A $233,000 grant from the California Community College Chancellor's Office will help the College of Marin enjoy the fruits of its new organic farm for a long time to come.

With the help of the grant — and another $201,950 in matching grants — the 5.8-acre farm at the college's Indian Valley campus in Novato could begin paying for itself within 20 months, said Nanda Schorske, dean of workforce development and college-community partnerships.

"It takes a long time to sustain a farm operation," Schorske said. "This grant will help sustain our operation to the point where we can maximize our production level and become self-sustaining."

Marilee Eckert, chief executive officer of Conservation Corps North Bay, which is responsible for year-round operations at the College of Marin farm, noted that the farm has only been in operation for three years.

"We just planted our fruit trees, and it will be a few years before they're actually producing things," Eckert said. "So getting this grant was really a godsend. It will really help us out for the next two years while we're developing the program."

The college launched the farm in 2009 as a kind of laboratory to help Marin residents and others learn the essentials of organic farming from experts like the University of California Cooperative Extension's Steve Quirt and Wendy Johnson of Green Gulch Farm.

Since then, the program has taken on additional importance for Marin County's 23 registered organic farms.
At a time when state inspectors have been cracking down on the use of unpaid labor on California farms — ending an informal tradition of agricultural apprenticeship — the College of Marin program has emerged as an option for those who want to get their hands dirty on a real organic farm. The program began its partnership with the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards earlier this year.

"In order to keep our farms going, we need to be developing the next generation of people who are committed to farming like this," Schorske said. "So we now have the first state-approved program for organic farming in the country. Peter Martinelli (of Bolinas' Fresh Run Farm) has helped us launch the program, and (Marin County) Supervisor Steve Kinsey has given his support to a pilot program that will enable us to place students on other farms."

The farm has grown in popularity with its inception. The school's organic farming class has grown from an initial group of 31 students to 106 students this semester, according to college spokesman Cathy Summa-Wolfe. Interest in the program has also helped boost enrollment at the college's Novato campus overall, which has doubled in the last five years, Schorske said.