What Works? Farmer-Led Education

Groundswell’s popular Organic Orchards class met in
February at Black Diamond Farm in Trumansburg
to study pruning techniques with master
orchardist Ian Merwin.

By Joanna Green

I love it when a group of really wonderful people put their heads together to make something happen. I love it when a really great idea turns into reality. And I especially love it when it turns out to be a lot of fun!

That’s what’s happening with Groundswell’s new season-long course in Holistic Organic Orchard Management.

Last year a group of small-scale commercial orchardists came to Groundswell and proposed a new program to meet the needs of the emerging organic tree fruits industry. It’s hard to grow quality fruit organically, and  here in the Ithaca area there’s a tremendous amount of innovation going on in local orchards. Growers  wanted an opportunity to share their knowledge, compare notes, and educate their employees about effective organic management strategies.

I loved the idea. As a home orchardist I’d had a hard time figuring out how to grow a nice crop of apples. And from our previous courses, I knew there were lots of people like me – serious home orchardists who would love to learn from The Masters.

So we cooked up the idea of a monthly program which would focus on a different aspect of production  throughout the entire season. We had nine experienced growers eager to be involved as instructors. But we had no idea how many people would sign up. How much would they be willing to pay for this extraordinary education? Could we bring in enough revenues to pay instructors? Groundswell?

We decided to take a chance together and try it out. Groundswell agreed to manage the course enrollments, marketing, and administration, without compensation if necessary.  The growers agreed to teach without compensation if necessary. We figured out a sliding scale for tuition that seemed reasonable, and began putting the word out…

Well… as it turned out the course has proven extremely popular. We’re completely maxed out with 28 students this year. Orchardist Chris Negronida has done an absolutely stellar job organizing the curriculum, instructors, and resource materials. Chris and the instructors are getting paid, and there’s even some net revenues for Groundswell. 

Orchardist Chris Negronida organized the curriculum
and resource materials for the Groundswell’s Holistic
Organic Orchards class, and also serves as
Instructor and Course Coordinator

The class meets from 1-4 PM on the fourth Sunday of the month, Jan-Oct (except July). Each session takes place at a different local orchard and involves 2-3 instructors, so the large class is able to split up into several small groups for hands-on activities. There’s always a whole lot of conversation among experienced and beginning orchardists. Everyone is learning a lot, even those who’ve been at it for decades.

We’re excited about this model of farmer-led programming! It’s a great idea that really works, and it’s helping to grow a sector of our agricultural economy with strong market demand. We look forward to cooking up other dynamic, farmer-led educational programs to meet the needs of farmers, homesteaders, and emerging markets.

Joanna Green is Director of the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming in Ithaca, NY.