Ian Hensel knows his way around a rabbitry. In his LaCrosse rubber boots, he steps past stacks of wire cages that house sleeping white, brown and black rabbits.
When the weather gets warmer, he will buy chicks, he says, and chickens and rabbits will be moved to nearby patches of pasture on 10 acres he leases in Rogue River.
He also grows grasses here and has a half-acre plot where he and his partner nurture organic vegetables, seeds and plant starts to sell at farmers markets.
Outside his now-idle processing facility, he stops to check on his neighbor's 400-pound pig and her 11 newborn piglets.
It's a life that's a long way from University of California, Berkeley classrooms where Hensel studied economics, environmental building and environmental science before dropping out to become a farmer.
Hensel, 23, represents a new breed of entrepreneurial Oregon farmers and ranchers who are undeterred by the cost and loss of farmland — and in some cases, their lack of experience — to start their own small, commercial farms.
And in the Rogue Valley, young farmers like Hensel have someone to help them learn the ropes: the Rogue Farm Corps.
The nonprofit group unites men and women wanting to work the land with seasoned farmers who teach them practical, sustainable farming principles.
Through the corps' program, about 20 recruits a year live on small- to mid-size dairies, livestock and grower operations, and work alongside the owner.
The beginning farmers, who range in age from 18 to mid-40s, can also take agriculture and marketing coursework from Rogue Community College instructors.
Students pay $1,500 to the corps for the year, plus community college fees if they want academic credit.
The students tour more than a dozen farms to see a variety of techniques, from raising cattle, goats, poultry, sheep and hogs to dairying and cheese making.
They also talk about ways to create new markets through Community Supported Agriculture programs, sales to restaurants and other moneymaking ventures.
The local market for this new crop of farmers is growing, says Lori Hopkinson, general manager of the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market.
Sales at her markets in Ashland and Medford have risen over the years as more consumers have joined the buy-local movement, drawn by the issue of food security and a need for increased nutrition.
Acceptance of food stamps at farmers markets also has allowed more people access to "healthy, nutrient-dense food," says Hopkinson, that was "grown for taste rather than the ability to travel thousands of miles."
Last year, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program households redeemed approximately $59,000 in fresh foods at her markets, a $10,000 increase from 2011.
To help fill that growing need, Rogue Farm Corps is training the next generation of food producers.
"We place students full immersion into the life and business of farming," says Stuart O'Neill, executive director of Rogue Farm Corps. "There are hundreds of hours of on-the-job training, working by themselves and with other students in real world exposure, throughout a full growing season."
O'Neill, 39, is not unlike the young farmers in his program.
He moved to Southern Oregon in 1995 to earn a bachelor's degree in geology at Southern Oregon University. After working on a small Applegate Valley dairy farm, he helped neighboring farmers launch a mentoring program 10 years ago.
Since then, Rogue Farm Corps has evolved into Oregon's first accredited farm internship program and is now being adopted in other counties.
"Large schools are training for a large-scale ag business model," says O'Neill, who lives in Ashland where the Rogue Farm Corps is based. "We have students who did not grow up on farms but want to be trained to care for the land and animals."
Hensel was one of the first graduates of the corps' structured program.
He grew up in suburban Portland but says farming appeals to him because there is never a dull moment, he gets to wear lots of hats and he feels he's contributing positively to the environment.
And, he adds, he likes eating healthy, fresh food.
"It's a good fit," he says, "producing food for myself and family, and the market."
Hensel Family Farm is now a host farm for Rogue Farm Corps, and he is interviewing one of the new recruits to work as an intern.
The student will receive room and board — but not pay — along with hands-on training in animal rotation, feeding and care, and growing vegetables and herbs by Hensel and his partner, Shaina Bronstein, 33.
The intern will also sell the farm's meat and produce at the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market in Ashland on Tuesdays and in Grants Pass on Saturdays.
Hensel says Rogue Farm Corps is changing the Rogue Valley by helping to meet a demand for more locally produced food.
"It helps people break into farming, which can seem daunting," he says. "The program is developing a community of farmers, getting people talking and working together. ... The group also advocates for farmers. It's neat to have people ringing our bell and chanting our praises when we're knee-deep in mud."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email@example.com.