by Jim Sluyter & Jo Meller
A good match between farmers and their apprentices, along with effective
training of the apprentices, ensures that the internship
experience will be beneficial to each. Accordingly, last year we made a
study to determine how farmers find interns with characteristics that are
important to them. As part of the project we sought advice from farmers
who are experienced in training interns.
Although the farms we contacted do not necessarily employ horse power
most, perhaps all, are organic farms and many are community supported
agriculture (CSA) farms. Some have offered internships for more than
20 years; the average is 8 years.
Most of the farms train an average of two to three interns per year and are
generally able to find as many as they seek, although in this regard a
significant minority is disappointed at least some of the time. When asked if
they were generally satisfied with the internship experience, 84% of the
responding farmers said “yes.”
The characteristics farmers desire most often in an apprentice are
(in order of importance): physically fit, easy to get along with, able to
work independently, background in farming or gardening, eager to learn,
reliable, able to follow instructions, willing to make a commitment, positive
As part of each apprentice's training, a few farmers require their interns to
read certain books related to the internship, others suggest related reading.
Many simply open their often-extensive libraries for interns to browse.
Teaching methods otherwise largely entail demonstrating a technique,
then watching the intern do it.
The results of our survey suggest that farmers tend to overrate the amount
of work an intern will provide, which may be a reflection of the relatively
large investment in time required to give the intern a meaningful learning
experience. The object of an internship program is to train prospective
farmers; it is not about obtaining cheap labor. These goals are not mutually
exclusive, however, and an intern can benefit from a well-developed training
program at the same time that a farmer gets labor at a bargain. The key
is good training.
Sluyter and Jo Meller
wrote a 9-page report on internships from which the
above was adapted with permission in the
issue of Rural Heritage
The report is based on a survey conducted by
the couple and funded by the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance. The
entire report is available free as an email attachment to ruralheritage.com