Published Nov 3, 2016

Labor4Learning Spotlight: Aspiring farmers gain experience and training at Patchwork Green Farm

By Steve Carlson

Beginning and aspiring farmers all fall on a very large spectrum, ranging from something like being “farm-curious” to having nearly 10 years running a farm under their belt. That’s a wide range of experience and knowledge levels, and Practical Farmers of Iowa strives to offer programming for folks at these various points on the spectrum.

For someone early on this spectrum—from being curious about whether a farming career is the right fit for them to the point where they’re just about to take the leap on their own—not much will be as helpful for them as a glimpse into the process of running a farm. This is why PFI’s Labor4Learning program exists.

Each winter we post a list of experienced farmers in our network who will be participating in the Labor4Learning program as a “trainer farm.” These farmers plan to hire an employee, and have agreed to provide additional training on running a farm business to an aspiring farmer through this program. The trainer farms are vetted by a committee of PFI members and if the farm finds a suitable trainee, they’re compensated for the extra time they spend training.

In 2016, one of these farms was Patchwork Green Farm run by Erik Sessions in Decorah. Erik hired two individuals who were both deciding whether a farming career would be a good fit for them, and to determine what that farm would look like.

Emily Fagan and Emily Dansdill

Emily Fagan and Emily Dansdill

Emily Dansdill grew up in nearby Calmar, Iowa, and has had experience gardening and working with another local produce farm. She also works seasonally at northeast Iowa’s Seed Savers Exchange, a 980 acre farm stewarding heritage and heirloom fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs. Emily and her husband are looking for land to pursue a culinary and medicinal herb farm.

Emily Fagan grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, before heading to Oregon for school and then later to work on a farm in Boulder, Colorado. Continuing her quest for more on-farm experience, a friend who attended Decorah’s Luther College recommended she look into Patchwork Green Farm. Emily was glad to work for Erik because of his farm’s scale compared to the previous farm she worked with, which she thought might be closer to what she wants to pursue.

With both Emilys coming to Patchwork Green Farm at similar experience levels and with a shared goal to gain experience working toward their own operation, they were both a great fit for the Labor4Learning program.

At the beginning of the season they sat down with Erik to develop a set of learning outcomes—a list of processes, techniques or issues they would like more experience with. The list they came up with was chronological and started with production topics like seed sources, storage and seed starting techniques; transplanting; and cover crop types and rotations. It also included tools and infrastructure topics like tractor maintenance and implements, hoop house design and maintenance, and irrigation types. Their list also included business topics such as marketing, budgeting and retail and wholesale relationships.  Says Emily Dansdill: “The learning outcomes have helped me in being more focused on what I want for my own farm someday.”

Learning outcomes not only give structure to the program, but as Erik describes, they allow the experienced farmer to introduce topics they think are important: “I feel the Labor4Learning program benefits interns by helping give structure to their work and learning and creating a starting point for discussion with the farmer about the questions that are most pertinent to their farming future.  For the farmer, this structure allows them to help the intern focus their learning, but also broaden their perspectives to the many issues that are important to farming in the 21st century.”

During a 2016 PFI field day at Patchwork Green Farm, Emily Fagan demonstrates kale harvesting, bundling and plant cleaning in the field.

During a 2016 PFI field day at Patchwork Green Farm, Emily Fagan demonstrates kale harvesting, bundling and plant cleaning in the field.

It worked well for the three of them to have regular weekly meetings at the beginning of the season to discuss their learning outcomes, but as the season continued it naturally became more difficult for them to take this time except maybe during lunch. Fortunately many of the topics they wanted to address were more effective to learn and discuss on-the-go. But during the height of the fast-paced growing season, many farm workers may not feel comfortable asking questions in the field. Emily Fagan says that’s not the case in Labor4Learning: “Erik is always willing to answer questions any time I have them, and is very open with his answers and with the information that he shares. It [Labor4Learning] helps me feel that I have the freedom to ask questions.”

Erik agreed, explaining, “There is always work to be done on the farm, but questioning and understanding each task and management decision is crucial to the intern’s realistic visioning of their farming future.”

Sara Peterson, Erik Sessions and one of their daughters, Nina, pose with both Emily's for a photo.

Sara Peterson, Erik Sessions and one of their daughters, Nina, pose with both Emily’s for a photo.

There were benefits for the farm, too, as Erik explains: “It is a great program. It forces me to be more organized about covering topics thoroughly, and it’s good for worker morale, as they feel like they are becoming invested in our farm as they learn more about what makes it tick.”

As the 2016 season wraps up at Patchwork Green Farm, Emily Dansdill plans to return to Patchwork next season, while Emily Fagan plans to partner with her cousin, local farmer Hannah Breckbill, with her Decorah area farm Humble Hands Harvest for the 2017 season.


If you’re an experienced farmer and PFI member who would like to participate as a Trainer Farm, get more information on the Labor4Learning webpage and contact Steve Carlson at

If you’re an aspiring farmer, check back to the webpage in January for an updated list of 2017 Trainer Farms to find one for you.