Heading back to the land? Try going back to school first
The back-to-the-landers of the 1960s tended to be heavy on idealism and light on practical know-how. Armed with little more than coveralls and a few dog-eared guidebooks of the age, they headed to the country with mixed results. Today's practical pioneers may be just as committed to good land stewardship, but they're not likely to be quite so naive. Lucky for them, they don't have to start from scratch.
An earlier era's hard-won knowledge didn't just fade away with flower power and bell-bottom jeans. It's waiting in schools and programs across the country where you can study up on the ABCs of rural life before you make the leap. Whether you're planning a complete off-the-grid farmstead or just hoping to make yourself a little more self-sufficient, there are now seminars, apprenticeships, and even four-year degree programs to help you make your earthy dream a reality. Here's just a taste of what's out there.
Growing (and Finding) Food
Going back to the land doesn't have to mean going hungry. For the pioneer born without a green thumb, there are programs designed to teach you about gardening, farming, and finding food that's waiting to be dug or plucked out of the wild.
Permaculture: Permaculture is a farming method that emulates the diversity and resilience of natural ecosystems. By raising crops and animals that provide the likes of shade and nutrients for each other, growers can reduce the need for the costly artificial inputs that sustain the mainstream farm. Offered across the country, permaculture programs run 10 to 14 days and involve equal parts classroom time and dirty work. Students learn how to balance factors like weather, waste, and water in designing gardens that will eventually maintain themselves. For a look at programs worldwide, look up the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, (www.permaculture.com) or check out Permaculture Activist magazine: $23/yr. (4 issues) from Box 1209, Black Mountain, NC 28711.
Foraging: Fresh produce doesn't always grow in rows. Wildcrafters prefer to skip cultivation and hunt for edibles in the wild. Classes like those offered at the School of Self-Reliance in Los Angeles help hungry foragers tell pigweed from poison ivy, then prepare and preserve their harvest. Wild Food Adventures in Portland, Oregon, joins the local Native American population in an effort to 'revitalize traditional foodways' by offering workshops and expeditions. Look for similar programs that can teach you about the wild food and other resources in your local ecosystems.
Farming: Farming is often a family affair that involves a lifetime of learning, but there are programs that give newbies a chance to catch up. The Farm School Practical Farm Training Program at Maggie's Farm in Massachusetts, for example, offers the hands-on practice and mentoring that were once a vital part of coming of age on a family farm. The one-year curriculum explores all aspects of crop production and readies future farmers with skills as varied as chain-saw repair and mental endurance in the field.
The Rural Arts
Mainstream education has a way of drawing students away from the land at the expense of the deep satisfaction you can find by working closely with its bounty. A number of new programs are designed to put you in touch with the manual skills and crafts that for thousands of years were the warp and woof of human life.
Folk Schools: Inspired by the Danish folkehojskole, or 'folk high school,' the new American folk schools are built on the principles of cooperation, community, and students' natural curiosity. The North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota, for example, teaches yurt building, mushrooming, and sausage making, along with many other land skills and handicrafts. Students at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, learn and preserve the local land-based crafts and techniques of the Appalachian mountain people.
Rural Skills Old and New: Tending draft animals, timber framing, and blacksmithing were once crucial skills in rural America. The workshops and internships at Tillers International in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, are designed to help students learn and preserve such skills in the hope of sharing them with rural people in poorer countries, where they can be of vital use. Tillers teaches new tricks like solar electricity and the basics of running a community-supported agriculture program.
If a weekend or a season on the land has left you wanting more, there are programs for turning your passion into your life's work. Agronomy and agriculture have long been taught in state schools; now new schools, and new classes within old ones, are available.
In response to the lack of business skills that hurts many back-to-the-landers, new programs are being designed to give them the professional tools they need. Earth University, a private, nonprofit university located in Lim?n, Costa Rica, helps students develop an 'entrepreneurial mentality.' In addition to a four-year degree, it provides financial assistance to graduates who need help starting up new enterprises. Eco-Versity, a continuing education center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers courses in permaculture design, rain gardens, adobe building, and 'growing wealth sustainably.' Its earth-based vocations certificate program fuses disciplines like deep ecology, bioregionalism, and biomimicry into a program for future 'planners, designers, builders, gardeners, educators, and activists.'
Numerous other public and private institutions offer programs in going back to the land. For a list of opportunities in fields related to sustainable agriculture, visit the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, www.nal.usda.gov/afsic