On Dec. 20, the Multnomah County commission recognized the inaugural graduating class of 16 participants who completed the Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship (BUFA) program, an apprenticeship intended to provide comprehensive training in sustainable, small-scale, and urban farming methods. Taught in partnership between the County and Oregon State University Extension Service, BUFA students learn through formal classes, hands-on training, field trips, online instruction, farmers’ market sales, and supervised apprenticeships how to organically produce vegetables, fruits, and value-added products over the course of eight months and 550 hours.

After introductory remarks, BUFA lead instructor Dan Bravin, or “Farmer Dan” as County Commission Chair Jeff Cogen referred to him, explained how the program evolved from a gap analysis conducted by the Multnomah Food Action Plan that identified the average age of Oregon farmers as 57.5 years old, highlighting the need for young farmers to develop the skills necessary to become the next generation of farmers.

“The BUFA program provides a starting point for students to pick up a hoe and grow food for people in our community,” Bravin said. “It allows students to get in on the ground level, learn a set of skills, and gain confidence throughout an entire season of growing.”

The new graduates range in age from their 20s to 50s and each seems to have a different direction of how they will apply the skills gained from the BUFA program. Matt Phillips, who is reliant on his bicycle as his sole method of transportation, is beginning a “small project, focusing on backyard lots and land close to me. I’m going to focus on raising winter crops for my community, as well as food preservation.”

Beth Martin, a “twenty-plus year” gardener, described the BUFA program as a “transformational experience. I learned a ton, about how to increase my yields,” Martin said. “In my nutritional therapy practice, I’m going to begin cooking with the output of my urban farm with my clients, to connect them more with their food.”

Besides producing new farmers, the goal of the BUFA program is to develop land stewards who understand the complex systems that allow seeds to grow while also caring for land in an organic and sustainable manner.

Graduate Amanda Soto said the program was “invaluable” while Marina Wynton shared a similar perspective: “I am going to apply what I learned in the BUFA program into my business as a landscape designer, creating more edible gardens in my client’s homes and throughout my community.”

Based on the positive response of the new graduates, the BUFA program appears to be an innovative course, providing necessary skills and experience for prospective business owners, as well as allowing current entrepreneurs to expand their businesses. Bravin said BUFA has plans to expand in 2012, expecting a graduating class of 40 students in its second year, while the current batch of newly certified urban gardeners looks to make an impact on the agricultural scene of the Portland metro area.