The Catskill Mountain Foundation’s Natural Agriculture farm fellowship
This is the first year of the NA farm fellowship program since it was piloted last year.
Can you tell us about the program?
The Catskill Mountain Foundation’s Natural Agriculture farm fellowship is a 3-5 week program that provides hands-on learning experience about Shumei Natural Agriculture. Although the farm has an internship program, the fellowship program is much more structured for people interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Natural Agriculture. The program was developed so that fellows could learn from Kenji Ban, an experienced Shumei Natural Agriculture farmer by working on the farm for 30 hours each week. Part of what makes the fellowship unique from other agricultural internship programs is that the farm fellows also complete an art project either by beautifying part of the farm or creating an art piece related to Natural Agriculture. This aspect of the fellowship was developed as a way to allow the farm fellows to appreciate the beauty in nature while exercising their creative skills and to improve the farm’s overall aesthetic. Our fellowship program is called “The Art of Agriculture.” What is also great about this program in addition to free housing is that the fellows get to take free art classes at the Sugar Maples Campus. The connection between art and agriculture is very strong in our program. The first year of the fellowship program was in many ways a test run to see how the program would be received. We learned a lot from the 2011 pilot program and I think 2012 has turned out to be a great success with a wonderful group of farm fellows.
Who has participated in the program so far?
Our farm fellowship attracts a very diverse group of people from students to professionals, even actors. We’ve had people come from as nearby as Schenectady, NY and from as far away as France and Japan. Most of our fellows are in their twenties or thirties; our youngest fellow was 19 and our oldest fellow was 67. Some of them already had experience with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) programs or gardening, while other fellows have come to the program with practically no experience in farming. The majority of applicants find our program through the WWOOF USA website, but others find us through the Catskill Mountain Guide publications or elsewhere on the internet. It is interesting that many of our fellows are artistically inclined, which probably explains why they are attracted to our program. Also we have found that almost all of our fellows have some understanding about the importance of paying attention to food and agriculture, and express a desire to learn more about ways to produce sustainable, healthy food. I think this is a growing concern in our society and this is definitely a core part of the fellowship.
Why is it important for fellows to participate in art projects and/or a beautification project? What kinds of projects have fellows created so far?
Peter Finn, the co-founder and chairman of Catskill Mountain Foundation initially wanted a Natural Agriculture farm as part of the Foundation’s activities because he wanted to create a model for sustainable farming in the Catskill region. Shumei’s founder Mokichi Okada also said that Natural Agriculture is the “Art of Agriculture.” There is an inherent beauty in nature that one can fully appreciate by interacting with nature and becoming immersed in it. Such beauty can positively affect and elevate the spirit. In this farm fellowship, the farm fellows work with crops in the beautiful, natural setting of the Catskills. The beautification project was another way to help the fellows connect beauty with nature. In 2011, farm fellows were encouraged to produce artworks, such as ceramics, and others wrote a play about what they learned about Natural Agriculture. Fellows also contributed to a landscaping project on the farm. In 2012, the farm fellows transformed part of the farm by creating a beautiful spiral-path garden with native plants. They also cultivated various flowers from seed and made a vibrant flower garden and herb garden in the rear field of the farm. The art and beautification projects are something we hope to continue in the future and it’s something each fellow can build upon as we strive to make the Catskill Mountain Foundation’s Natural Agriculture farm a true example of the “Art of Agriculture.”
What kinds of responses have you received from the people who participated in the program?
I receive very positive responses from all of the farm fellows. Two farm fellows actually extended their stay on the farm because they enjoyed the experience so much. As part of the program, we ask the fellows to write weekly reflections and a final reflection piece at the conclusion of their fellowship. From their reflection pieces it is clear that this Natural Agriculture fellowship has impacted them. I’d like to share some of their feedback:
“There is no way I will ever eat unconsciously again.” ~ Blair, 25
“Farming is work to fulfill a very basic need − sustenance, so the purpose is simple, direct and universal. When this is combined with a commitment to work with nature rather than taking all you can from it, it feels right… I am very glad that the Catskill Mountain Foundation exists and that the Natural Agriculture Farm is a part of it. I think it is very under-utilized and many others would find it an enriching and healing place to work.” ~ Ellen, 67
“Overall, the Natural Agriculture Farm Fellowship was a fantastic experience. As a native upstate New Yorker and vegetarian who has always purchased fresh produce, I have been curious about the farms and farming techniques in this area. Obviously, the Natural Agriculture farm in Maplecrest is very special and quite unique in its practices. I hope more farms in this area can adopt similar organic practices in the future.” ~ Louis, 22
“This has been the best that I have felt in my entire life.” ~ James, 33
What is in store for the next year? How can people learn more and apply to be a fellow?
Next year will be a big transition year for the Natural Agriculture farms in Hunter and Maplecrest. I think this fellowship program has a great ability to affect and transform people as they learn about Natural Agriculture, engage their inner artist and experience the beauty of the Catskills and the farm.
For more information about the Natural Agriculture farm fellowship program, you can send a message to email@example.com. We hope to see you at the farm!