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'Farms Next' tries to grow next crop of U.S. farmers

With the average age of the American farmer well above 50, Rogue Farm Corps sees a dire need to engage younger people in agriculture. "People aren't growing up on the family farm anymore," said Stuart O'Neill, the Corps' director.

In hopes of changing this dynamic and helping to jump-start a new generation of farmers, Rogue Farm Corps and Rogue Community College are forming the first for-credit college internship program for students wanting to learn the rigors of life on a farm.

Students participating in "Farms Next" can earn up to 15 credits through RCC, while working full time at one of 10 commercial farms in the Rogue Valley.

Similar internships without college credit have existed for years through Rogue Farm Corps, O'Neill said, but legal complications surrounding internships prompted O'Neill to modify the arrangement.

"We forged ahead to give it more educational value and structure," said O'Neill. "We're pioneering a new hands-on approach. It's a very practical and thorough experience."

In addition to work on the farms, students will complete customized coursework based on the farm at which they intern and participate in tours of other farms.

Students can expect a seven- to nine-month commitment, beginning in the spring and ending in the fall.

O'Neill said that over the last few decades, as people have moved into urban and suburban areas, the dynamic of farming has changed, and fewer young people participate. Recently, however, an emerging local-food movement has spurred more interest in local, sustainable farming practices, O'Neill said.

"It's opening opportunities once again," said O'Neill. "People see that agricultural work is meaningful."

Chris Jagger, an Applegate farmer who owns Blue Fox Farm, learned much of what he knows through internships at local farms. Now he is offering to pass along some of that knowledge by offering his farm as a site for the program.

"He's a very successful commercial farmer himself," said Jagger. "And he had done internships himself."

At Blue Fox Farm, interns will focus on harvesting, packing and marketing the vegetables grown on the farm, which was established in 2003.

Students interested in the "Farms Next" internship program have until March 15 to apply for one of 20 available slots.

Applications are available on the organization's website at www.roguefarmcorps.org.

O'Neill said he expects most applicants to be college-age students, though applicants in their 30s and 40s have interned in the past.

"It's not unheard of for folks who are looking for a career change," said O'Neill. "It's a very real-world experience."

Teresa Ristow is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.