Outstanding in the Fields The Grange School of Adaptive Agriculture

Outstanding in the Fields The Grange School of Adaptive Agriculture

by Caroline Radice

Photos by Ree Slocum

The sun sets in a sky filled with rainclouds as Joshua Sternberg, the production manager of Field Crop, surveys the plantings of winter vegetables he’s growing as part of his capstone project at the Grange School of Adaptive Agriculture. The fields are lush with broccoli, cauliflower, winter greens, peas, beets, carrots, and more. Sternberg is a graduate of the 2015 class at the Grange School. He stayed on at the school to grow food for this year’s students and for sale at local farmers’ markets. The Grange School views his project somewhat like an incubator farm, but the Grange School also provides additional mentoring support from experienced farmers. Sternberg has been working with Doug Mosel, owner of the Mendocino Grain Project, who has been guiding him through a planting of winter lentils and spelt--a combination of two different crops which Mosel has had good luck with in the past. Sternberg and Mosel are running a trial of two different farming methods for this crop. They are utilizing tillage on one side of the field, where the soil was disced with a tractor before the seeds were planted, and using the no-till system on the other side of the field, where the field was mowed and seeds were then planted with a seed drill.

No-till farming has become increasingly popular in recent years as farmers have become more aware of the benefits to the soil ecology. While the concept is easily embraced, the actual logistics of transitioning a large-scale commercial farm into a no-till farm can be intimidating. One of the great benefits of having the Grange Farm School in our community is that as an educational farm, they have more flexibility to run these trials and work on perfecting techniques. Sternberg explains that, “The no-till method is a multi-year experiment, because you hope as you make the environment more advantageous for perennial grasses, that you see weed pressure reduce over time.”

Sternberg isn’t the only Grange School graduate who has chosen to stay in the area after finishing the program. As the school continues on their mission of educating and inspiring the next generation of farmers, many of their graduates are staying here in Mendocino County and making valuable contributions in our area. Elisha Hardy, also a graduate of the 2015 class, is working toward starting her own farm here in Mendocino County. This year she has been working at Tequio Community Farm and Green Uprising Farm and is growing a large winter crop of brussels sprouts at Brookside School Farm after doing production planning with John Bailey at the Mendo-Lake Food Hub. Recent graduate Lindsey Burns has her sights set on a larger scale poultry business in 2017 after a successful trial run raising poultry this year. James Bording, also a member of the 2016 class, will be staying on to manage and continue developing the orchard at the school.

While graduates tend to winter gardens and plan next year’s projects, the director of the Grange School, Ruthie King, is planning for the 2017 spring term, which has already been receiving applications. The term begins in April, and students will be working on preparing the field for planting, learning about plant propagation in the greenhouse, working with livestock, and much more. The 14-week program also includes field trips to 25 different local farms and food businesses, where students can see the many different farming methods in action and learn about how they can incorporate different pieces into their future farms. Says King, “Adaptive Agriculture is less about relying on one specific farming method, and more about critical thinking. We encourage students to pinpoint what their goal is and then think about how they can achieve it.”

As an aging generation of professional farmers in the United States approaches retirement, both our local community and the whole country will see a great need for motivated new farmers. Over the next 25 years, our country would need to see 700,000 new farmers to replace the population that will be retiring, and the Grange School of Adaptive Agriculture provides valuable foundational education that will help a farmer be successful. The program offers students immersion in a residential training program, combining experiential learning on Ridgewood Ranch’s diverse 5,000 acres with classroom instruction at the school. The curriculum covers a broad set of skills, including animal husbandry, field crop production, industrial arts, business management, and more. It will also give students a well-rounded education in small agriculture that will help launch them into a career in the food system. The school also offers workshops that are open to the public, including more advanced level workshops for the professional farming community here in Northern California.