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Above photo of Jessica Matthews, Dairy Grazing Apprentice with Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture

If you’re considering a career in agriculture one place to start information gathering is the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). While the organization primarily works to support farmers, they have many learning opportunities through workshops, events, an annual conference and apprenticeships. In addition they facilitate research projects to develop sustainability benchmarks that can be used by farmers to measure and improve their own performance.

Informal farm apprenticeships are available, explains Melissa Cipollone, PASA’s communications strategist. Agreements In exchange for teaching someone to farm can take on a number of forms, paid, unpaid, free housing, from a few hours to a number of seasons. “Another route to gain training is to attend a tuition-based program, and, while still a great model, may not be as manageable. Even with a scholarship students are not earning anything.”

A third way is through a formal apprenticeship. PASA is hosting two which are registered with the government. They adhere to the same standards and structure as any other regarding business involvement, on-the-job training, classroom and related instruction and pay, culminating in a nationally recognized credential. Cipollone notes that paid apprenticeships make them more accessible.

The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) is a federal program, founded in Wisconsin and administered in Pennsylvania since in 2016. The Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship (DVA) is the first Pennsylvania state registered farming apprenticeship and new this year.

The number of apprenticeships depends on the number of master grazers or master growers, host farms that meet certain qualification and are certified by PASA. Right now there are approximately five active DVA apprenticeships. Program demand has been high since launching in March with sixty applicants and 16 to 18 farms that have applied to be host farms so these numbers are expected to grow quickly. The DGA apprenticeship also has five active mentor-apprenticeship pairs, but sees fewer applicants.

“Apprenticeships are a great way to support established farms,” says Cipollone. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The farmer gains a full-time employee invested in farming and the success of the farm. The apprentice learns to manage and potentially own their own farm.”  

Two current apprentices shared why they entered the programs and what they hope to gain from their participation. While coming from divergent backgrounds, both have committed to a career in agriculture.

No one in David Darling’s family has ever worked in agriculture. The closest he came was employment in the food industry which helped support him while completing a math degree at Penn State. After graduation he tried to solve the food waste problem in his community. It was that work that cemented his belief that farming holds the ultimate responsibility for shaping the health of the land and one he wanted to share. As an informal apprentice last year it made sense for him to transition into the DVA program when it rolled out.

He views it as integral to developing his proficiency to operate a farm and be qualified for a farm ownership or farm management loan. “This is a state accredited program that proves your competency and when dealing with huge loans, that’s what the agencies want to see – a third party that has quantified your capability. It’s setting me up on a pathway to success as I’m planning on purchasing farmland right after I complete this program.”

Rebekah Byers’ childhood was the opposite of Darling’s urban and suburban early years. She grew up farming as has everyone in her family back ten generations in the U.S. and even further back in Europe. “Agriculture, farming and cattle, it’s quite literally in my blood,” she says. Byers also has a degree from Penn State though hers is in Animal Science and is pursuing the DGA credential to further her learning and gain new experiences.

Rather than returning to her family’s cattle farm or starting her own farm, Byers is putting a twist on her career and wants to remain in the dairy industry in a capacity that will allow her to help train young people and adults looking for a new path in life in farming. She sees the DGA as a way of helping the dairy industry get back to serving the local community, move back into natural sustainable farming and help small farms.

She would recommend farming to anyone. “It’s a very rewarding, self-fulfilling job,” she says. “It’s extremely hard work, but every day you see the success of what you’re doing.” Darling echoes the sentiment.

The apprenticeship end goal is for participants to work in the agriculture industry in some capacity. Qualifications are minimal. You must be at least 18 years or older, have a high school degree, GED or equivalent and the equivalent of at least one year’s experience related to farming. Equivalencies are used as the educational and experience requirements can be acquired in different ways, and can be cumulative, according to Cipollone. For more information on becoming an apprentice or a master farmer or grazer please visit Pasa Farming.