Learning center gets aspiring managers into the field
It’s a challenge very familiar to the agriculture industry: a shortage of qualified labor. The Center for Land-based Learning (CLBL) headquartered in Woodland, California, is looking to change that with an apprenticeship program that puts aspiring farm managers into the field.
Launched in 2017 with the goal of preparing individuals for farm management positions, the Beginning Farm and Ranch Management Apprenticeship Program is the only program of its kind formally registered with the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards. When participants complete the program, they graduate at a journeyman level as a beginning farm and ranch manager. This two-year apprenticeship includes paid on-the-job training provided by a working farm, job-related instruction covered by the Center for Land-based Learning, and the opportunity to pursue experience in specialty crops.
Despite the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic, the CLBL has been able to expand from two Northern California counties to eight, with an additional 13 counties wanting to hire.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were only located in Central California because all of our classes were taken in person. Applicants had to be located near us to be able to take those classes, which made it more complicated, of course, because we had to find farmers in places near us,” said Brianne Grosskopf, apprenticeship outreach coordinator for the Center for Land-based Learning. Due to the pandemic and through new partnerships, CLBL made this particular program statewide by conducting all of the apprenticeship coursework studies online. “It’s been really efficient for us and for people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to participate.”
The program currently has 13 apprentices in the field, working in vegetables, vineyards, tree nuts and livestock, with several additional almond operations looking to hire. Ideally, applicants bring with them an agriculture-related background, which allows them to hit the ground running in their training to be a reliable farm manager. But while there are some minimal requirements that must be met prior to applying to the apprenticeship program, experience in the agricultural industry isn’t necessarily one of them.
“There are plenty of folks who don’t have a lot of ag experience, but bring in a lot more transferable skills, so they’re still a really good candidate,” said Grosskopf.
Applicants are prescreened before their information is shared with growers and their crop interests noted. If a grower expresses an interest in a particular candidate, it’s up to the candidate to decide whether to take the position or wait for a different opportunity. The program is competitive, and there is a possibility of being declined admittance.
Alex Dunwoody (pictured at top of page) is in his second year as an apprentice with Riverhill Farm in Nevada City, California, and has been interested in farming for some time. He had friends in sustainable food programs while he was an engineering student at University of California, Davis, and had come across the CLBL while working at various farms.
“I wanted a comprehensive education instead of going in as a normal crew member,” said Dunwoody.
A comprehensive education, and lots of support, is exactly what Dunwoody and other apprentices receive. In order to graduate the program, apprentices must complete 3,000 hours of on-the-job training with a producing farm, as well as 450 hours of coursework that includes college courses in fundamental ag production topics (soil science, plant science, ag irrigation management, pest management, and fertilizers and soil amendments), cohort trainings in leadership and management, and conferences and workshops.
Along with providing a statement of interest and a resume, applicants must meet with an apprentice coordinator to have a discussion about their goals, as well as what is expected from an apprentice in the program.
“(The coordinator) clarifies the amount of work that the program requires between doing farm and course studies,” said Dunwoody. “Some people have never done manual labor before, and they need to be prepared.”
There’s also a lot of involvement from the staff at CLBL, said Dunwoody, with many conversations to help apprentices zero in on what they want as a career, and to help build the tools necessary to be successful in those decisions.
“They want to help you succeed and do well as a farmer,” said Dunwoody. “They prompted me to create a career plan and timeline and route to get there. And the fact that they provide funding for that is absolutely amazing.”
In addition to the program covering education costs, farmwork base pay for apprentices starts at minimum wage and increases by 50 cents roughly every six months based on certain criteria. Work weeks can range from 30-60 hours depending on the season, with agricultural worker compensation laws applying as well.
With a variety of requirements, such as a minimum of 75 hours on a tractor, for example, the apprentice receives a diversified farm experience while actively being an employee, and CLBL covers the tuition costs to upscale that employee.
“It’s really a great way for farmers to grow an individual into the position they want,” said Grosskopf.
An apprentice’s working hours are logged and include the activities during that time. While it’s something Dunwoody would probably not have done on his own, he said, the accountability is helpful, and it’s interesting for him to go back and see what he’s been doing, “especially if there’s a question about something that happened a few months ago,” he said.
Growers are taking on more than an employee when they participate in the apprenticeship program as a mentor-farmer. In addition to the expected time commitment in a mentor-mentee relationship, growers must provide a well-rounded foundational experience defined in eight competency areas – soil management, tractor skills, planting or pruning crops, pest and weed management, irrigation management, harvesting and packing and grading, sales and marketing or employee regulatory work, and equipment repair. Each has its minimum hours requirement.
For participants like Dunwoody, the program has more than exceeded his expectations. “The staff has been so friendly and helpful. It really feels like they’re on your side,” he said.
Dunwoody expects to graduate from the program at the end of 2021, and will see where his farming career takes him. The CLBL continues to expand across various crops, including tree nuts, and has available a survey for nut growers and processors whose responses help evolve the program to make sure it’s meeting the needs of the industry.