Farmers teaching students about agriculture business

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FARMINGTON — Six students in the new agriculture education program at Foster Technology Center this fall are getting a close-up view of what it takes to run a successful farm.

“I definitely want a future in agriculture and this is a way I can learn about other businesses beyond my own farm,” said Ashlie Hardy, 17, whose family produces organic milk at the Hardy Family Farm in Farmington.

Hardy and fellow student Michelle Powers, both involved in the pilot program, spoke at the annual meeting of the Franklin County Agricultural Task Force on Tuesday at the Farmington Grange Hall in West Farmington.

The task force, an informal group of farmers and farming advocates, has been meeting since 2008 with the goal of supporting efforts to promote agriculture in Franklin County. The project is facilitated by staff of Western Mountains Alliance.

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Establishing an agricultural vocational program to interest young people in the field of agri-business, was one of the task force’s first goals and a dream of local organic dairy farmer Bussie York. York’s family owns Sandy River Farms in Farmington.

The agriculture program offers students a chance to rotate through 12, three-week, on-the-job trainings at area farms and related businesses; a 100-hour summer internship; and a paid internship at the end of the year.

“We are fortunate to have a diversified agricultural community in this area and we are trying to show these students just how many occupations there are in agriculture,” said one of the program’s volunteer organizers, Wilton farmer Pamela Harnden.

Tech center director Glen Kapiloff said there has been tremendous community involvement in this program, which is being offered with no district funding. When Harnden started making calls to line up internship slots, she had 35 businesses and farms ready to sign up, he said.

“We have students enrolled who are already involved in agriculture and students who hadn’t given it a thought,” he said.

A panel discussion, led by York, featured Ralph Caldwell of Caldwell Family Farm, a 63-year-old organic beef farm in Turner that distributes organic meat to about 70 stores and restaurants; Bill Eldridge of MOO Milk, an organic milk cooperative; and Marilyn Meyerhans of The Apple Farm in Fairfield.

All agreed the “eat local” movement has created a greater consumer appreciation of locally-produced agriculture but also has increased the demand for producers to be more visible to the customer.

“The interest in local food now is the best that I have ever seen in my lifetime,” Caldwell said.

The trade-off is that producers can be putting in 100-hour weeks on the farm and also have to have someone marketing the products at stores and restaurants or selling at farm stands and markets.

“What keeps us going is how often we get thanked for what we do and that people are willing to pay a premium for knowing where their food comes from. It is important to have the farmer right there for people to ask questions,”said task force member Dennis Wilk, who raises registered Angus beef at King & I Angus in New Sharon with his wife, Sara.

Other projects highlighted:

* Winter wheat trials at Sandy River Farms in Farmington in a collaboration with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

* Renovation of the Grange Hall to include a commercial community kitchen.

* The first Tour de Farmington last month had 37 cyclists riding through Franklin County and stopping at 13 farms.

After the meeting, Alliance Director Tanya Swain said the area is fortunate to have farmers willing to become engaged with the community and to spend time to set an agenda for the future.

“These people are so busy but are taking the time to do this. Without their involvement and leadership, we can’t be effective,” she said.

A video, “Meet Your Farmer,” produced by Maine Farmland Trust was also shown. It profiles several Maine farmers, including Sandy River Farms. It can be viewed at www.meetyourfarmer.org.

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