Supporting Farmers as Mentors: Groundswell's March Mentor Training Workshop

It’s an often-cited statistic: 40% of all farmers in America are over the age of 55. More people- especially young people- are going to need to step up to the plate when that 40% leaves the workforce. As Maryrose Livingston, one of Groundswell’s most involved farmers, says, with emphasis on each word: “I. Want. More. Farmers! Thousands of ’em! Ten thousands of ’em!”

How do we raise new farmers? Traditionally, farmers came from farming backgrounds and took over the family enterprise when they came of age. Now that only 1-2% of Americans farm, that education path has narrowed considerably. Land grant universities take up some of the slack, but many students leave school without planning to become producers. For the aspiring small farmer, perhaps the most common site of learning is on another person’s farm as an employee, intern, volunteer, or maybe just a visitor.

Now, maybe more than ever, farmers are being looked to as mentors by the next generation. However, most farmers don’t have a teaching background. Groundswell’s mission to grow a more ecological, sustainable and fair food system starts with supporting these farmers in their roles as educators.

On March 16, sixteen area farmers came together for a potluck supper and informal workshop on becoming a better educator and mentor. Hosted by the farmers of the Finger Lakes CRAFT, the Groundswell Center, and NOFA-NY, the workshop was aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of farm-based training in our region, and ultimately, improving the skills of the farming workforce and the success of new farm businesses. The workshop was facilitated by Dean Konayagi and Sharon Tragaskis from Tree Gate Farm, beginning farmers who also have strong backgrounds in communication and experiential education. The group included farmers with years of experience training and mentoring interns, and some who are taking on their first interns this season.

Being a good teacher starts with knowing your audience. Obviously, a farmer is going to communicate differently on a farm tour with the public than she does with her interns. But that’s not all an educator needs to consider. How does one tailor a teaching moment to an employee versus an intern, an apprentice, or a volunteer? What about student groups, customers, or other farmers? International visitors? Visitors with special needs? Country folk? City folk? Each group that walks through your farm gates has a unique background and set of experiences and interests that a good educator is sensitive to before, during, and after teaching. What do your visitors want to get out of their experience on your farm? Do they come looking for tranquility, away from the bustle of the city? Are they coming to learn how to work? Do they have romanticized perceptions of farm life? Are they there to learn the nitty gritty details of your operation? Asking questions of your visitors can help you zero in on what they’re looking for, and help you deliver an excellent lecture, demonstration or workshop.

Other, more ephemeral factors can also influence your teaching moment and can even cause a well-delivered presentation to go awry and miss the mark. Employees’ state of mind and relationships with other employees and bosses come into play. A feud between two employees can bring down the efficiency of the entire group. It’s worthwhile to examine how your own behavior as a boss impacts the educational experience of your learners. How do you react when an employee makes a mistake? Taking a deep breath and keeping your cool may be difficult in the moment, but ultimately it can save your employee-employer relationship. Negative affect in the workplace is a major distraction and can lead to a breakdown in communication. Maintaining an atmosphere of respect, cooperation and trust is crucial to effective knowledge transfer.

When it comes to your employees, interns, apprentices, and long-term volunteers–those you communicate with on a daily basis–understanding each others’ learning styles and communication patterns can make the difference between a positive working relationship and a negative one. Do you tend to need peace and quiet when you’re stressed? If your intern knows this, it can save you both a lot of frustration. Does your intern seem to have difficulty following verbal directions? Perhaps written instructions, a hands-on demonstration or a diagram would help. Using multiple teaching modes simultaneously is a sure way to reach every learner in your audience. Consider verbally explaining a harvesting technique while demonstrating it and then inviting your trainee to give it a try. For some learners, it can be as easy as explaining a procedure in different words.

What can you do when communication breaks down? Perhaps you’re halfway through a farm tour and your visitors haven’t asked a single question. Do they already know it all? Or do they have no clue what you’re showing them, and feel too embarrassed to ask questions? Perhaps you’ve been talking too much, and your audience needs some time to process it all. One of our farmers suggested taking a 10 minute bathroom break, telling your tour group that you want them to have questions for you when you return. Prevention is often easier than remediation; checking in with your audience every couple of minutes and encouraging comments and questions from the get-go can create a safe space for your visitors to express themselves. When a issue arises in the workplace, nip it in the bud by setting aside some time and energy to conflict resolution, whether through open dialogue, or mediation or counseling provided by a neutral third party.

Having diverse learners on the farm, as one of our farmers pointed out, gives you a valuable opportunity to articulate in new ways what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and why. If the old saying that “the best way to learn something is to teach it” is true, then becoming a better educator is about more than growing new farmers; it’s also about making yourself a better one.

Are you a farmer interested in continuing this conversation with other farmers? Consider joining the Finger Lakes CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance in Farmer Training). Got a topic you’d like Groundswell to cover in a future workshop? Send us an email at