At the age of 18 Ella Fleming didn’t know what a broccoli plant looked like. After working two years in the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) apprenticeship program and now as a co-assistant manager of the Alan Chadwick garden, she can spot one from a quarter mile.
The CASFS Apprenticeship Program trains apprentices from all over the world to be future organic farmers, gardeners, teachers and community leaders. It focuses primarily on sustainable agricultural methods in preparation for management of small-scale farms and emphasizes the connections between food and social systems.
“Taking the skills and techniques and philosophy of organic farming that you develop at CASFS is very healthy and good for the world, and good for people everywhere,” said James Nakahara, CASFS alumnus and local farmer at Pie Ranch.
The program has a 50-year history of training budding farmers. Apprentices work 40 hours a week in the both the garden and the farm for six months, from mid-April to mid-October. The program has space for 35-40 people, who live and share meals together in the collection of yurts at the farm.
Fellow co-assistant manager of the Chadwick Garden and CASFS alumnus Evan Domsic explained that overall the community of people drawn to this line of work are for the same motivations— the simple pleasures of working in dirt and eating fruit off the vine.
“We all in some ways speak the same language,” said Domsic from his seat in a wheelbarrow in a Chadwick greenhouse. “That experience can be shared by so many different people from so many different places, different countries and backgrounds.”
Some apprentices are hopeful to someday be able to start and run their own farm. Pie Ranch, a 416-acre seasonal farm in adjoining San Mateo County, is a notable success story of UCSC teachings applied in the field. The ranch, founded by Karen Heisler and CASFS alumni Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail, uses youth empowerment and regenerative farming practices to make healthy food accessible to lower income Bay Area communities.
“Food justice means providing access to good food for all people, regardless of social or economic constraints. It means putting the means of production into the hands of the people who are eating it,” said the most recent Pie Ranch Strategic Plan.
Pie Ranch’s success an independent local farm is, however, an exception. According to Nakahara, because of the enormous capital needed to establish a farm, if an apprentice chooses to stay in the Santa Cruz area they must primarily vie for lower level positions on local farms such as Pie Ranch as a farm hand or livestock manager, then work their way up.
“Santa Cruz is the hub of organic agriculture in California,” he said. “It’s really crowded — starting a new thing is really hard here. Having something you can go into that’s already established, where they have a farmer’s market or a farmstand is pretty big.”
Records of the Santa Cruz county’s involvement with the organic farming movement date back to 1911 with UC Santa Cruz consistently at the forefront of change. While workers’ justice has remained a priority in the movement, the increased mechanization of field work mean the farmwork job market is running dry.
“The profit margins that were established by the free labor from the slave era are still being maintained by poverty level wages for immigrant labor,” said David Robles, second year CASFS apprentice and UCSC alumnus. “That’s not a drive to ‘feed the world’. The reality is that the mechanization of farm work is the same thing as asking for free labor.”
Part of resisting these changes involves getting more people in touch with their food, said Ella Fleming. Some apprentices go into community outreach with a goal of fostering that connection.
Alumnus Doron Comerchero went on to found local nonprofit FoodWhat?!, a resident youth outreach program at CASFS, to address this issue from the root. The organization serves to empower low-income kids and teens through leadership skills, sustainable agriculture, cooking and nutrition, and social justice. By educating young people about healthy food production, FoodWhat?! aims to encourage them to be active in their own community food systems.
“I feel very passionate about working with young people who are often disenfranchised and not given a voice in our political system,” said Irene O’Connell, FoodWhat?! programs manager.
“I have big confidence in young people in their innovation, but I also want to create spaces where they can step into their power and feel confident about themselves.”
From label transparency to immigration reform, graduates from the program believe that major restructuring of the farm industry is due to keep agriculture grounded. This may be daunting, but according to alumnus James Nakahara, if CASFS apprentices ever feel lost in the field or don’t know the answer, the tools and resources from the program will help them know where to look.
“The overarching philosophy and ideas are universal,” he said. “You can apply those to any farm or garden in the world and ideally make it more efficient and better.”