Small Farm School boosts potential of new farmers in north Willamette Valley

Students in Small Farm School learn about on-farm veterinary care at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds.

Small-acreage farming is growing popular in Oregon. The 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, released in early 2019, shows that small farms (less than 10 acres) are the fastest growing farm size in the state and increased 7.6% from 2012, compared to a 2.8% national decrease over the same time period.

But beginning small-acreage farmers need access to networking opportunities and research-based information to ensure sustainability of their farms and food operations. They typically are a mix of those with farming experience but no funds to rent or buy land, or those who have purchased land with little or no farming experience.

In 2012, with the number of beginning and small-scale farms and agriculture value-added operations in the north Willamette Valley expanding, Oregon State University Extension’s Nick Andrews and Heidi Noordijk established Small Farm School, an annual event for beginning farmers to get to know other small-scale farmers in their region and tap into the local food and farming community.

“The goal was to create an educational event that celebrates the tremendous innovation happening on small farms in the region and the diversity of small farms, as well as the burgeoning interest in local sustainably-produced food,” said Andrews, professor of practice and Extension small farms specialist.

Since its inception, more than 1,500 farming professionals have attended Small Farm School at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, where they’ve learned about 218 topics.

Each year, Small Farm School offers 25-30 classroom and hands-on classes, held during growing season and relevant to about 200 local producers. They might attend classes in “Assessing Farm Resources and Selecting an Enterprise,” “Cost Accounting for your Farm Business,” or “Train and Prune Fruit Trees.”

The hands-on sessions have smaller class sizes to allow for participants to use equipment or do farm walks, said Noordijk, Extension’s small farms coordinator.

Evaluations from participants consistently give the program a high success rating. More than 90% of 2019 participants in every session reported they expected to implement ideas learned on their farms.

Participant comments from the 2019 Soil Biology class included, “I get it and I'll do it! Excellent relevant presentation with great practical advice” and, “I am super eager to go home and use what I learned! Looking forward to adding organic matter to my soil.”

 A participant in the Electric Fencing for Rotational Grazing class said, “This class was so helpful, I feel I can construct a fence.”

OSU Extension Small Farm School partners include the Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District, Clackamas Community College, Rogue Farm Corps and Friends of Family Farmers.

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