THIS TOWN COULD USE A THOUSAND FARMERS
“This town could use a thousand farmers,” says Pete Mayo of Spinach Creek Farm to a small group of eager listeners, the students of the AFFECT Farmer Training Program. They are Fairbanks residents with various backgrounds and experience levels that share one common passion, growing food. Throughout the upcoming summer they will attend classroom lessons and visit various local farms for hands-on instruction. These experiences will cover a range of topics from growing techniques to farming as a business and prepare them to start their own farm in the future.
Last week marked the beginning of AFFECT’s first ever farmer training program. The program began on Tuesday with class introductions and on Thursday hosted a panel of local farmers to discuss farming as a business and a lifestyle. Farmers from Dart AM Farm, Frontieress Farm, Goosefoot Farm, and Spinach Creek Farm sat on the panel. The farmers dove into their origin stories, mistakes they’ve made, lessons they’ve learned, and the reasons they love farming.
From left to right: John Dart (Dart AM Farm), Christine St. Pierre (Goosefoot Farm), Megan Schulze (Frontieress Farm), Lynn Mayo (Spinach Creek Farm), and Pete Mayo (Spinach Creek Farm).
Panelist John Dart of Dart AM farms attended the first day of class on Tuesday to meet all the participants and show his support for the program, just hours after finding out one of his greenhouses had been damaged. “I'm under a tremendous amount of stress right now,” he said about the damage during the panel on Thursday. “But I'm here. Because I can be. Because I want to be here.” Dart grew up in Minnesota and worked on a dairy farm, but truly fell in love with farming in 1969 while visiting his uncle’s farm in Manley Hot Springs, Alaska. Three days after his high school graduation, Dart hopped on a plane and flew to Alaska to work on the pipeline. Instead, he ended up working in his uncle’s greenhouse and decided he didn’t want to leave. He studied agricultural engineering at Purdue University but ultimately returned to Alaska. Dart wore many hats working for the state, teaching agriculture, and assisting his uncle before starting his own farm. He currently runs Dart AM Farm in Manley Hot Springs, Alaska where he will host AFFECT students for a weekend in June.
All of the farmers on the panel will host the participants at their farms later in the summer for a more hands-on learning experience. Their excitement about the program was evident from their panel discussions. Megan Schulze of Frontieress Farm shared her enthusiasm with the group on Thursday. “You guys are going to see all of our different farms and our different farming styles. It's so neat to see what jives with you and what inspiration you get from each of us. I think that is the really cool part about this.” Megan started Frontieress Farm, the youngest farm on the panel, just a few years ago. She grows vegetables and herbs, but specializes in cut flowers. Megan will host the students at her farm this May and teach them about market garden tools and field preparation. A few weeks later, they will travel to panelist Christine St. Pierre’s Goosefoot Farm to learn how she prepares her fields as well.
Christine St.Pierre represented Goosefoot Farm, the farm she shares with her husband Brad, at the panel. The St. Pierres use organic practices to produce their bountiful vegetable harvest each summer. Goosefoot Farm is now in its ninth year of production, but Christine shared with the students that starting the farm wasn’t easy. After working on several farms and getting her degree in Washington, Christine and her husband moved to Fairbanks. “I came back to Alaska determined to start my own farm,” Christine said. “Even though I had no money, no land…two of the biggest things you need to start a business were not available to me at the time.” Christine went on to describe the value in working on farms explaining that “you learn how to do it, which is essential, but it’s not a money maker.”
This sentiment was shared by other panelists including Pete Mayo of Spinach Creek Farm. “You don't have a lot of money when you start out. When you work farm jobs you don't particularly earn a lot of money,” said Pete. “I would very much recommend that to anyone because you can find out what you really need. If you were given a huge grant right now in your present position you wouldn't really know what you need.” The farmer training program will expose the students to some of the knowledge and experiences one could gain working on a farm while they maintain their employment and other responsibilities. They will have the chance to pick Pete and his wife Lynn’s brains again when they travel to their farm later this summer. The Mayos have over two decades of experience, they started the first CSA in Fairbanks and are known to have the best carrots in town.
Many students in the program have been gardening for years and hope to scale that up to a homestead or a for-profit farm. “There’s nothing wrong with starting out being a gardener, or staying a gardener. Being a gardener is a lot less stressful,” says John Dart. “But I'm happiest when I'm at the farm.”
AFFECT students look on as John Dart shows off his record book from the first year he grew vegetables decades ago.
The passion all of the panelists have for farming was evident throughout the panel. When asked what their favorite part of farming is, they all struggled to find just one. “Can we choose our top three,” questioned Christine St. Pierre. Their answers to that question were a little different, but they all agreed on how they feel about the farming community in Fairbanks. “Farmers are willing to help other people, that's what I’ve always found,” said John Dart. “Most farmers need someone to talk to, somebody to share with... this community has always been really good.” The panelists revealed that they lean on each other for advice and support. Their willingness to come out and share their lessons with a group of future farmers after a long day of preparing for the growing season proves the strength and generosity in the Fairbanks farming community
. With farmers like these, this town could use a thousand farmers. With the AFFECT Farmer Training Program, we hope to see a few more.