Offering Apprenticeships on Your
Horse-Powered Farm

by Doug Jones

The present generation of farmers share an obligation to train the next generation of farmers. More farmers are coming out of apprenticeship programs than out of ag schools.

   — Sam Smith
The potential rewards of hosting interns, as reported by a number of farmers, include:
  • obtaining eager enthusiastic help that is affordable to the small sustainable farming operation whose owners typically make only a modest profit;
  • the opportunity to contribute to the growth of sustainable farming by passing on your knowledge and experience to the next generation of food growers;
  • he formation of new friendships and the potential personal fulfillment that can come from inspiring and mentoring budding farmers and gardeners.
Some creative possibilities are available for developing your internship program's training and educational aspects. The following ideas and suggestions were gathered from a number of farmers who are dedicated to the quality of their interns' learning experiences.

Begin with orientation. Soon after an intern arrives, give him or her a detailed tour of your place, explaining the living arrangements, chores and responsibilities, system for organizing work, status of current crops and upcoming work, and so forth. Devote time to getting interns up to speed. Remind them you are open to questions and feedback, and ask them to keep you informed if problems arise with the living arrangements or the work and training. Get to know each intern individually: the personality, learning style, work style, special abilities, and any limitations or problems each might have with particular tasks. Here are some ideas and recommendations:

Maximize your field time with interns. Especially in the early season —  when farm work tends to be more complex and the interns are new to everything—spend plenty of time with them setting up projects, explaining why you do things in a particular way, and carefully noting how each person learns tasks and gravitates to certain jobs.

For a job with a number of sequential steps, some farmers find it useful to first demonstrate the whole job before the intern tries his or her hand at it. Seeing the process all the way to the finished product helps an intern understand how all the steps contribute to the desired result. Many tasks you have performed hundreds of times may seem deceptively simple. Try to remember all that was involved in your own development of your methods for the task.

Make a continual effort to adapt to the individual learning style of each person. You will find yourself performing a constant balancing act between giving inadequate training and explanation—resulting in a job poorly done—and being so particular that interns feel micro-managed or perceive that you think they are stupid. Most experienced host farmers strongly recommend thorough prior training, along with plenty of background information, giving the intern a deep understanding of why they are asked to do things a certain way. A common, frustrating scenario for both farmer and intern consists of inadequate initial training followed by subsequent corrections, often perceived as criticism of the intern's intelligence or common sense. Prevention is the best medicine.

Ask interns to step into the role of learner, accepting you as the mentor. One farmer's way of doing things is not always the "right" or "best" way, but i s usually the result of a lot of experimentation and observation. Farmers must ask interns to respect that and see what they can learn from the farmer's perspective before offering their own suggestions. The farmer also needs to welcome constructive input and feedback; farmers can learn a lot from interns, including an appreciation of new perspectives.

Of course, farmers need to follow through with their part of the bargain and not allow farm demands to result in frequent short cuts that get the job done but leave the intern confused and poorly instructed.

Diversity versus Specialization. You can ask an employee to do one job repetitively for days on end. Most interns, on the other hand, expect to be exposed to the wide range of tasks on a small diversified farm. Offering a variety of experiences requires more of your time, but that's what the bargain is all about. Besides, their broad knowledge of crops and tasks will benefit you as the season progresses; you can give them more responsibility as their understanding of the big picture develops.

As another benefit, you will witness the interns' growing self-esteem and dedication to crops they have tended from planting to harvest. If an intern is personally involved in planting a crop (which you perhaps could have planted in less time if they hadn't been involved), they are more likely to have the necessary motivation to spend the long hours required to weed or harvest that crop, and they will be excited about promoting its virtues to your customers. Many growers notice an extra surge of motivation from the marketing itself, especially when interns can experience customer satisfaction.

At the same time don't overlook the benefits of occasional specialization. Giving an intern regular responsibility for a certain crop, animal, or task can be a valuable learning experience while lightening your load of prganizational or record-keeping duties. Some farmers have found the harvest season, with its lower level of complexity for most crops, to be the best time to give interns responsibility for individual crops. These jobs can occasionally be rotated, as well.

Special Demonstrations. Many host farmers find it useful to set up special training sessions to present a particular task, or the operation of a piece of equipment, in a focused way. The usefulness of demonstrations applies especially to safety, maintenance, and methods of using tools and equipment or care of, and safety around, livestock. If you have several interns, group demonstrations represent an efficient use of your management time.

Involvement in Farm Planning. Some interns appreciate being included in planning meetings. The more interns understand about why one crop follows another, schedules of successions, soil variations and amendments, individual crop needs, expenses involved in the farm operation, or the steps required to meet certification standards, the more likely they are to do the job well, at the right place and time, and with the motivation that comes from feeling included and respected.

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Doug Jones wrote Internships in Sustainable Farming: A Handbook for Farmers from which the above has been adapted with permission. The 16-page 8.5"x11" stapled report is available for $6.00 postpaid from Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, Inc. [NOFA-NY], PO Box 21, South Butler, NY 13154-0021. It is also available as a free download. This article appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Rural Heritage.

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