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Farmers of the Future?

Albany High School’s Local Agriculture Career Day aims to cultivate the next generation of food producers

by Amy Halloran on March 9, 2011 · 5 comments

Though jars of pickled eggs are more common at bars than high schools, a pint of pickled eggs sat on a table in the library at Albany High School last Friday. The eggs were part of a display put together by poultry farmer Susan Kliese. Also on the table was a jar of jam, quail eggs and a rainbow of chicken and duck eggs.

Agricultural awareness: Mack Brook Farm’s Karen Christensen talks with Albany High students. Photo by Amy Halloran

Kliese and other farmers told students about career opportunities in agriculture at the school’s first Local Agriculture Career Day, sponsored by the Capital District Transition Network. Biology teacher Tom Vacanti helped organizer Sandy Steubing bring the farmers—as well as an admissions counselor from SUNY Cobleskill, and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Tom Gallagher—to the students.

Groups of 40 students came to the library, which was closed for the day, to listen to brief presentations by Steubing and the people she gathered, see the displays and ask questions. Steubing introduced each session by discussing energy insecurity and how it related to food production: Petroleum-based fertilizers are used on conventionally grown crops, which are then trucked long distances to consumers. Gallagher went next and explained the idea behind Cornell Cooperative Extension to each group. When he asked how many people had connections to farming, two people raised their hands. He also asked about community gardens and found that one student had been involved in Youth Organics, a student gardening enterprise, the previous summer.

“One percent of the population is involved in agricultural production in the United States, even though agricultural production has increased seven to eight percent over the last 50 years,” he told students, noting that one percent does not mean just farmers, but everyone involved in agriculture, from people like him to farm bankers to crop insurers and food packagers. Ten years ago, he said, that one percent was three percent of the population.

Jennifer Walwrath from Cobleskill attends agricultural career days throughout the state and beyond, including a large one at John Bowne High School in the Bronx, which has the biggest agricultural program in the state. Locally, however, Gallagher said he’d attended only a couple of such events that were geared toward agriculture.

“I would love to see it as a model in other city schools and suburban schools, because we need a lot more farmers,” said Steubing. “We need to be doing this at the high school level.”

The state of Oregon, as noted in a story in this past Sunday’s New York Times, is cultivating many such farmers. Lured by vibrant farmers markets and regional enthusiasm for local food, many young people are taking up farming.

Steubing volunteers for the Capital District Transition Network, a group that meets monthly at the Albany Public Library to address issues related to energy uncertainty and climate change. It’s one of 300 community groups around the world, whose members focus on low-energy ways to approach life: Some people stick to bikes for transportation, others grow their own food.

More than 25 years ago, John Cougar Mellencamp released his album Scarecrow and started FarmAid concerts with Neil Young and Willie Nelson to help failing family farms, victims of the “Get big or get out” policies that supported agribusiness and undermined what was left of small-scale agriculture. Since then, new models of farming have developed, including the direct-marketing opportunities provided by farmers markets and CSAs.

The farmers who spoke to the students represent many of these new models, coming from backgrounds unrelated to agriculture. Samantha Kemnah worked for a software company but now runs a CSA with her husband, a former soils scientist. Neither of them wanted to work indoors. Otter Hook Farms, in Greene County, began with a dozen members and will have 60 members buying vegetable shares this year. Kliese and her husband are also in Greene County, but both have day jobs in Albany and Glenmont.

“I love farming because you work with your body and with your mind,” said Rebeca Torres Rose, who works for Denison Farms, a CSA in Schaghticoke that sells at farmers markets in Troy and Saratoga. Rose grew up in a city and never thought she would farm, even when she was going to graduate school. None of her other jobs, from working at an arts center, acting, or packing boxes for a technology company, has been nearly as satisfying. “Eating is a social issue, an environmental issue, and an economic issue. I’m not just here to shop and buy and die. I know that my work does make a difference.”

Other farmers who spoke come from more predictable backgrounds. Kevin Jablonski and Karen Christensen raise grass-fed beef on a farm that’s been in Jablonski’s family since 1928. Mack Brook Farm was a dairy farm for most of that time; the couple switched to raising beef cattle in 2003. Nate Darrow from Saratoga Apple comes from an orchard family.

“I remember the secretary of agriculture during the Nixon administration saying, ‘Get big or get out,’” Darrow said. “When I was your age I used to work in an apple-packing house. It was an apple factory, shipping tractor trailer loads several times a week. I wanted to be a big grower.” And he was, planting a thousand acres of Granny Smiths at an orchard. Eventually, however, Darrow downsized because the bigger you get, the more you’re forced to embrace environmentally unfriendly solutions.

Once the speakers were finished, students crowded the tables to talk to the presenters.

“Seems like a good thing to do, to help out your community,” said a young woman who was a junior. “I knew we had an oil problem, but I didn’t know it was related to food.” Before the career day she was considering a career in fashion, but the options she heard about on Friday now seem equally appealing.

The speakers at Albany High told more than 200 students about their work experiences on and off the farm over the course of the day. How many will pursue food-related careers is anyone’s guess.

“Eight or nine students said this is great,” Tom Gallagher said midday. The job opportunities, he said, are enormous. “Plant genetics, livestock breeding, food quality, food safety inspections. If you work for Cornell Cooperative Extension, the skills are transferable.” If you decide you don’t want to work in the North, what you know about apples could be applied to oranges, say, in Florida. “I’m quite pleased with the day,” he said. “I’m very happy with the response and the questions people are asking.”