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. If you didn’t see Part 1, here it is.
Learning – Patience Is a Virtue
We’re always struck by how much we slow down when all the apprentices arrive in April – “Shouldn’t this be faster with 4 people instead of just me?” No doubt about it, having apprentices is an investment and it will take time for them to be useful and effective, but you can ease this transition by figuring out how they best learn and then work with their strengths. Ask them if they learn by being hands-on, watching a demonstration, or just being told. Carefully train and build new skills slowly. Start with the big picture so they can see how all the boring, repetitive tasks fit together to make your farm work. As you teach them something ask “Does that make sense?” “Am I explaining it well?” and be prepared to hear “No. You’re confusing me,” then try a different way.
We started incorporating 1-2 hours of informal classes once a week during the spring and late fall so that we can cover a lot of the behind-the-scenes planning and prep that they execute each day in the field. Our apprentices get a binder that we slowly fill with info about everything from profit & loss statements to irrigation layout and design. Each class is just a discussion over coffee, tea or beer (depending on the temperature and energy levels) of some aspect of our farm. They don’t have homework, they aren’t tested, but people do sometimes fall asleep, which means class is over for the day! UC-Santa Cruz has many detailed lessons plans on their website, which may help you organize. Our apprentices really enjoy touring other farms, so make that your class if you’re not feeling academic.
In the field, we try to work together as much as possible, which creates ample opportunity for the best learning situations: field discussions. These are the times when the best questions come out and when you really have time to delve into things, so cultivate those conversations while you cultivate the carrots.
Management – Who’s the Boss?
Communication is everything, and that goes way beyond farming. The best advice we were ever given is “do what you say you’re going to do,” and it makes a lot of sense in the context of employees. Make it clear what you expect and then follow through when expectations aren’t met. This doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk, but it does mean that you’re leading this circus and you’ll get the best results when everyone knows what’s on your mind. Keeping, prioritizing and communicating “The List” has got to be one of the hardest things on any farm, but it’s key to a successful operation and it’s your job! You also need to lead by example. Set the standard for quality and speed, but know and accept that they’ll likely never work as hard as you until they have their own farms.
Learn to delegate responsibility. There’s no better way to create community, build trust and engage your apprentices than by letting them feel vested in the success of your farm. This doesn’t mean handing things over and seeing what happens, but it does mean you shouldn’t micromanage. Nobody likes their boss looking over their shoulder, so after teaching something, give them time and space to find their own way to complete the task. I try to give the parameters – the “spec,” I call it – of the ideal final product, and then allow for as much flexibility and ingenuity in their method as possible. Don’t get me wrong, we often have to say “Ok, that’s not working and here’s why… Please do it this way,” but this happens less and less as the season evolves, and they often find better ways to get the job done!
My wife, Chloe, got used to the “morning meeting” in her first apprenticeship, and it’s a huge part of everyday on our farm. Every morning we meet for 5-45 minutes to discuss the day, the week, the weather, the tension at their house – whatever needs to be aired, we try to air it. We push our apprentices hard to speak up if they have a problem, and morning meetings are a great way to see if there are issues that need special attention. We also try to have “check-ins” early on, so at the end of the first week and month in particular, we sit down individually and see how things are going. We review their performance, give feedback, ask about the living situation and try to be open to constructive criticism they may have for us.
Even with all of this, there may come a time when you just have to cut the cord and fire someone. If early check-ins and performance are really negative; if they aren’t getting along with you or their co-workers; if it’s clear they don’t want to be there, then it’s better to go your separate ways sooner rather than later. In 2012 we were stretched very thin labor-wise and we dragged our feet when confronting some issues with an apprentice, only to have him bail right when the season got cranking and there was little time to hire or train a replacement. In retrospect, I wish we would have parted ways sooner, but that’s a hard lesson to learn!
Do You Still Want Apprentices?
In many ways this article is aspirational: we do much of what’s discussed here, but we still have lots to learn, we regularly make mistakes, and we hope to improve. We also didn’t do all of this at once, and every year we try to improve the living situation and the learning environment. Apprentices are like the weather – every year is different! Every apprentice and every crew offers new ideas, challenges and energy that make every season exciting and different.
There are so many ways to build great apprenticeships, and hopefully this article creates discussion and ideas that do just that. If small-scale, sustainably-minded farms are ever going to become a large part of our national food production, it’s going to take lots of great farmers and it’s going to be our farms that grow them!