Local Farm Trains Aspiring Farmers and Gardeners in Sustainable Agriculture

Established in 2008, EarthDance is a nonprofit organization that provides education about local, sustainable agriculture. Since 2009, EarthDance has operated a season-long apprenticeship to train area residents in the principles and practices of organic agriculture.  Apprentices participate in all aspects of the farm’s operations from seed sowing to marketing the harvest.

The program is uniquely well suited for adult learners who are considering a career in farming, but are not yet able to devote themselves to it full-time.  Additionally, the program is a means for city dwellers to learn about growing food, without having to venture far from home.  Located in North St. Louis County, EarthDance’s farm is an accessible commute for the more than 70 apprentices or “freshman farmies” who have participated in the apprenticeship.  The program has drawn students from 26 zip codes and many walks of life. Past apprentices include artists and landscape designers, engineers and architects, nurses and nutritionists, a high school freshman (the program’s youngest graduate) and a retired middle school teacher.

EarthDance apprentices spend 8 hours a week engaged in hands-on learning.  Alongside Farm Manager April Shelhon, the aspiring farmers plant and tend crops, scout for destructive pests, and build the soil’s fertility with compost tea and alpaca manure.  Twice weekly, apprentices harvest the food they grow, and take home a share of the produce.  The rest goes to feed members of their Community Supported Agriculture program, and shoppers at the Maplewood and Ferguson Farmers markets.

Weekly enrichment sessions complete the apprentices’ agricultural education.  These classes include presentations from experienced farmers and extension agents, as well as trips to visit diverse neighboring farms.  2011 field trips included a visit to a backyard goat farm in Webster Groves, as well as Paul Krautmann’s 80-acre Bellews Creek Farm in Hillsboro MO.

EarthDance’s founder, Molly Rockamann, conceived of EarthDance after completing the University of California-Santa Cruz’ Agro-Ecology Program.  She observed that St. Louisans were looking for more local, fresh food.  The demand for farmers markets in St. Louis has outpaced the supply of farmers who can sell at them.   The apprenticeship, she hopes, will help to bridge this gap.  Several of the program’s graduates have gone on to commercial farming, and others are helping to facilitate school and community gardens. Others are developing St. Louis’ local food system.   Anna Gall, a member of the 2011 class of farmers says that she joined the apprenticeship for personal health reasons, to learn about the benefits of organic food.  She found farm work deeply fulfilling, and now she and her husband have decided to “continue this life-long learning process with our own farming business.  We will be building a small hoop house to grow and market starter vegetables, herbs, and edible flower plants for the 2012 season.” Gall and her husband also plan to re-enroll in the apprenticeship as sophomore farmers.

Many apprentices comment on how the apprenticeship fosters a spirit of community, an unexpected benefit of participation. This pleases Molly Rockamann.  She says, “We set out to grow food and farmers, but we’re growing friendships too.”

EarthDance is accepting applications to join the 2012 apprenticeship class.  The application deadline is December 1st, 2011.  To apply or to find out more, visit online at EarthDance’s website, www.earthdancefarms.org.