By ROBIN PALMER Staff Writer Castleton State College freshman Devon Varnum had planned to spend this summer as she has the past two – driving tractor, helping with haying, installing electric fence, clearing land and caring for sheep on a farm in Benson. Varnum, 19, who had no farming experience before two years ago, said she relished the summer job. “I love being around the animals. … That was the most important part for me,” she said. In Williamstown, dairy farmer Richard Powell said he had planned to hire a young person like Varnum as he has for nine summers. “It’s been a lot of fun working with the different ones,” Powell said of his young summer helpers, who live right on the farm. With his two sons grown and gone, the extra help is needed. His dairy farm is small — 55 head — but there is still summer hay to be baled and barn chores and milking of his 10 Jersey and 20 Holstein cows to be done. He also has 25 “young stock.” In Orwell, Carla Ochs said she had planned to spend her summer matching young people like Varnum with farmers like Powell through her job with the Vermont Farm Youth Corps. The job is important to Ochs, but not so much because of the pay. She does it because of the opportunities the Farm Youth Corps presents. These are opportunities that may soon disappear. If the federal budget passes as state officials expect, a $3.4 million grant to the state Department of Employment and Training that previously funded the Vermont Farm Youth Corps and other youth programs will be cut by nearly $1 million. And if the DET sticks to its guns on how it allocates the remaining money, the Vermont Farm Youth Corps program will be lost, leaving Ochs out of work, Powell in need of affordable summer labor and Varnum without her beloved summer job. The DET says there’s more to the problem. The U.S. Department of Labor has informed the DET that it can no longer continue to fund youth programs as it has, said Robert Ware, DET’s director of jobs and training. Youth program money comes to the state through the federal Workforce Investment Act. Previously, the DET has used the money for its own youth program and for three others: the Vermont Farm Youth Corps, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps based in Waterbury and Smoky House Centers in Danby. Ware and Rose Lucenti, state coordinator for the Workforce Investment Act, said the U.S. Department of Labor has informed the DET it must request proposals from organizations interested in receiving grants rather than simply distributing the money to the three organizations. Money from the Workforce Investment Act is also intended for full-year, not summer, programs, Ware said. The DET this fiscal year gave the programs a total $469,000 — $74,000 for Smoky House, $223,000 for the Youth Conservation Corps and $171,000 for the Farm Youth Corps, according to David Copeland, assistant director of jobs and training at DET. When the new federal fiscal year begins on April 1, they would get nothing. “It’s an awful predicament,” Ware said. “None of us are saying any of us are running poor programs.” With the funding cut, the Youth Conservation Corps will be able to take only about half as many participants as it once did, said President Thomas Hark. “It won’t kill us, but it will have dramatic and long-lasting issues in a lot of ways,” Hark said. The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps is a non-profit service, conservation and education organization that each year had hired more than 300 people between the ages of 16 and 24 to manage state parks, build trails, restore rivers and streams, and improve community green spaces. But the cut would kill the Vermont Farm Youth Corps, said program coordinator Dana Hudson. “At this point, we’re going to have to shut our doors,” Hudson said. The farm corps has enough money to stay in operation for one more month, she said. q q q Part of the UVM Extension and based in a small office near the airport in Berlin, the Farm Youth Corps has been linking 16- to 21-year-olds with farmers statewide for two months each summer for 14 years. It has a database of more than 800 farmers interested in the program. It estimates it’s helped more than 500 young people find summer employment. There is more to the program than summer jobs, however, Hudson said. “This is a life-changing experience at a crucial point where they’re shifting from being youths to being adults,” she said. About 55 youths who participate each year are taught interviewing and money-management skills and how to develop a strong work ethic. They spend four days learning about farming — including how to safely drive a tractor — at a training program at Johnson State College, before they head to work on the farms. They are then supervised throughout the summer, and are given weekly evaluations by the host farmer and the youth corps employee assigned to them. The program is a confidence builder, Hudson said. “The kids’ sense of self and pride in themselves is (indescribable) to someone who hasn’t witnessed it,” said Cherie Morse Dunkley, a past staff member from Westford. “Agriculture in general is the context, but the skills they learn are universal,” she said, noting that some of the young people she worked with ended up contemplating college for the first time. Ochs, for example, helped Varnum get into Castleton State. “I took a year off before I went to college,” Varnum said. “Sometimes I need to be pushed to do something; I need a little kick.” Varnum is studying environmental science. She hopes for a career in environmental law, or perhaps to become a game warden or wildlife biologist. She also hopes to own sheep. She already has two — runts that she has raised to be healthy animals, she said proudly. q q q In addition to learning about farming, corps members earn up to $2,000 for their summer farm work. “We’re not just building a workforce, we’re building smart consumers. … They understand where their food comes from,” Hudson said. Kara Torres, 17, a high school senior from Waterbury, spent last summer on an organic vegetable farm in Johnson to learn exactly that — where her food comes from. “I wanted to learn about organic farming, and I wanted to be outside,” Torres said. “Farming is one of the most significant jobs that I could have because it’s food, and food is the basic necessity of life.” Torres picked, bunched and packed vegetables, washed lettuce, removed stones from one patch of earth and weeded, a lot. She loved having her hands in the dirt, she said. Torres also lived on the farm. A few Farm Youth Corps members live with the farmers each year. Others live at home but must have transportation to the farms. “It was just a really, really happy time for me. I learned a lot about myself too,” Torres said. “If you spend five hours hoeing, you have a lot of time to think.” Participating farmers pay a $1,280 membership fee. The fee works out to $4 an hour in labor costs for the farmer, and the youth corps members earn $6.25 an hour. The DET — in addition to the $171,000 grant for administration costs — pays the difference, covers workers’ compensation premiums and issues the paychecks. Farmers’ membership fees provide about 25 percent of the total youth corps budget, with the rest coming through the DET. “I think it’s one of the better things I’ve ever worked with. … (It’s important) to have kids have an understanding of where our food comes from and how difficult it is to produce that food,” said Dennis White, an East Montpelier organic flower and vegetable farmer. White has hosted corps members for more than 10 years — kids who range from valedictorians to those with poor grades because of difficult home lives. “It would be a real shame if it doesn’t get funded,” White said. “I’m hoping something is going to come through for it.” Carol Krawzyk, a Bridport dairy and horse farmer, said she made a plea to the Vermont Department of Agriculture for funding, but left the meeting feeling the issue would not get the department’s attention. Agriculture Department officials couldn’t be reached for comment late last week. The problem developed so quickly that no other funding has materialized, said Hudson, who was before the Senate Agriculture Committee as late as Friday. Krawzyk sees the program’s demise as a real loss. “It just opens up agriculture to kids who wouldn’t normally even consider it,” she said. Contact Robin Palmer at robin.palmer@timesargus.com.

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