Skip to content Skip to content

The Business of Organic Farming

The seeds have been planted. The plan is budding and the hopes are that the organic farming apprenticeship program agreement between the College of Marin and Fresh Run Farm in the fertile northern Bay Area town of Bolinas will bloom and grow throughout the state.

“We teach [students] the fundamentals of crop propagation, cultivation, transplanting and fertilization... But a big part of the internship, too, is the business side of farming.”

Peter Martinelli
Fresh Run Farm

The apprenticeship program includes 1,800 hours of paid training at Fresh Run Farm and the 5.8-acre farm at the College of Marin’s Indian Valley campus. Apprentices also will take 11 courses in farming-related instruction provided by the College of Marin. The goal is for student apprentices to complete the program in two years or less and they receive a certificate of achievement from the college.

College of Marin and Fresh Run Farm enjoy what is known as a related and supplemental instruction agreement. The student is hired by the farm and then is enrolled at the college. This situation is different than the typical certificate program arrangement between most businesses and community colleges, where a business will help build a curriculum and then hire the students after they are certified.

Zack Sokoloski is the first student to enroll in the apprenticeship program, although his first official classes won’t begin until the fall semester, he said. But his apprenticeship duties at the farm have already begun.

“I've been working here at Fresh Run Farm for a couple of weeks now,” said Sokoloski, 23, of Penn Valley. “Food is something we can all relate to. I get to learn a valuable trade and it's something that’s important for the earth and for our health. It's tough work but healthy work. You learn to respect the produce and the process it takes to get it to our tables.”

"The Business of Organic Farming"
College of Marin, Indian Valley. 

Organic farming is a fast-growing segment of agriculture. Marin County has 23 registered organic farms on approximately 1,000 acres. Almost all row crops grown in the county are certified organic. For Fresh Run Farms that means no pesticides are used and soil-building conservation theories are practiced with the 40 to 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables grown on the 22-acre farm.

“We are known for our plant diversity and using the old techniques that have been in use for thousands of years,” said Fresh Run Farm owner Peter Martinelli. “We don’t use irrigation and that brings out more flavor. It’s a niche approach yet we are still able to supply four farmer’s markets and we sell to 12 local restaurants. The chefs love our produce.”

Martinelli has been one of the leaders in getting the apprenticeship program approved by the College of Marin and the California Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Apprenticeship Standards. The program is now the first of its kind in the nation. But without Martinelli’s input and advocacy, students may have continued to work on his farm but not simultaneously received educational credit. He is responsible for building that bridge.

It all started when an employee of Martinelli’s was told she could not work as an unpaid intern after state inspectors found the intern programs to be in violations of the 1938 federal Fair Labor Standards Act. A big concern of the six-part test for compliance of the act is that farm interns must be supervised by an accredited school and the internship must benefit the student more than the employer.

Will Scott will be enrolling in the apprenticeship program soon, he said. With four years of experience working with Martinelli on the farm he’ll serve as a senior journeyman to the apprentices.

“I quit college for a couple of years because I knew I’d learn more on the farm,” Scott said. “But now, with the apprenticeship program, I’ll get a certificate of competency and I do see the value of the classes. The classroom instruction has been incredible. The good thing about these classes is we’ll learn lots of different ways to approach the business of farming.”

Will Scott is an employee at Fresh Run Farm and will enroll in the organic farming apprenticeship program at College of Marin this fall.

The College of Marin Indian Valley Campus farm produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

Environmental design students prepare rows to plant vegetables at the Indian Valley Campus farm.

Bees are an important component and learning tool at the College of Marin Indian Valley Campus farm.

Fresh Run Farm owner Peter Martinelli signs the organic farming apprenticeship program agreement as representatives of the College of Marin and the California Dept. of Industrial Relations look on.

Scott, 22, lives in nearby Stinson Beach and said he didn’t possess a green thumb until after graduating from high school and seeing the smaller farms in and around the College of Marin campus. Scott said his parents owned several restaurants growing up, so he’s always been around food, but he never really thought about where that food came from until he started working alongside Martinelli.

“We teach them the fundamentals of crop propagation, cultivation, transplanting and fertilization,” said Martinelli, who holds a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in United States history. “But a big part of the internship, too, is the business side of farming. They also learn about packing, shipping and selling. They are involved in the entire process.”

The program was just starting to germinate when College of Marin Superintendent and President Dr. David Wain Coon took over a little less than a year ago. By fall 2011, the college hopes to have 30 students in the apprenticeship program.

“This was one of the programs that first impressed me about the college,” Dr. Coon said. “Any opportunity to be a model program is a great thing. The interest and the energy around this program is just wonderful.”

Martinelli is positive the program will branch out to other colleges across the state and the nation. Organic farming continues to grow. The Organic Trade Association, which represents North American businesses that grow and market organic foods, estimates the value of the U.S. organic industry was $29 billion in 2010. Almost half of every produce purchase in America is certified organic, the trade association said.

“We’re a small farm so we’re probably at our limit here as far as how many more apprentices we can take,” Martinelli said. “But I’m hopeful other farmers will start relationships like this one, not just in the North Bay but I’d love to see it grow all over the state and eventually the world.”