Class gives future farmers lowdown on dirt

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MOUNT VERNON — The second day of class for students in Washington State University’s Sustainable Small Acreage Farming and Ranching course made clear this would be no ordinary college credit.

Before dark, 54 students gathered at the WSU Northwest Washington Research and Extension Center for a short field trip to a research field of soil. Doctorate student Caitlin Price explained an experiment testing nutrients added to soil by different amounts and mixtures of composted biosolid (treated and processed sewage), manure and traditional fertilizer in marked rows.

Craig Cogger, a soil scientist from WSU’s Puyallup Extension, demonstrated how to properly take soil samples for analysis.

For the rest of the three-hour class period, Cogger discussed everything a starting farmer would need to know about soil, from how to test its composition of sand, silt and clay, to the earth’s nitrogen cycle and how plant roots take up nutrients.

Most college courses would not spend three hours exclusively on soil, but for students trying to start a successful commercial farm or improve the one they have, soil is an essential base of knowledge.

“Soil is really the foundation of farming,” Cogger said. “If your soil is deficient, you’re not going to grow good crops.”

Using a curriculum developed by WSU and the University of Idaho, the next 10 weeks of class will introduce students to sustainable crop production, environmentally friendly pest and weed management, livestock systems and irrigation and drainage.

“It really runs the gamut of everything you need to know to start farming,” said course instructor Sarita Schaffer.

Now in its sixth year, the course is one of two that students must pass to lease land at WSU Skagit County Extension’s farm incubator, Viva Farms, in Bay View. The other is an agriculture entrepreneurship course that delves deeper into marketing development and organizing farm finances.

Don McMoran, director of WSU Skagit County Extension, said the extension-run courses, university support and incubator farm have been important to help maximize the success of first-time farm owners in Skagit County — and preserve farmland.

“Prior to the course, I was seeing a lot of people coming into the county, buying a small piece of land, working it for a few years and finding it to be a lot of hard work, and then selling it, not always back to agricultural use, but to the most profitable use,” McMoran said. “Since the class started, we’ve seen a lot less of that in Skagit County.”

Along with a comprehensive introduction, Schaffer said the class also will visit local farms for a ground-level glimpse into the hard work and dedication involved in running a farm.

“I think there’s this Utopian vision of small farming that shatters pretty quickly when people learn what running a farm is all about,” Schaffer said. “It’s not just walking through open fields and petting fluffy animals — it’s much harder than that.”

Another unique aspect of the course is that it has been bilingual for the last three years Schaffer has been teaching. Schaffer, who is also the executive director of Viva Farms, said the Spanish portion helps reach a growing number of Mexican and Latino farmers looking to start their own farms.

On this day, Cogger used PowerPoint slides written in Spanish for stretches of time, while Schaffer translated the lecture into Spanish through a headset to four students wearing headphones.

One such student was Karla Farias, who came with her husband, Ignacio. Farias, said she was born in Mexico but now lives in Renton with her family. She hopes to raise chickens.

Farias said she owned a farm for four years in Mexico, raising poultry, beef, pork and a few crops, but came to the class to learn more about Northwest agricultural practices before she started.

“This side of the Northwest is so cold, it is very different from tropical,” Farias said.

Schaffer said along with aiding the Spanish-speaking students, the class’ language component has been attractive to English-speaking students as well, who can use the headphones to simulate cultural immersion on a Spanish-speaking farm.

“It gives our students a chance to put themselves in the shoes of a farm worker or immigrant for one night, and see how that feels. Or imagine back a generation or two ago, when your ancestors may have just come to America, and see how your family might have faced the same challenge,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer said the language component of the class, along with a growing popular interest in agriculture, has helped bring attendance at the class up from approximately 30 students who attended her 12-week courses in the last two years.

“I think people are curious and interested in where their food is coming from and how the modern food system works, particularly on a small, local level,” Schaffer said. “When they see food at a farmers market — how is that different from food shipped in from around the world?

“I think it’s hard to live in Skagit very long and not become interested in farming, because we’re surrounded by it,” she added.

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