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Growing Farmers: Apprenticeships and Internships

by Alex McKiernan of Robinette Farms

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 has had 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.

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 like “Growing for Market,” and “Stockman Grass Farmer.” 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.

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!

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!

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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