By Jennifer Casey, Chair, Duval SWCD
In 2021, the Duval Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) introduced the Start Farming Mentorship Program to support new farmers by providing tours of local farm operations and onsite workshops about sustainable practices, including water conservation, composting, and permaculture. The year-long program, made possible by a $2,500 grant award from the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), selected 15 applicants to explore farming opportunities in Duval County.
“In an urban district like ours, new farmers often have not grown up on the farm, so it is essential that they have mentors to provide advice and guidance,” said Jennifer Casey, Duval SWCD Chair. “We are thrilled that beginning farmers had the opportunity to explore diverse farm operations and learn how sustainable regenerative solutions like composting, permaculture, and rainwater catchment can help them overcome some of the challenges of starting a farming endeavor.” The district hopes that more farms will drive new jobs and economic growth for their county.
Over the course of the year, participants took guided tours of four farms, from an urban farm in a food dessert, to a rural commercial operation. In addition, each participant received a Sustainable Solutions Kit (valued at more than $150) which included a rain barrel for water conservation, a compost kit, and seeds to attract beneficial pollinators. Mentors included local farm owners and managers from White Harvest Farms, Juicy Roots Farm, Congaree and Penn and Celestial Farms. Workshops were taught by volunteers from Apple Rabbit Compost, NativeJax Permaculture Design, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS), and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ (UF/IFAS) Duval County Extension.
“What I’ve found is there is no substitute for first-hand experience and seeing things with your own eyes,” said participant Don DeStephano. “I read a lot on the internet, but seeing composting in action and no till gardening and farming, and learning about programs I wasn’t aware of…I’m very grateful and pleased I was a part of it.”
Beyond the training, participants had the opportunity to network with the local agricultural community and with agency personnel offering conservation funding assistance to growers and producers.
The program also helped the district reach more than 985 people. This included the 15 mentees, 100-plus participants in Duval SWCD’s 2021 Start Farming Panel Discussion and Market, and nearly 900 Facebook followers.
The Duval SWCD plans to continue the Start Farming Mentorship in the future and raised funds at the Start Farming Panel Discussion and Market to benefit the program moving forward.