider audience in an effort to draw more widespread interest in farming.

“The first additional audience would be people simply working on other farms, but they don’t work at one of the CRAFT participating farms,” Zasada said, noting these might be workers, managers and other employees. “We’re trying to open up this opportunity to more than just the apprentices that are at these few farms.”

Farm visits typically run every other week in the spring and then get broken up in the middle of the summer, as farmers are busy in the fields. Topics covered by visits include everything from soil health to start-up costs. There is also a potluck dinner at the end of each meeting to encourage networking.

They have also pushed back the time of the visits from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. to better accommodate people’s schedules, and the CRAFT program has engaged with the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Student Farm and has invited the students to attend farm visits.

Program benefits

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Farmers that have participated in the CRAFT program over the years, as both apprentices and as member farms, said the program is mutually beneficial for all involved and builds a strong network of peers around the region.

Zasada served as an apprentice at Brookfield Farm in the mid-1990s, then went to work in Boston where he helped start the highly successful eastern Massachusetts CRAFT group. He returned to western Massachusetts in 2005.

In his years of working with both CRAFT programs, Zasada said the farm visits have provided a chance to learn from an expert on topics beyond one’s own specialty.

“I think the primary benefit is it’s very easy to get pigeonholed into your specific farming system if you’re not able to go and see what else is out there,” he said. “For me, it’s been incredibly important to build relationships with some of the farmers in the area. … It’s helpful all throughout the season when we have questions and issues.”

For Kerry and her husband Max Taylor, the CRAFT program provides some staff to the farm, while also providing educational opportunities for themselves and their apprentices. The apprentices may learn something new about farming or find their passion in agriculture, while the Taylors get a chance to manage and guide new cohorts of young farmers every year.

“[People] are one of the hardest parts of farming, so every year is like a new learning experience because everyone’s different,” Kerry Taylor said. “I really think there’s an opportunity to grow it into this supportive network of young farmers for this area; I mean, I’m jealous of Eastern Mass. CRAFT.”

At the horse-powered Natural Roots farm in Conway, David Fisher said the CRAFT program has been an excellent tool to build connection among farms, while also sharing the invaluable hands-on knowledge needed to run a successful farm. Fisher himself was a farm apprentice on a horse-powered farm — although not with the CRAFT program — before he opened up Natural Roots more than two decades ago.

“There’s nothing better than an apprenticeship to get real insight into what it takes to run a farm. There’s no replacement for actually doing it,” he said. “I really can’t recommend it highly enough, both for apprentices and any farms. It’s rare you can get a farmer to spend three or four hours in their field in the middle of the season.”

Fisher’s farm had been a member of the CRAFT program for about 23 years, but it has taken a step back from the program this year to focus on rebounding from a difficult 2023. From afar, though, Fisher said the proposed changes to the program could be a great way to boost interest in agriculture.

“I think there’s plenty of space to invite more people,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of farmers and people who are hungry to learn, but don’t necessarily fit that role [of an apprentice], but they’re still eager.”

The next CRAFT farm visit will be held at Caretaker Farm in Williamstown on Monday, May 6, at 4 p.m., where Zasada will discuss soil health. That visit will be followed by a Monday, May 20, session at Full Well Farm in Adams, where the topic will be start-up costs.

For more information about the CRAFT program, visit craftfarmapprentice.com.

Chris Larabee can be reached
at clarabee@recorder.com.