Legal Issues

by Jim Sluyter & Jo Meller
All respondents to our survey offer some compensation
to their interns in the form of a stipend, housing, and/or board — 
the latter often consisting of produce from the farm
. Each form of compensation raises possible legal issues.

Most farmers supply their apprentices with housing, ranging from accommodations in the farm household to a separate house with all the amenities to a tent. The United States Department of Labor Employment Standards Administration has formulated housing standards for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers. A farmer who provides interns with housing that does not meet these standards is technically in violation of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

Some farmers offer a stipend, others offer only room and board in exchange for labor and a learning experience. While federal minimum wage standards in certain instances exempt seasonal labor on farms, state laws may not.
In New York, for example, state minimum wage statutes apply to interns.

Even though federal and state officials do not actively seek situations in which interns voluntarily work under circumstances that are technically illegal, a farmer who does not adhere to the statutes is vulnerable. If an intern or, as in a case being litigated in Maryland, a neighbor with a dispute files a complaint with the appropriate state or federal agency the farmer will be open to prosecution.

Working closely with a college or university may help a farmer establish a clear program of training, creating an obvious relationship between intern and mentor as opposed to employee and employer. A farmer who has no relationship with a learning institution might instead provide a written agreement or contract covering what is offered to an intern and what is expected from the intern in return. Although such an agreement clearly d efines the responsibilities and expectations of each party, it does not protect a farmer who is in violation of any federal or state laws.

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Jim Sluyter and Jo Meller wrote a 9-page report on internships from which the
above was adapted with permission in the Autumn 2000 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 visitors.

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