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Learn to be a farmer at Whidbey Island’s Organic Farm School

Organic Farm School student Josh Christopher aspires to own his own pig farm someday. (Photo by Rachel Belle)

On Whidbey Island, there is a school that teaches people how to become farmers. The Organic Farm School is a working farm that attracts students from all over the country who want to own their own farms, or make their living working on one.

Over the course of about six months, students spend five or six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, learning everything they can about how to run a farm. It’s a serious program, not designed for backyard gardeners or hobbyists. They cover the economics:

“That’s definitely the biggest reason I came to this program,” said student Halle Salisbury. “The emphasis on personal business planning. I have no clue where to even begin even though I have the farm experience.”

They learn about the science of soil, how to grow crops and care for animals.

Organic Farm School’s executive director, Judy Feldman, says programs like theirs are essential.

“The average American farmer is 58 years old and there aren’t a lot of them,” Feldman said, as we walked by fields of corn. “Their access to land means that they typically have smaller farms rather than the bigger farms. So you can start to imagine that the amount of food that we can generate in this country is going to shift a bit.”

In a stroke of good timing, Edmonds’ Josh Christopher quit his job to start farm school just days before the pandemic shutdown.

“I’ve been a personal trainer for about 18 years and I’ve always wondered where I was going to get food that is ethical and treated right,” Christopher said.”So I started looking into raising my own food. I came over, took a tour, fell in love with it, and immediately tried to sign up.”

Christopher’s dream is to raise pigs, and he stood inside a pig pen, cooing and scratching their dusty, bristly backs as the pigs snorted with contentment. His classmate, Salisbury, hopes to run a vegetable farm someday.

“I was a student at the University of Georgia in landscape architecture and I loved it,” she said. “But I felt sort of detached from those landscapes that I was creating and I was really craving getting my hands in the dirt. So I started farming part-time and I just fell in love with it. The work and the harvesting; seeing the literal fruits of your labor is so different from being in the studio slaving away over a computer for something that might be realized in three years time, versus putting a seed in the ground and harvesting it a month later.”

One thing I noticed about everyone I met on the farm: They all seemed very happy. Farm manager Peyton Cypress went through the program in 2017. He got into farming for the mental and physical health benefits.

“I have not said ‘I am bored’ in the last five years. Not one time,” said Cypress. “That is one of the most rewarding things. When you start farming, you start cooking, and it just goes hand and hand. Food takes up a large part of my day.”

This story might be painting an unrealistically romantic, rosy picture of farming, but everyone involved knows it’s long hours of backbreaking work and there are many risks. Instructor Eli Wheat knows, he grew up on a farm.

“In upstate New York, it was an old, derelict dairy farm,” Wheat said. “While I was growing up, all my friends parents were dairy farmers and now none of those farms are still actively growing food. So I definitely grew up with the narrative of: if you can imagine doing anything else other than farming, that’s what you should do because you shouldn’t stay and take over the family farm. There was no future in farming. Which is kind of funny because there are more people on Earth than there ever has been before and everyone eats.”

But Wheat couldn’t stay away. A true rebel, after graduating from the University of Washington, he worked on an oyster farm, helped the UW start its student farm and eventually moved to Whidbey Island to buy a farm of his own.

“Telling my parents that I was a queer person was difficult, but the coming out process of being a farmer, of going home and telling my folks, ‘Actually, I finished my PhD and what I’m going to do is be a farmer’ was probably as hard if not harder,” Wheat said.

The food the students grow at Organic Farm School is sold at some of Whidbey Island’s supermarkets and farmers markets, they offer a weekly CSA program and they have given thousands of pounds of produce to local food banks.

“What makes us a little different from some of the other training programs is we do seriously, seriously believe that the community has a role here,” Feldman said. “That’s why I do tours. Anyone who wants a tour of the farm school, you just email me and we’ll find a time. Because it’s over food that we have some of the most meaningful conversations.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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