Sweat lines the brow of Frank Ostapowicz as he kneels in front of the garden, working his hands through the soil as he cleans the bed. It’s tiring work, but Ostapowicz says it’s rejuvenating.
“I think of it as yoga,” he says. “It’s hard, and you’re tired. But it’s better than being restless.”
Ostapowicz is one of five students in the inaugural class for Farm School, an 11-month course offered through the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture in collaboration with the Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville. The program aims to prepare the next generation of farmers in Northwest Arkansas.
“We need secure sources of food,” said Heather Friedrich, program manager for the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food, which oversees the school. “I think COVID amplified and showed us where a lot of flaws are in our systems, and food production is one of those things.
“Having a training program like this has been in our dreamland for a really long time, and when Karin [Endy] came along with an idea with the Walton Family Foundation, we just jumped on it.”
Running from January to November, the course offers fieldwork complemented by classroom learning, covering everything from soil science basics to creating a business plan for participants’ future farms – which is a crucial and sometimes overlooked factor for beginning farmers.
“The production side of things is much more natural to them, but it’s the business concepts that are a little bit of a struggle,” Friedrich said. “That’s why we need to integrate those two.”
“The fact that they come out of this with a business plan and understanding the business of owning a farm is critically important,” said Karin Endy, a veteran food systems and education consultant and Walton Family Foundation adviser. “And it also helps them if they need to get a loan or mortgage on land, that they have the financial documentation ready to go that they’re going to be asked for.”
Planning for the Farm School began in 2017, but the origins of the need for the school can be traced back to 2013 when Endy helped conduct a regional food assessment for Northwest Arkansas while working at a consulting firm in New York.
“What we found was not just the typical story you see across America where farmers are aging out, and we don’t have anybody to replace them. But we saw a really high demand for local food in Northwest Arkansas,” she said.
Further, farmers face a host of challenges, both on a macro level – such as weather disruptions caused by climate change – and on a smaller level, such as access to healthcare, affordable farmland and markets to sell their food.
The challenge, then, was how to expand the growth of local food within the region while helping address the challenges posed to farmers, and the Farm School is one piece in a broader portfolio of efforts undertaken by the Walton Family Foundation to achieve just that. Farm School is one of three grantees for the foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Food Systems initiative. The foundation is working with the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust on projects to increase access to affordable farmland, in addition to helping fund a food conservancy to help bridge farmers with local food markets.
These additional support systems create a network and community of resources for both aspiring and established farmers – with the goal of “more fresh, healthy food for everyone in the region,” Endy said.
“It’s not like this is a standalone school — you don’t just come for 11 months, and then you’re done,” Endy said. “We try to bring in a whole community of resources. You come out, and you have resources available to you. You’re not on your own.”
Those who complete Farm School and are not ready to take the next step of owning a farm can participate in an apprenticeship program through the division, also funded by the foundation. The opportunity offers hands-on experience at a farm that allows them to apply their learnings from Farm School in ways they couldn’t in a learning program.
“The realities are that farming for a business is different from what we do out here,” Friedrich said. “We don’t have the economic pressures that a farm has. It’s really good for them to experience and understand the realities of what farming looks like and thinking, ‘Oh, I need to be harvesting a little faster,’ or ‘This issue is not that big of a deal for this farmer, but they really need to focus on this.’”
Friedrich said the participants in the inaugural class are in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, though they expect younger participants to enroll in the school moving forward.
“I’m thinking about all the kids across Arkansas and Oklahoma who grow up in FFA and don’t see a future in specialty crops but are passionate about growing food or cattle,” Endy said. “And I think knowing there’s an opportunity, we’ll start seeing some younger kids who say, ‘College isn’t right for me, I want to get my hands dirty and be prepared to have my own farm or bring back my grandparents’ farm.’”
Ostapowicz took an unorthodox route through the program. He inherited his love of gardening from his mother, who died when he was 3.
“It was just like divine intervention that it became something that I was really passionate about,” he said. “We’ve been getting further and further away from the garden as a lifestyle to grow your own food for so long. We’d be a better society if we had a lot of small to mid-sized garden farms just kind of scattered.”
He started taking horticulture classes while at NorthWest Arkansas Community College to “kind of search for a way into food.” Last year, he decided to explore the UA’s website for farming opportunities and came across the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food (CAFF). He enrolled in the apprenticeship program, as the Farm School had yet to launch.
“I started to work on farms for the first time in my life,” he said. “Then the Farm School came out of nowhere the next year, and it was a no-brainer. I signed up for it, and I’m really glad I did.”
While Ostapowicz was already familiar with the basics of growing crops, he said the business aspects taught in the school have been invaluable to him. Ostapowicz hopes to purchase land locally soon and cultivate his farm, hoping for his first yield by next fall.
“I just want a place out in the country, and then just start tilling the ground,” he said.