Eat Local. Locally Grown. Fresh from the Farm. We all love the taglines… almost as much as we love supporting our local farmers and agriculture partners. We are beginning to look for alternatives to large-scale supply chains, and are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to sustainable, family-run farms—those oases of idyllic rural life where we can speak to the farmers in person, and see the land from which our food comes with our own eyes. With this rising demand for fresh, locally-grown food, where are the next generation of farmers and food growers learning their trade? We at YDH are proud to introduce you to the Young Agripreneurs program at ClearWater Farm in York Region. Here, entrepreneurs are given the opportunity to learn not just about the day-to-day operations of running a farm and growing food, but about every facet of the agriculture industry. With this innovative five-year program, these entrepreneurs are growing their business from the ground up. Literally!
The Young Agripreneurs program, designed in partnership with and funded in part by Royal Bank of Canada, is an apprenticeship to support youth who wish to find long-term employment in regenerative agriculture. If you are unfamiliar with this type of farming, it is a practice that goes far beyond the notion of organic or chemical-free. “The objective of regenerative agriculture is, in a nutshell, to leave the soil better off than when you left it,” explains Colin Dobell, Executive Director for the Ontario Water Centre. “The movement has not yet nailed down the rules, but it is trying to define an art or a science around doing things that support this objective. This is something that interests and intrigues a lot of young people.”
The program provides up to a half acre in the first year on which participants can learn. In the second year, the availability of land is increased as participants demonstrate the ability to execute a strategy and show a continued interest in agriculture. “As they continue to demonstrate these skills, we can give them up to five acres, as well as access to equipment,” Colin says. “By year five, they would actually be showing an economic track record that could help them if they want to take steps to purchase their own farm.”
Also integral to the success of the Young Agripreneurs program is that, in addition to land and equipment, participants are given access to a market for the food that they grow. Through their various marketing connections, ClearWater Farm will provide participants with a home for their food beyond the local farmers’ market. “They get to experience the logistics side of things,” Colin says. “Delivery, quality control, harvesting, packing, and they end up running into other people who are playing different roles in a local food system. There are folks who are preparing food, doing things like pickling, or producing a particular product from the food that is grown.”
Admittedly, ClearWater is not the first organization to provide agriculture internships. There are different options available for those who wish to go into agriculture as a career. However, Colin notes that such internship are usually unpaid, or are minimally paid. “Typically, it’s room and board, and you learn something through the work,” he notes. “Also, these internships aren’t usually planned out so that you are getting somewhere in your career. What we are trying to do is string together a program of up to five years where we combine a stipend for participants and a series of mentorship opportunities.”
Series is the key word here. After all, most young people who are just beginning to define their interests in the context of their long-term careers have a diverse array of branches to choose from. These might be growing and producing, or education, or marketing. And throw the added aspect of regenerative agriculture into the equation, and it quickly becomes apparent that the more mentorship there is, the better.
The Young Agripreneurs program is now in its second year of operation, and is quickly distinguishing itself as different from those programs offered in our local community colleges. Specifically, it seeks to bridge the gap between finishing a program and entering the workforce in that particular field. Interestingly, ClearWater has found that the ones who are successful in agriculture are the ones where the earth matters to them, and do not necessarily come from a background of agriculture in terms of their secondary education. “We had one person who had a philosophy degree and had been doing construction when they decided that food mattered to them,” Colin recalls. “Another one that had an environmental science degree went out west to Whistler to run an organic food store, but didn’t like it. She realized that in talking to farmers who were actually growing things, that she was interested and so migrated that way.”
He adds, “Quite frankly, if you’re going to succeed in farming and food, you need to have a reason to do it and have a passion for it, because it’s not easy.” Also, Colin points out that getting into regenerative agriculture has to be about more than just timing—right now there is a huge interest in local food, but that may not always be the case. With the advent of COVID-19, there is a bit of a question mark over the long-term landscape of the local food economy. “People who come to our program have to do it because they want to do it, as opposed to doing it because they feel they are timing their careers perfectly,” he says. “The trick for us is to help our participants figure out what they love and care about, and help them explore different models that, economically, will allow them to do it. After that, we all just have to let the food market chips fall where they may.”
See articles below to learn more about the Young Agripreneurs program at ClearWater Farm
For more information, visit https://clearwaterfarm.ca.
1614 Metro Rd. N.,
Willow Beach, ON L0E 1S0
Story by Katherine Ryalen