Loudoun’s kids are spending more time than ever looking at screens this fall. Farmer and winemaker Doug Fabbioli wants to give high schoolers a chance to get outside—and open their eyes to the jobs in Loudoun’s growing agriculture sector.
“We’ve got great people learning how to code. We need to make sure we’ve got good people learning the land and how to work the land,” Fabbioli said.
Fabbioli and other rural leaders launched the New Ag School in 2017 to give Loudouners of all ages a chance to get hands-on training in ag careers. Now, with Loudoun County Public Schools virtual classes running Tuesday through Friday, Fabbioli is seizing an opportunity on open Mondays. His new program Think Outside gives high schoolers from around the county a chance to step away from the screen, get outside and learn the nuts and bolts of an agricultural operation.
The program, which starts Monday, Oct. 19, takes participants through modules including equipment, horticulture, sanitation, leadership and the hospitality components of agritourism. For Fabbioli, it’s a chance for students to make connections, find mentors and set the path in motion for meaningful summer and part-time jobs. He’s recruiting mentors in equine, farming, landscaping and other sectors.
“You’re going to be learning from somebody that’s passionate about what they’re doing,” Fabbioli said.
Fabbiloi’s ongoing Saturday classes have been open to Loudouners of all ages. But he has been especially interested in guiding the region’s young people to career opportunities as wineries and farms look to build a workforce.
“They’re all looking,” Fabbioli said. “They all want some of these kids to come up. We’re just trying to get these seeds to catch.”
In the past year, Fabbioli has been building a program with several Loudoun schools and was getting ready to roll out the high school program last spring when COVID hit. When Loudoun County Public Schools announced that Mondays would be designated for asynchronous work, Fabbioli saw an opportunity to get kids outside.
“Monday seems like a day where they don’t have to be in front of a computer all day, so I said hey let’s give them a chance to get outside.” Fabbioli said. “What I’m hoping they get out of this on a bigger level is an appreciation for the outdoors and to recognize that there are jobs that they can do where they don’t have to sit behind a computer screen all day long.”
Participants will spend six Monday mornings on the farm, starting by getting their hands dirty with a module on cleaning and sanitation.
Fabbioli has made building connections with Park View High School in Sterling, one of Loudoun’s diverse and densely populated suburban communities, and getting eastern Loudoun kids to the agricultural west a priority.
Park View junior James Rodriguez and sophomore Osiel Alfaro have been training with Fabbioli this summer and will be joining the Monday classes as teaching assistants and participants. This summer and fall, the two students have been learning the ropes during harvest time: picking grapes, weeding, learning vineyard management techniques.
On a recent Saturday, James was working with Fabbioli’s right hand man Arturo Perez cleaning tanks as the winemaking crew moves wine from tanks to barrels. Osiel was punching down red grape skins into juice as part of the early fermentation process. For both teens, the opportunity to work outside and learn new skills is worth the trip from Sterling. They’re making it happen with support from their parents and Fabbioli who regularly drives them home after a day’s work.
“It’s a good environment,” Osiel said.
And for Fabbioli, it’s a chance for smart, hard working teens to learn new skills and apply old skills differently.
“We get caught up in learning from a teacher, from a parent. But then you’ve to got look at learning from coworkers”
The apprenticeship/mentoring model gives kids hands-on opportunities to build skills.
“The key thing with this is you want a safe environment to learn,” Fabbioli said. “We get in the mindset where when you go to work, you know what you’re doing and you do it. We know you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’ve got to be open and willing to learn.”
For Fabbioli, who started his first agricultural job as a teen and wound up in a decades-long career in winemaking, restoring value to careers in trades is also a big part of the program.
“We’ve gotten to the point here where a lot of the vocational jobs aren’t valued. We’re always looking to sit more and expect somebody else to do the work. … I’ve been in the business for 40 years and I still get out and pick grapes because I want to make sure that we’re doing it right.”
The New Ag School’s six-week Think Outside Program for high school students runs Mondays from 9 a.m. to noon starting Oct. 19. Tuition is $250 and scholarships are available for low-income students. Interested students can apply online at newagschool.org.