After several hours of digging, David Williams sat next to the pile of sweet potatoes he’d pulled from the soil and explained why he, a Ph.D. philosophy student, had signed up for a course in beginning agriculture.
“I’m really freaked out by the extent to which the supply chain is sort of out of sight, out of mind,” said Williams, 28, of Minneapolis, who has worked in a high-end restaurant and taught introductory courses in the philosophy of food.
Though not yet sure where he’d be involved, “I wanted to see if this is the kind of work I can do with integrity and satisfaction.”
So Williams signed up for the Sustainable Horticulture Training Program for Beginning Growers, a new course offered at Farm at the Arb at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska.
Farm at the Arb, a 28-acre interpretive farm, opened on the arboretum grounds last fall. It’s based in a bright-red, century-old barn that has been restored but retains elements of its former functions.
The Horticultural Training Program, unlike the short and primarily recreational community classes the arboretum regularly offers, is an intensive nine-month course designed to prepare students to run their own farms or work in the food industry.
“Some have land already, some have zero experience, others are gardeners,” said Tim Wilson, the arboretum’s farm education manager and coordinator of the course. “There’s a huge shortage of skilled labor in agriculture. This is a way we can start people on a career path.”
The course began in February with 400 hours of classroom training, taught by a team of instructors with established horticulture careers. When the pandemic hit, the classes were taught partly remote and partly socially distanced in the cavernous barn. In May, students began 500 hours of hands-on training in the field, with the number working at any one time limited to allow for social distancing.
They get paid for planting, tending and harvesting fruits and vegetables at farms and gardens around the metro area, as well as at the arboretum. Using organic and sustainable methods, they raise produce including spinach, chard, collards, peppers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
As an interpretive center, Farm at the Arb also produces crops that minimize soil runoff, such as perennial sunflowers and grains, along with classic Minnesota corn and soybeans, and an annually rotating exhibit of agricultural traditions from local communities such as the Somali or Hmong. Interpretive signs help visitors spend an educational hour or two strolling around the fields.
Because of COVID-related restrictions, this year’s produce will be donated to food shelves, Wilson said. In other years, food can be sold to restaurants, including the arboretum’s cafe, or to consumers through a community-supported agriculture program.
With more restaurants serving locally grown food, demand is high for fresh nearby produce. A graduate of the course could potentially work with local chefs to produce specific or unusual vegetables on a scale that makes it economically feasible, said Wilson, who has worked with well-known chefs including Minneapolis’ Beth Dooley, who is also a cookbook author.
The program can expand to admit more students next year, Wilson said, thanks to a couple of grants: $150,000 from the state’s Office of Higher Education and Department of Labor and Industry, and $15,000 from the American Public Gardens Association and the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.
The 10 students in this first year had various reasons for taking it. Some, like Williams, want to learn more about how food can be produced in ethical ways.
“If I want tomatoes in December, somebody needs to pick them in Florida,” Williams said. “There was a time when migrant workers in Florida were basically enslaved. The pleasure I get from eating tomatoes — in no way is it worth that.”
Nikita Manavi, 26, of Minneapolis, is a former park ranger with a degree in environmental science. She wants to continue in school studying agricultural policy, crop science and the future of food production. Brandon Fiedler, 26, of Mendota Heights, was working in technology but wanted a career change.
“I wasn’t interested in building things with a computer,” he said. “I was more drawn to sustainability, the environment and the natural world.”
Randall Sarkis, 66, of Chaska, is a retired physicist who works at the Mustard Seed Landscaping & Garden Center in Chaska and wanted to be more knowledgeable about the merchandise.
“You don’t really know about anything until you get your hands into soil,” Sarkis said.