Farm Internships: More Than Just Cheap Labor

2/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Competition for farm interns is growing as farms look to increase production and novice growers hope to increase their knowledge of the trade, often at a farm that meets their very specific criteria.

Stipends are up 10 percent over last year around the industry, and farms are hiring more interns than in past years, said Johnny Parker, who runs Edible Earth Farm in remote Tionesta, Pa., with his wife April Parker.

As a result, farmers who want to offer internship programs need to make sure they select the right people and educate their interns through the hours of hard, hot work.

Johnny Parker and two of his farm’s interns described their experiences with the program on Feb. 7 at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s Farming for the Future Conference at The Penn Stater.

The Parkers started an internship program last year hoping to find reliable, enthusiastic and somewhat experienced workers. They screened 100 to 120 applications.

The farm serves wholesale customers, three farmers markets and a 180-member community supported agriculture, or CSA, operation.

Parker referred to the position as an apprenticeship, not an internship.

“Internships carry a bad connotation” of treating workers as menial labor, while “apprenticeship” suggests respect for the worker, he said.

Some farms just throw their interns in the fields with their migrant laborers the whole summer, but Parker said he was determined to make the apprentice program more than that.

He said he wanted the apprentices to stay for the entire season, and he wanted to draw quality people who wanted to improve their skills.

“You’re training people,” he said. “Educating is part of why I’m in this industry.”

Running a program that treats workers well can also help the apprentices stick around for a second year.

In the first year, the farm invests a lot in the worker. In the second year, “you could put it bluntly and say that they make you money, and that’s not untrue,” but the workers are also more confident in their skills, Parker said.

Parker, who was the director of software development at Carnegie Mellon University for 10 years before starting Edible Earth Farm, has a lot of experience hiring people.

The job description and screening process are important tools for selecting the right people, he said.

The job description should clearly explain what is being offered and expected. Parker recalled another farm’s posting that included the responsibility to “avoid planetary meltdowns.”

“If I were an apprentice, this would be a red flag,” he said.

The farm needs to define what the apprentices will learn. “They may be moving across the country. They may be giving up other opportunities” and want to make sure the program will be worthwhile, Parker said.

The job description should mention housing availability, the people the apprentice will work for and with, and the work load.

Most internship programs expect workers to put in 60 hours over six days a week.

At Edible Earth Farm, Parker said the hours climb to 50 or 55 in busy weeks, but “never will we work a six-day week.”

Those requirements are demanding but keep the apprentices from feeling that farming is taking over their lives.

Parker said he prefers candidates with attention to detail and enough quickness to earn their wages picking vegetables.

“You can kind of determine who these people are” during the interview process, he said.

Some internship programs now offer a season completion bonus, sometimes a substantial one.

“I think it’s great. You hedge yourself quite a bit from someone walking out in the middle of the season,” he said.

Farm internships are fraught with legal issues surrounding compensation. Parker said he relies on his attorney and PASA to advise him what he can and cannot do.

While Parker declined to mention all of the channels he uses to solicit applications, he said national websites are important but not as productive as one might think.

Once he had an application, though, he put a lot of work into screening.

“You may drive some people away with how thorough you are,” said Parker, who conducts several hourlong phone interviews with applicants before hiring.

Farmers need to wary about the same issues with applicants as other employers: periods of unemployment, frequent job changes or gaps in work history, he said.

Parker also has farm-specific rules.

He will not allow couples to be apprentices, no matter their qualifications.

“Can you imagine two people walking off your farm in the middle of the season?” he said.

He also requires a clean driving record to keep his insurance premiums low. Many local workers had DUIs, he said.

References are also extremely important to Parker, who said he has saved a lot of anguish by calling them. They sometimes give a very different impression of the worker than the applicant himself.

If Parker is interested in an experience for which the applicant did not list a reference, he asks for one. People who provide that reference have nothing to hide, he said.

Offering a job by phone is important because it allows the worker to ask questions. “A lot of them are kind of caught flat-footed. I’m going to have to move, and that’s soon,’ ” he said.

Making offers by email and text are too informal and can cause communications issues, he said.

Farms should accentuate in their job postings the cutting-edge features of their operations, like season extension or heavy use of high tunnels.

For Parker, it was the farm’s tomato grafting program. Both interns said they appreciated learning to graft.

“Be free with your knowledge,” Parker said.

Farmers need to explain why they are doing things and arrange tours of other farms.

“Be willing to listen. You’d be surprised how much knowledge they carry even from simple observation,” he said.

While interns will ask many questions and come up with some good ideas, Parker draws the line at challenging his authority.

For example, if he explains that he uses a spray with copper to prevent $30,000 in late blight loss, he does not want an apprentice continuing to pester him because of idealistic commitments about copper pesticides.

“There’s no room for that on my farm,” Parker said.

Personal conflicts must be managed early, he said. “If that means moving someone out of your operation, do it fast, and don’t look back.”

While apprentices should get experience with all parts of an operation, they often settle into roles where they can shine.

Dean Martin, one of the apprentices, focused on field work, while Megan Gallagher preferred marketing.

Martin said he chose to become an apprentice after realizing it would be a cheaper way to gain farming experience than going to college.

Martin grew up on a small farm in Lancaster County and spent time woofing, or taking short work-trade stints on organic farms, before coming to Edible Earth Farm.

Like many would-be apprentices, Martin sought a very specific set of circumstances: a small or mid-size production-oriented organic farm with opportunities in field planning and integrated pest management. He wanted managers with agreeable personalities, a monthly stipend, housing and in-season vegetables.

He was glad he was not the only apprentice on the farm and that the Parkers organized social events throughout the summer, especially because the farm is in a rural area.

While apprentices have high expectations from the farm, “realize your value,” he said. Unskilled apprentices should expect to be paid less than skilled workers.

Gallagher said that fair compensation was important to her. It demonstrates that an employer values her, and “I didn’t want to be pure labor anymore,” she said.

Gallagher became interested in urban gardening in college and spent several years working part time in small plots, but she wanted a commercial-scale experience in food production.

“I never got a full idea of the planning that went into it,” she said.

She found Edible Earth Farm on Craigslist and is returning to the farm this year to run the greens part of the operation.

Standardization helps reduce apprentices’ confusion, Gallagher said. Farmers should label bins, mark where things should go in the cooler, explain which crops can be processed in the field, and define the size of a bunch to be used at market.

“It was just amazing to go to markets and see people’s gratification for the food that you grew,” she said.

The apprentices agreed that they might like to start their own farms eventually, but after a season of apprenticeship, they both said they would like to work under someone else for a few more years before making that jump.

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