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College of Marin launches apprentice program for farmers

By Rob Rogers

Marin Independent Journal


The College of Marin and state officials Thursday announced plans to host the nation's first apprenticeship program in organic farming and gardening.
The new program will allow local farmers to train interns as organic farmers without running afoul of state labor laws.
"Each farmer will act as an industry employer, hiring an apprentice who will have a set number of educational objectives," said David Lewis, executive director of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Novato, which helped broker the agreement between the College of Marin and the state Department of Apprenticeship Standards. "That farmer will pay the intern a set amount, while the school will make sure they're learning.
"It's a solution that allows for training the next generation of farmers."
Last summer, inspectors from the state Department of Labor Standards Enforcement cited two Marin farmers for using unpaid interns to harvest their crops. One, San Anselmo vegetable grower Jerome Draper, was fined $1,050 by the state in June 2010 after he asked his sister, his niece and his nephew to help him with farm chores.
"We had the Department of Labor Standards around here for a while, stirring things up and getting everybody scared," said Steve Quirt, an organic agriculture educator with UC Cooperative Extension. "Everybody got together to see what our options were."
One of the farmers affected by the change was Peter Martinelli, the owner of Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas and a pioneer of Marin County's organic farming movement. Like many of Marin's 23 registered organic farmers, Martinelli had spent years working with volunteer laborers, but changed his policy after the arrival of state inspectors in 2010.
"He had an intern who wanted to come back, and Peter told her 'No, you can't work here,'" Quirt said. "She got very upset and said, 'Why not?' He told her the reasons, and said she should write a letter to the (California) Department of Industrial Relations. And she did."
Thanks in part to the letter from Martinelli's intern, representatives from the state Department of Industrial Relations visited Fresh Run Farm to discuss the possibility of an apprenticeship program.
"John Duncan (head of the Department of Industrial Relations) wanted to see the farm where (my intern) worked, meet my other employees and see what was unique about the labor scene on small organic farms," Martinelli said. "My other employees told John about their experiences trying to work on organic farms, and how this was really the only way they could learn about organic farming. He directed the Department of Apprenticeship Standards to start working with me to develop a program, using my farm as a template.
"The College of Marin seemed to me, and to them, to be a natural partner, since they have their relatively new organic gardening program at the Indian Valley campus," Martinelli added.
The new apprenticeship program will become part of the organic gardening program the college has operated at its 5.8-acre farm in Novato since 2009.
"The farm promotes care to the environment by teaching the healthiest and most sustainable farming practices," said college President David Wain Coon in a statement. "We are supporting a strong economy by teaching how to grow the local food system, and we see education and training to support our students and community members to earn family supporting wages the most effective strategy of achieving social equity."
College of Marin officials hope to have the apprentice program up and running — and would-be farmers working in the county's fields — by this summer. Officials details plans for the program Thursday in a press conference at the Indian Valley campus.
Should the apprenticeships do well, the school is also considering a work experience program that would allow students of organic agriculture to earn college credit by working on the farm. That program could be available by the fall, Lewis said.
"It's not unlike what other community colleges do in other industries, like auto technology or nursing — a semester of real-world experience," Lewis said.