Graphic by Pointa Design/shutterstock.
The best growers never stop learning. Of course, learning on the farm happens every day, whether we'd like it to or not. Forget to turn on the electric fence guarding the lettuce this spring, and you'll be reminded how quickly the critters will find it - and you won't make that mistake again. Other mistakes can be much more serious, and ongoing education is one key element in a productive, safe and profitable farm enterprise.
Whether they want to or not, growers today have to engage in some types of continuing education simply to comply with existing regulations and keep up with new ones. Training is often required by law for manure or nutrient management regulations, pesticide handling, food safety, and other safety concerns or environmental hazards. Local extension personnel typically offer classes to help keep farmers current with mandated training, as well as to offer an ongoing repertoire of continuing education options.
Whether you're just starting out, diversifying the farm or keeping up with new developments, continuing your education increases your skills, grows farm profitability and encourages innovation. It enhances the grower as well as the farm. It also comes in many forms these days, with the Internet providing distance learning resources from the formal to the informal, including classes offered through university programs, forum sites and discussion groups. From safety to sales, from cultivars to customers, continuing education is as diverse as today's small farm.
Guy Ames, orchardist and National Center for Appropriate Technology horticultural specialist, conducts workshops on grafting techniques via webinars. These include a slide presentation along with the audio. Archived webinars are available at www.attra.ncat.org/video.
Photo courtesy of Guy Ames.
Educating for safety
"Continuing education and safety training programs are increasingly becoming available through eXtension, the online site of the cooperative extension program," said Dennis Murphy, extension safety specialist and professor of agricultural safety and health at Penn State University. "The Ag Safety and Health page leads to nationally available education and training resources, self-paced learning modules, instructor-based programs, webinars and more."
He continued, "No one ever plans to have an agricultural injury incident, but they happen regularly. When serious or fatal accidents happen, it usually results in lost production, increased administrative costs, increased scrutiny and perhaps premiums by your insurance carrier, worker replacement costs and lower worker morale."
While no one can force you to learn how to operate equipment safely, or to teach your laborers to do so, it certainly is a good idea. Training could not only save a life and prevent injury, but also protect you from lawsuits, regulatory fines and insurance premium increases.
While most farms are not directly covered by Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations, OSHA standards are a great place to find instructional content, Murphy said. He recommends that growers utilize these standards as a means of continuing education for themselves, or as a learning module for training family members or employees. Topics include rollover protection, occupational noise exposure, respiratory protection and personal protective equipment, hazard communications and confined space safety.
An increased focus on food safety issues, environmental concerns and on-farm safety has led to increased regulatory oversight on the farm. It has also improved awareness of common safety concerns, such as heat exposure and hazardous equipment. Murphy recommends that growers assess the information that is applicable to their operation, much of which is now available on the Internet. Just knowing the facts isn't enough. Refreshing your knowledge base and practicing safety drills or first aid skills regularly helps keep safety first. New protocols and procedures can also help to save lives.
"Growers can also keep up with important advances in best safety and health practices and training resources by attending annual professional development conferences sponsored by organizations such as the Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America," Murphy said. Other recommended sites include the AgriSafe Network and the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety (see sidebar).
Participants in an upstate New York field day get a wagon ride tour of the farm.
Photos by Tamara Scully unless otherwise noted.
Pesticide application certification is one area where growers using these chemicals are required to participate in continuing education classes. Typically issued by state departments of agriculture, pesticide applicator certification is an ongoing process. The license needs to be renewed regularly, which requires classes. In addition, restricted-use pesticides are regulated through the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a Worker Protection Standard (WPS) that applies to most farm operations, whether or not there is hired labor.
The WPS clearly defines the use of regulated pesticides, the safety equipment needed, the education that must be provided to agricultural employees, and safe handling and emergency procedures. It also defines the responsibilities of the employer in providing pesticide safety training. The grower must not only learn, but also pass on the knowledge to ensure the safety of farm laborers.
Other types of regulated training include waste management and food safety. Manure handling or nutrient management plans may be required on the local, state or federal level. If farmers are processing foods, food safety certifications, health department inspection and other requirements may mean taking classes to adhere to regulations. Training in proper hygiene and sanitation practices when handling food is mandatory.
"Most growers understand the need for continuing education when it comes to topics such as production practices, plant varieties, new equipment, profitability and the like, but growers often fail to understand the importance of continued education in work safety and health," Murphy noted.
Farm field days often provide hands-on educational opportunities. Here, attendees register for a field day hosted by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
Aside from the obvious safety concerns that require training and ongoing compliance, growers are faced with an ever-increasing amount of research data, new developments and changes in societal values that can impact the bottom line. While you might be comfortable growing the same varieties with the methods you learned decades ago, new plant research and varieties, the development of alternative growing methods, and the emergence of new invasive pests all but require some type of ongoing education.
It's never been easier to connect with breeders, researchers and experts in every possible field of agriculture. The Internet has opened up vast new worlds of knowledge. While growers have traditionally relied on local extension professionals, agricultural trade associations and trade publications to provide the latest agricultural news and training, the Internet has expanded the educational options.
Growers no longer have to leave the farm to attend a workshop. Written materials, video presentations, webinars and other interactive programming are readily available and allow growers to quickly find information pertinent to their specific needs from resources around the country.
However, don't rule out more traditional learning environments. Attending a trade show, conference or field day adds a personal touch and provides an opportunity to connect with your peers.
Trade shows give you a chance to talk to equipment dealers and manufacturers, as well as those who provide seed, growing media and other products for the industry. These shows might also give you your first look at new products and services. Most also offer educational components - often including classes that provide recertification credits for pesticide applicators - or hold meetings for industry organizations. You may find grower panels, information on new varieties and pest management research, the latest data on soil fertility or ideas for marketing your product.
"The best way to learn about farming is talking to other farmers," said Luke Gran, Next Generation coordinator at Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), when introducing one of the organization's Farminar programs. These live, Internet-based educational programs allow producers from around the nation to log on at the scheduled time and interact with the presenters and other attendees. It's not quite the same as attending on-farm workshops and field days, but it serves much the same purpose. Interactive agricultural webinars are offered through eXtension, nonprofit groups, Natural Resources Conservation Service, university programs and producer groups.
On-farm workshops, such as this one hosted by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, allow for hands-on demonstrations, as well as speaker presentations.
There can be economic consequences of planting yourself on the farm and not looking too far beyond what you're doing. Being isolated from ongoing developments in the agricultural sector can translate into lost opportunities.
"Farming is not a static endeavor," said Tamsyn Jones, communications specialist at PFI. "What works for farmers today may not work five or 10 years from now, or in a drought or flood year. Farming is a lifelong process, and as such requires that farmers respond to problems and changes in the broader system by continually tweaking and adjusting their methods."
New products and equipment, new varieties, and enhanced means of combating weeds, diseases and pests are continually being researched and developed. Without access to this information, growers risk falling back on methods that may no longer offer the best option for solving or preventing problems.
"For this reason, experienced farmers need access to continued learning opportunities just as much as beginning farmers," Jones said. "Another core aspect of PFI - and a major source of continuing education - is our farmer-led on-farm research Cooperators' Program, where, guided by PFI staff, farmer members can set up and conduct rigorous on-farm research or demonstration projects to help answer their own questions."
Field days, research reports, newsletter articles, blog posts and an annual conference are all means PFI employs to share research results, collective knowledge and creative solutions. A webinar series and members-only email discussions are two interactive ways PFI offers distance learning.
"At Practical Farmers, we believe that farmers are ultimately the experts when it comes to agricultural production," Jones said. "We also believe there's no single answer to farming questions, concerns or techniques, and that striving for sustainable, resilient farms is an ongoing and lifelong process."
Today's agriculture is changing daily. Between global trade and local food systems, keeping up-to-date with the latest news can be a full-time job. Luckily, many organizations offer growers the opportunity to keep abreast of new regulations and innovations without giving up the farm. While on-the-job learning experiences are plentiful, these more formal learning opportunities may need to be scheduled and planned. Whether turning to the Internet, attending a field day or talking to other growers in town, growing your knowledge is an important tool for growing your operation.
The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.