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Next-Gen Farmer Training Program Update: Empowering new leaders in urban farming in the age of social distancing.

Square Roots | 05.15.20

During the pandemic, we brought forward the end-dates of our current Next-Gen Farmer Training Programs. Programs in both Brooklyn and Grand Rapids, which were due to run through October 2020, are now concluding on May 29th.

Of the 18 Next-Gen Farmers now coming to the end of their shortened Programs, we’re thrilled to be able to offer 13 of the graduates full-time, permanent roles at our company. They will start the next exciting chapter of their careers in controlled-climate urban farming with us on June 1.

Next-Gen Farmers in training at the Square Roots indoor farm in Grand Rapids, MI.

Next-Gen Farmers in training at the Square Roots indoor farm in Grand Rapids, MI.

But this is just one small step in the right direction. The average age of a farmer in the US is 58 years old. COVID-related issues aside, a demographic time bomb is about to detonate in our food system if we don’t create more pathways for young people to launch successful careers in farming. That’s exactly why we set up the Program in the first place. The average age of a Square Roots Next-Gen Farmer is 24.

Our Program methodology and specifically-designed curriculum, supported by our software operating system the Farmer Toolbelt, can help train a young adult, even one with zero horticultural experience, to become a talented and efficient urban farmer extremely quickly. By the end of what is normally a 12-month Program, participants have the skills required to succeed and thrive in full-time positions at Square Roots and beyond.

We set ourselves an internal target to offer permanent roles at Square Roots to 40% of Next-Gen Farmers upon graduation. Often these roles are in farming and farm-management positions, but not always. We currently have former Next-Gen Farmers playing key roles on biosystems and engineering teams, for example.

For those not familiar with our inner workings, Square Roots Next-Gen Farmers are paid employees for the duration of their Program, and contribute directly to our company goals. Similar to traditional farming apprenticeships, many specific farming skills acquired during the Program are learned through hands-on group training as teams work closely together to meet production targets alongside our permanent staff.

Additionally, across the usual Program, complementary lectures, workshops, and more give Next-Gen Farmers exposure to a wide range of topics—from integrated pest management practices to food entrepreneurship frameworks. Much of this supplemental content is designed to be delivered in a classroom setting, or via experiential group projects—including visits to other farms or learning to directly engage communities through activities such as popup demos in local grocery stores.

Clearly, a lot of this programming is impossible to deliver right now. (Indeed, the pandemic is becoming a broader issue across the educational landscape, with California State University the latest American learning institution to suspend all in-person classes for the foreseeable future.)

Next-Gen Farmers on visits to local farms in New York City, Farm.One and Brooklyn Grange.

Next-Gen Farmers on visits to local farms in New York City, Farm.One and Brooklyn Grange.

Moreover, when sustained community spread of coronavirus became obvious in March, we rapidly reconfigured our entire operations to provide heightened levels of people safety as well as food safety. For example, we re-engineered all workflows in the farms to ensure social distancing protocols, resulting in much smaller teams on our facilities at any one time. We also immediately had all Next-Gen Farmers work from home.

From there, our team quickly spun up an e-learning platform to accelerate the delivery of key elements of the Training Program online, and in contactless ways. Thanks to these efforts, by the end of May, the current cohorts of Next-Gen Farmers will have received almost 100% of the supplemental training planned for a full 12-month program. From the start of their Program through to March, they would have also logged somewhere between 700 hours (Grand Rapids) and 1,000 hours (Brooklyn) in the farms. So yes, bringing forward the end-date of the Program means that our current crop of Next-Gen Farmers are now taking their next career steps a little earlier than planned. But we’re extremely confident that they have gained the skills to not only succeed but to excel in a variety of roles across the industry.

Clearly however the job market is not what it was 8 weeks ago. And even though we’re happy to be exceeding our own targets by offering permanent roles to 72% of this year’s (early) graduates, it does mean that six Next-Gen Farmers—all in New York—are now looking for new roles at a difficult time.

Square Roots is committed to providing additional support to this group of talented, newly trained farmers. Firstly, we will ensure they will not be financially disadvantaged between now and when their program was originally scheduled to end in October. Also, as they are searching for their next career steps, we will offer resume support, facilitate networking, and make all the introductions we can to help connect them with other companies in our sphere who are hiring.

If you are a farm manager, looking for trained team members with passion, experience, and love for local food, then please reach out to me directly at [email protected]

So what about the future of the Next-Gen Farmer Training Program? Obviously it’s core to who we are, and why we do what we do. Thousands of people apply! At the same time, we’re planning for a foreseeable-future that includes some form of social distancing to ensure continued people-safety. Our mission remains the same: to bring local, real food to people in cities across the world while empowering the next generation of leaders in urban farming. But how we do it, like a lot of things in the post-COVID world, is likely going to look a little different.

As a result, we’ve been busy rewiring our training model: refocusing the extensive curriculum we’ve developed to better support training new farmers one-on-one rather than in large cohorts; and to deliver much more sophisticated training online. We’ve been beta-testing this approach for the last several weeks, and are confident it will deliver an even better experience for all future new farmers we will train—even if the “group setting” paradigm of our current Program seems unlikely to return anytime soon.

So, if you are interested in being a future Next-Gen Farmer—if you want to play your role to help us forge a new food system that is distributed, transparent, sustainable, resilient, and one that makes delicious, nutritious, local food available to everyone, safely—then be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media. There, we’ll keep you up to date on all future opportunities at Square Roots, including the next Next-Gen Farmer openings.

In the meantime, stay safe!

Tobias Peggs

Square Roots CEO

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