New U of I farm apprenticeship turns out veggies and well-equipped farmers

New U of I farm apprenticeship turns out veggies and well-equipped farmers
New U of I farm apprenticeship turns out veggies and well-equipped farmers

URBANA, Ill. – A new University of Illinois program will train beginner specialty crop growers in every aspect of farm operation and management. The year-long Illinois Small Farm Apprenticeship Program offers new farmers opportunities to learn by doing and to deepen that experiential knowledge with lessons from faculty experts in soil science, pest management, and more.

“Most people, when they start out, go to work for an established farmer or maybe attend a few weekend conferences. But we are training people intensively for a full year to give them the complete picture of running a farm business. They’ll walk away with the horticultural knowledge, business skills, and people-management skills to start their own farm or become a valuable employee on an existing farm,” says Matt Turino, manager of the Sustainable Student Farm and research specialist in the Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois.    

Turino says most similar programs at universities or farmer non-profits are much shorter – running about six months – but that leaves out important learning moments during the so-called “off season.”  

“A lot of people ask what happens in the winter, but there's actually a lot going on at that time,” he says. “Planning for the next season, ordering seeds, maintaining a farm website, and accounting, to name a few. We’ll teach our apprentices skills and knowledge in year-round activities such as bookkeeping, marketing, maintaining work-life balance, and being the kind of manager people want to work for.”

New farmers may learn some of those skills on the job, but many day-to-day farm jobs focus more on work in the field, Turino says. Apprentices will get plenty of field experience in the program, of course, including planting and working in high tunnels, operating and maintaining farm equipment, and harvesting a multitude of vegetable crops.

On-the-job training also tends to fall short on deep-dive learning with experts in their fields. But the Illinois Small Farm Apprenticeship Program partners with world-class U of I research faculty to round out apprentices’ education on the farm.

“Each week, we'll be covering a topic in depth. I’ll cover some topics, such as crop planning, but if we're talking about plant pathology, insect pressures, soil science, and some business concepts, we’ll bring in professors and other professionals to work directly with apprentices. They’ll supplement the practical knowledge with more academic rigor to really bolster apprentices’ experience,” Turino says.

“I’m excited for the main product of the Sustainable Student Farm to be knowledge, and to use it as a living classroom to train a new generation of specialty crop growers,” says Adam Davis, head of the Department of Crop Sciences.

To apply, please send a letter of interest by Oct. 15 to program director, Matt Turino (, describing your interest in the program and the skills and experience you would bring (previous experience not required, but a bonus). The program starts Jan. 23, 2023 and costs $6,000 for the full year. Apprentices earn a certificate of completion. See the apprenticeship web page for more information.