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Growing Farmers With Internships and Apprenticeships – Part 1

By   /  June 19, 2017  /  No Comments

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Thanks to the CSA Solutions Hub for sharing this article by Alex. While it was originally written for CSA oriented farmers, the principles are just as true for all farmers and ranchers hoping to work with interns.

I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of direct-market farmers started as interns or apprentices on someone else’s farm. When you think about mainstream production agriculture, I think you’ll find the same thing, except that those folks likely “apprenticed” with their parent, grandparent, or other relative. For farmers, apprentices and interns are inexpensive labor, and possibly the only way to afford getting crops in and out of the field, at least early on in the business. And most farmers enjoy watching people fall in love with the land and soil, and teaching someone is the best way to make this happen. For the aspiring farmer, there really isn’t any other way to learn this trade. You don’t easily read yourself into a farming career, and even with an increase in school programs based around small-scale farming, I would argue that learning to apply your knowledge is the key to farming successfully – this life is far more art than science, and experience is the key.

The CSA Solutions Hub gets a lot of questions about apprentices, interns and farm labor and in this article I’ll discuss some general employment considerations and specifically how we at Robinette Farms in Martell, Nebraska have approached this key question. My wife, Chloe Diegel, apprenticed for a few years; I essentially apprenticed with Chloe in the first years of our farm, and we have had apprentices on our farm for 5 years, so much of this comes from our experience on only a handful of farms. I have, however, seen apprentices come away with great experiences on a wide variety of farms and the common thread is not money, housing, location or education, it’s a strong mentor-mentee relationship between farmer and apprentice, which can exist on any farm. Our farm has tended toward a slightly more structured learning environment that is a reflection of our personalities, and I encourage you to find a way to employ people that fits your personality, builds relationships and grows more farmers!

Is This a Job?

Education is implied in the words “intern” and “apprentice,” and should hopefully be part of the compensation for all those hours weeding salad greens. If you don’t want to teach; if you don’t want to deal with young people’s lives and drama; if you don’t want to mentor anybody: hire hourly employees. But also don’t assume that “education” means classwork: learning can, and should, happen anywhere and anytime. When it comes to “teaching” writ large, there is a level of knowledge you need to possess to help educate someone, so if you haven’t farmed much and you plan to have apprentices or interns, proceed with caution! This could be a great learning opportunity for everyone, but if they’re expecting to learn and you have just as much to figure out, the relationship could easily turn south. As you likely know, a huge part of their education is simply learning if this lifestyle is enjoyable and satisfying for them. They won’t get rich apprenticing, and they likely won’t get rich farming, either, so they better love the work in front of them!

Throughout this article you’ll see both “intern” and “apprentice,” and I’d like to be clear about the distinction that I’m making. I feel internships are more about exposure to an industry, whereas apprenticeships are more about immersion. Outside the farming world, internships are typically connected to a credit-based school program, and apprenticeships are longer term, stand-alone experiential training opportunities. We have tried creating summer internships in association with a local university that combine credited classwork with hands-on farming (which we hope creates more interest in our apprenticeship program), but overall, I believe small farming is better served by the apprenticeship model. That’s the model we use on our farm, and that’s much of what I’ll discuss here.

Legal Issues: Do Your Homework!

First off, the requisite qualifying statement: I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. Employment law is complex and varies from state to state, and federal laws also affect what you can legally do on your farm. Agricultural exemptions exist for both federal and state laws when it comes to minimum wage, overtime and workers compensation, but this varies considerably.

Suffice it to say that in most states, and depending on the size of your operation, an apprenticeship or internship can be created that is legal, but you’re going to have to do that digging on your own! Consult with a lawyer, visit the U.S. and your state’s department of labor websites, or reach out to local, state and national farming organizations to find the resources you need. Here in Nebraska, where agriculture generates over half of all state revenue, our small farm is exempt from state and federal minimum wage laws. We pay apprentices $600/month, and provide free housing, produce and eggs. We are also exempt from providing workers compensation, but we choose to do so because this work is hard, sometimes dangerous, and many of our apprentices can’t afford health insurance.

Hiring – If You Want Professionalism, Act Like a Professional

Hiring starts close to home: start by assessing your personal strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of your farm. What do you have to offer? – money, knowledge, beautiful scenery, culture? What do you most need help with? – manual labor, customer service, equipment knowledge, building skills? Once you better understand these things, marketing your farm to potential apprentices is a lot easier. Here in Nebraska, we don’t attract young, idealistic folks in the same way that the Coasts, Colorado or the Pacific Northwest easily do, and so we’ve tried hard to make our Apprenticeship Program appealing based on the comprehensive nature of the learning experience. Even though we’ve interviewed folks from all over the country, almost all of our apprentices have come from the Midwest and Plains.

Begin advertising your opportunities in late fall both locally and nationally. ATTRA’s Sustainable Farming Internships and Apprenticeships page is a great start. There are other web pages to list with, but also consider reaching out to local schools and universities and see what options they might have. Perhaps you could speak to an organic agriculture class or visit with clubs.

Any listing should include a job description or link that details work, expectations, compensation, etc. Require written applications, resumes and references. Our application is really just a series of softball questions that help us get to know applicants and prepare us for interviews. If you haven’t conducted an interview before – practice this! Depending on your location, snagging apprentices can be competitive so you want to come across as competent. In the interview be honest about the difficulty of the job so you can understand how they might handle 12 hour days in July, living with their co-workers, and being away from home. Try to get a sense of their personality and how it might mesh with yours and other apprentices’. If possible, schedule a farm visit so they can better envision the work they might do and perhaps where they’ll be living. Meeting in person tells you so much about how you’ll get along and that means everything when you work together all the time!

Building Community – It Takes a Village to Raise a Farmer

You know how hard it can be working on farm, so do what you can to create a positive working and learning environment. The last thing anyone wants is for an apprentice to burn out in July, bail, and leave everyone else with more work and sour tastes in their mouths. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to prevent this, but here are some things to try.

Hire multiple apprentices whenever possible. Young, idealistic people are your most likely demographic and guess what – they’re social! Long hours weeding and harvesting pass much faster when you have people to talk with, and these are often the best teaching opportunities as well. If you can only hire one person, do everything you can to incorporate them into a social scene, which may mean your social scene. If your solo apprentice is energetic and outgoing, long hours alone may be the worst thing for them, another reason to consider their personality when hiring.

Housing and food are part of many apprenticeships, but this can certainly strain a budget. In just 5 years of having apprentices, we’ve spent nearly $7,000 making their housing more livable. We’ve also been amazed at just how many $5 per dozen eggs an apprentice will eat when their budget is stretched thin! If you budget properly and reasonably, these issues hopefully won’t strain your relationship, but be aware that they definitely can.

The CSA Solutions Hubs provides information on CSA Marketing, advice videos from CSA Experts, and opportunities for web chats with farmer experts. Click to check it out.

Work to connect your apprentices with as many farming and agriculture resources as possible. We tell all of our apprentices “If you don’t like working at our farm, don’t write off farming altogether!” and you can back this up by sharing your farming contacts, library, and magazine subscriptions. You can arrange tours with other farms in your area, and participate in any local training coalitions like CRAFT.

Finally, make sure you find ways to have fun together! Go to dinner or grab a beer now and then. Bring treats to the field and try to take breaks. Apprenticeships can be intense and difficult for everyone, so it’s important to bring it down a notch when you can.

In Part 2, Alex will share two more challenges of working with interns and apprentices: patience and remembering who’s boss. Stay tuned!

Alex McKiernan farms in Martell, Nebraska where he and his wife, Chloe Diegel, are in their 7th year of running Robinette Farms. Alex is a jack of all trades and a master of none. He counts himself among the lucky.

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