The national average age of U.S. ranchers and farmers is approaching 60, and less than two percent of the U.S. population is currently dedicated to producing food. Experienced producers have decades of accumulated knowledge–and unless we find ways to pass this on to the next generation, the value of this experience may be lost. Given these facts, it’s critical that the next generation of food producers and land stewards have sufficient training opportunities. The Quivira Coalition is helping transfer knowledge to our next generation by partnering with skilled ranchers and farmers to offer annual apprenticeships in regenerative agriculture.
Apprenticeship is an arrangement in which someone learns an art, trade, or job while working under a skilled practitioner, and it’s an important way for young people today to enter into careers in ranching and farming. Many of the young people who are interested in pursuing careers in agriculture today didn’t grow up in ranching or farming communities. When it comes to hands-on work, learning in a classroom doesn’t compare to learning directly from a skilled practitioner.
Mentoring the next generation of ranchers and farmers can be extremely rewarding. Having a young person around, who is there to learn, will bring enthusiasm and curiosity to your operation, not to mention some fresh muscles. Mentoring also comes with its challenges, however, and it’s not for everyone. As a mentor, you’re both an employer and teacher, a supervisor and a coach. You may be an excellent land manager and an astute businessperson, but will you be a good mentor? Taking the time to work through some questions will help you understand your motivations for becoming a mentor and figure out if it’s a good fit for you.
What are your motivations for becoming a mentor?
Maybe you’re hoping to pass on what was given to you when you first started your career. Perhaps you didn’t have a mentor to look up to, and now see the value of how useful that could have been. Are you open to (and excited about!) learning what someone from a different generation or with different life experiences might have to teach you? Mentoring is not a way to find cheap labor, and it’s not a 9-to-5 job. It is a great way to pass on your valuable knowledge and experience, as well as bring a fresh perspective to your business and perhaps learn a bit about yourself in the process, too.
What are the skills and experience that you might have to offer a beginning rancher or farmer?
Think about both the hard skills that you have that relate to the successful operation of your business, as well as the personality traits that might make you a good teacher. What are the skills that you’re most excited to share? What aspect of your personality will be most challenged by this role? Realistically, do you have the time and flexibility to incorporate an apprentice into your life? In order to support an apprentice through their learning, you may need to adapt your routine. You’ll also need to be open to questions and criticism and should plan to be challenged in ways you weren’t expecting.
What are the nuts and bolts of hiring and supporting an intern that you’ll need to put together?
Have you supported employees in the past, and are you set up to put someone on payroll and provide them with workers’ comp? Is there adequate housing, either on your property or nearby? While one of the primary forms of compensation for an apprentice is the valuable skills and experience that they gain, they also need to be able to support themselves financially through their apprenticeship. When thinking about a compensation package, consider what you may be able offer beyond a monthly stipend: housing, food from the ranch or farm, access to workshops?
There’s no specific set of rules or qualifications that make someone ready to be a mentor. The important thing to remember is that by committing to an apprentice, you are committing to a whole human, and to supporting them as a teacher and coach through both the positive and the challenging. Taking the time to work through these questions before diving in to hiring an apprentice will help you understand the extent to which you are ready to take on the challenges of mentorship, and where you may need to iron some things out first.
Do these questions have you thinking?
This article is the first in a series that will include valuable tips and advice for anyone considering hiring an apprentice or intern. In coming issues we’ll cover writing an accurate apprenticeship description and promoting your opportunity, evaluating applications and conducting effective interviews, setting expectations and balancing work and education, and providing feedback to create a self-initiating apprentice.
We want you to be successful. So, we’re also offering free “Intro to Mentoring” workshops this summer. These calls will be led by Julie Sullivan, one of the founding mentors of the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian apprenticeship program. Julie and her husband George Whitten run San Juan Land & Livestock, and have been mentoring beginning ranchers on their operation in Colorado’s San Luis Valley for nearly 20 years. These articles are based on a mentor training series that she leads.
Held on June 15th (12-1:30pm MDT) or July 22nd (6:30-8:00pm MDT), the calls will provide an overview of the New Agrarian program and an opportunity to talk about what it means to become a mentor. Click here for more information and to register.
Although it may seem early to prepare for hiring an apprentice in 2021, now is exactly the right time to make sure you’ve covered all of your bases and are prepared to find someone who is a good fit for your operation. We look forward to helping you get started!