Plowing up an Internship

by John Bowe
You want to work your small farm with draft horses or oxen and maybe direct-market your products, but you don't have these skills and you don't know where to get them. An internship may be the answer. Literally thousands of internships are available (including those specifically related to draft animal work listed here in the Good Farming Apprenticeship Network) to anyone willing to a do a little hard work, research, and communicating. Finding the internship that best suits your needs may seem a daunting task, but you can do it with a little
preliminary groundwork.
I have engaged in six internships in agriculture, as well as in other fields in which I have worked. Based on these experiences I have developed a few principles I believe will help anyone seeking an apprenticeship acquire the best quality experience while avoiding potential disappointments.
  1. Determine the amount of money you need to be paid to be able to take on the internship for the specified period of time. This amount will vary greatly from one individual to the next. Be sure to include everything that won't be provided by the internship (such as emergency medical insurance, auto insurance, and so forth). As an apprentice, if you exchange labor for housing, meals, and even a small stipend, you might not be covered by workers compensation. The rules regarding such things are different in each state. Farming is a dangerous occupation, even if you work solely with vegetables. Accidents can occur, so plan ahead and be intelligent about your preparations.

    Make sure both parties understand exactly what your compensation will be. Are housing and utilities included? Will food be provided? If a stipend is offered, how much is it and under what circumstances is it paid? These seemingly simple things are easily miscommunicated. A thorough discussion will help you determine how much you can afford to earn (or not earn) during your apprenticeship.

    You don't necessarily need to consider only internships with salaried pay. The skills you learn as part of an internship are often invaluable and therefore make up for the lack of monetary rewards. I was once paid a meager $67.50 a week for 40 hours of labor, in an internship that ncluded housing and utilities. The stipend provided enough to pay for my auto insurance and some basic groceries, with a little left over to put away. I was lucky that for Christmas my sisters had stocked me up with groceries, so the situation was comfortable for me. Through it I made numerous friends and learned some outstanding skills, ranging from draft horse driving to the marketing of organic field crops.
  2. Determine the skills you would like to acquire and seek situations that will allow you to meet your personal goals. I have noticed over several internships that apprentices who come into a situation with a specific set of goals generally achieve greater satisfaction from their internship opportunities than those who have no clear goals>

    A simple method of setting your goals is to sit down and think about the future you want to have in, let's say, draft-horse farming. Using that future as your goal, write down the skills you currently have that will help you get there, then write down the skills you need but are lacking. Using these skills as an outline, review the advertised internship positions to see if they fit what you are looking for.

    Unfortunately, some internships do not meet their advertised statements. Some farms or living museum sites advertise draft-animal power as part of their operations, yet interns aren't given the chance to take advantage of these unique opportunities. Reasons include lack of time, insurance clauses, and fear of lawsuits.

    This part of the search is perhaps the most frustrating aspect, but one you can easily avoid by interviewing the farmer/group/organization much as they interview you [see Ask Questions]. Ask for a thorough job description and make sure skills are truly offered as advertised.

    Be specific about the position you are seeking, whether it involves blacksmithing, working with oxen, or whatever. Make sure you will be allowed to work at developing these skills on a regular basis. Ask for a certain percentage of the time be allotted to this development, but be flexible. Farming is never a sure thing. If the internship does not provide skills in an area you are seeking, or if you are asked to pursue certain skills on your own time, look elsewhere.
  3. As you research the advertised internships don't be frustrated if none meet your specific goals. Many opportunities are available that are not listed in any publication. You might, for example, write a note to Rural Heritage be published on the Good Farming Apprenticeship Network page in a future issue, hoping to appeal to a farmer or logger who doesn't formally offer internships but might be willing to take you on.

    Search for other unlisted opportunities. Some of the internships that garnered me the most advantageous skills were not found in a magazine or job listing. They were opportunities that developed through meeting and talking with people. Someone you meet might know of a person or place where you can learn the skills you seek. Get out there and look, talk, and listen.
  4. Be ready make a commitment. On a number of occasions I have seen internships that include draft-horse power or skills, only to discover that the people offering the positions require interns to commit to a lengthy period. After several years of working with draft animals of various types, I now understand why many farmers want a long-term commitment: It offers consistency in working partners, which is best for the animals. It also gives the farmer time to gauge whether the intern is cut out for this kind of work and able to be trusted with valuable animals and equipment. You must understand this unique facet of working with animals and be prepared to make a commitment that fits your schedule. Teamster skills are not something you can pick up overnight. They develop over a lifetime, building constantly upon a foundation that should be solid from the start.
  5. Work to make the internship what you want it to be. The teachers are not the only ones who have to work to make your learning experience a success. You must be as willing as they are to achieve your goals. Once you have found a position you feel will provide you with everything you need and you have a basis of trust in the people you are working with, it's up to you to make the most of the internship. When you have questions or suggestions, talk to the farmer about them. Many apprenticeships turn out to be learning opportunities for both the intern and the teacher.

    Sometimes you will have a chance to meet other people working in your field of interest. Maybe you will visit producers or suppliers for the farm or museum site. Listen to conversations, ask questions if possible, and take notes when the discussion presents valuable information. The contacts you make may later help you get started or meet consumers of your product, may one day be suppliers for you, or may offer future apprenticeship opportunities or even full-time employment.

    Most people, farms, and organizations that host internships have libraries full of volumes regarding some of the things you will be doing. If these books are made available to you, read everything that might prove useful. Take notes, or at least make a bibliography of the books you find useful. Use your bibliography to start your personal library as soon as possible. In farming, reference books are priceless.

    Whenever the opportunity arises, go to as many seminars, conferences, and field days as you can. You may learn as much from organized meetings as from your internship. Topics at such events often vary widely, so pick those you think will help you the most. If the farm you are working for is willing to pay your way, discuss which sessions you should attend that will benefit the farm as well as you.

    View gatherings as not only sources of information but as tremendous resources of people who are interested the same things you are. Talk, listen, and learn. By asking appropriate questions and carefully listening to the answers, you might learn as much standing in line for registration as you do in some of the sessions.
  6. If you have any farm experience at all, you will soon find that each farmer has a different method of doing things. Don't be dismayed if philosophies and management practices vary from yours. When it comes to attitude, an often-stubborn person like myself may have a hard time. We need to learn to be open minded. Be prepared to learn. Be flexible. Most important, be respectful of someone else's methods. In most cases, those methods have been developed or adopted for a reason, which you must take into consideration before speaking up on an issue.
An internship can offer one of the most valuable learning opportunities you will ever have. With some basic preparations in finances, goal setting, r esearch, and communication, not only will you garner invaluable skills you might not acquire anywhere else, you will also make lifelong friends, unearth possible job opportunities, and discover resources for your own farming operation. rh horse logo
John Bowe lives in Elgin, Minnesota. This article appearred in the
Evener 2001 issue of Rural Heritage.

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