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‘Field of Dreams’ program inspires beginning farmers in East Tennessee

Field School students meet in a greenhouse in Rogersville (Joe Couch Farms).
Field School students meet in a greenhouse in Rogersville (Joe Couch Farms).

Submitted by Emily Bidgood and Leah Matson


Farming is not for everyone, but everyone needs farmers.

The Field School, a ten-part educational program beginning in November, connects aspiring farmers with the resources and information to operate a family farm business. The mission of the program is the help grow the next generation of prepared farmers, and they are now accepting applications for the 2016-2017 year.

Dana York is the Field School’s lead facilitator and curriculum consultant. She retired in 2014 as Associate Chief from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and moved back home to her family farm in Jonesborough with a passion for growing more prepared young farmers in the region.

“The program aims to make a difference in the community by increasing the number of farmers in the area, helping them overcome common mistakes that beginning farmers can experience and increasing upper East Tennessee consumer access to locally-grown food,” York said. “The goal is to give attendees a basic orientation to a wide variety of agricultural production information and well how to enhance their skills and abilities to be successful as a farmer.”
The course shares specific knowledge on soil health, crops, markets, regulations and resources. Students will go on five farm tours to see behind-the-scenes of the operations. They will also hear from more than 20 mentor farmers and business experts over the course of the educational series because the program is collaboration between the Appalachian RC&D Council, area U.S. Department of Agriculture offices, AccelNow, University of Tennessee Extension, Boone Street Market, and Tennessee State University Extension.
“We invite working farmers to teach alongside government professionals. Many of our local government and Extension Service professionals are also farmers too,” Emily Bidgood, Executive Director of the Appalachian RC&D Council said.
According to Bidgood, twenty-five students went through the program last year, which was the pilot year of the program. “The age range was 27 to 73 years old and land ownership ranged from zero acres to 200,” said Bidgood. “Very diverse.”

Richard Calkins, of Mountain City, founded Harbin Hill Farm this past year after retiring from the World Bank.

“I have benefited enormously from the beginning farmer support groups in this region, such as the ARC&D Field School,” said Calkins. “For beginning farmers, there are quite a number of resources out there to help. It is important to reach out and take advantage of them.”

On the second field visit of the Field School, he saw a hoophouse on a farm near Rogersville. This inspired him to build his own hoophouse, which he completed this last spring. In order to share what he has learned, he has agreed to be the December farm visit for the upcoming Field School class. In fact, he is ordering two more hoophouses, and hopes to have them under construction by the time they visit.

“The more you know, the fewer mistakes you make, so I have tried to get as much knowledge as possible,” said Calkins, who has also been interning on a market-gardening operation near Jonesborough whose manager he met through the Field School.

“The workshops are part of the Field School experience, but meeting other people and learning directly from others is what really bears fruit,” said Bidgood.

Applications are now being accepted until the program is full, and students must register in advance. There are three scholarships placements for veterans. The cost for ten sessions is $75. Registration, schedule and details are online at www.arcd.org. For questions call (423) 979-2581 or email [email protected]