“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
― Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution
As a farmer I am a product of the Canadian farm internship system. Can it be called a system? I’m referring to the several non-profit organizations across the country that connect would-be farmers who want to learn the ropes in a practical setting with established farmers willing to host and teach them.
Collectively, organizations such as Stewards of Irreplaceable Lands (SOIL) or the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) receive hundreds of applications a year. Many applicants proceed to a farming internship, the terms and design of which are left to the host farmer and the intern to establish.
Getting those terms right—that is, designing an internship that ultimately satisfies both host and intern—can be really tricky. Interns often work long hours (40-60 is the norm) for little financial compensation ($0 to $200/week on average) with the expectation that in the process they will learn how to be confident, competent famers. Even people like me, who leave their internships very satisfied, end up having at least a few gripes about various aspects of the experience.
Which is why the progression of former interns who, as farmers, go on to host their own interns is so interesting to me. A commitment to improving the intern experience seems inevitable. And so I decided to seek out some interns-cum-farmers-cum-internship-hosts to ask them about how their original experiences affected their approach to hosting and teaching new farmers.
The six farmers I interviewed have a range of experiences and opinions to share. But every one of them shares the conviction that their internship experiences were crucial to the success they now enjoy as farmers, and a dedication to creating an excellent learning environment for their own interns.
“It’s a really fascinating aspect of farming that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”
Yehuda Nestel is the founder and co-manager of Plowshare Farm, a horse-driven vegetable operation near Palmerston, Ontario. He has been farming full-time for seven years, the first two as an intern on two different farms. This season will mark his third hosting his own interns. Plowshare supplies a 50-member CSA, attends one farmers’ market, and does a little wholesaling to grocery stores.
“We farmers tend to talk about every other aspect of farming except managing interns. I think it’s a missing link in the training of new farmers: communicating expectations, how to structure an internship, what they can expect from you, etc. There’s hardly anything available.”
Yehuda cherishes the experience he gained as a two-time intern and, as he describes his experiences to me, the affection he still has for his former hosts is clear. Still, there were certain aspects of his internships that he wanted to avoid as he designed the one for Plowshare Farm. Feeling that he sometimes lacked a sense of the big picture as an intern, Yehuda now opens all his books to his interns and posts his weekly planning charts on the wall so they always know how the farm is doing with regards to its planning and progress.
What’s even more important, he says, is that the expectations are clearly outlined at the outset. Yehuda creates a detailed agreement for his interns to review and approve, and invites them to state their own expectations with regards to the skills he will teach them.
Colleen O’Brien completed one internship on a market garden in BC’s Okanagan Valley to start off her farming career. She was meant to fill one of four intern spots and work 40 hours per week. “Things didn’t quite work out though, and I ended up being the only intern. I worked seven days a week for twelve hours a day for much of that season.”
Colleen says she learned a ton that year, but to her own eventual farm she brought a strong conviction that interns need more down-time. Colleen co-manages Stellar Seeds in Kaslo, BC, with her husband Patrick Steiner, who already had experience hosting interns when she arrived. They cap their interns’ schedules at 40 hours per week.
“Another thing that’s new this year is that we’re giving a percentage of sales to our intern,” she continues. “That’s something I thought of this year. We think it’s important to give our interns incentive to do a good job.”
For Jonathan Bruderleing, co-owner of Ferme Melilot in Dunham, Qc., access to the depths of other farmers’ knowledge was worth every minute of the sweat he produced during 3 years of internships. He and his partner Jolianne Demers produce veggies for a 125-member CSA on a 130 acre leased farm. Pastured poultry and livestock will soon be introduced to their system. “Between us both, we were able to tweak from five or six different farms. We still get advice from all of them—soil fertility, livestock, horse-training…”
In offering internships themselves, the pair emphasizes the maintenance of private space between themselves and their interns. “We lived with our farm hosts and loved it, but noticed over time that both parties needed more privacy, since interns and hosts spend so much time together on the farm.” They provide their interns with their own cabin so that they can have a life of their own outside of the farming.
Like Colleen O’Brien at Stellar Seeds, they believe in the importance of a set work schedule and ask their interns to commit to a 45 hour work week.
“Especially in my first internship there was a lack of time spent discussing and teaching; not talking enough about why we’re doing things. I’m trying to do that a lot more with my apprentices.”
Jordan Field stayed on with the hosts of his second internship and now co-manages ALM Farm’s 2.5 acre market garden alongside his former teachers. Now that he plays a role in the structure of the farm’s internships, he gets to influence an aspect of the intern experience that he feels is lacking on some farms: the amount of time set aside for discussion and teaching, as opposed to simply ‘learning-by-doing’.
“Education needs to be at the forefront of the internship,” he tells me. “I try to impart as much knowledge as possible and spend a lot of time working alongside the interns.” ALM farm incorporates numerous farm tours and workshops into its internships. “It really helps that the farmers here are really engaged with the larger community,” he adds. “It makes it easy to set up opportunities for our interns to learn from other farmers.”
“Saturday was a half-day—we worked 6-8 hours.”
Like many interns, Leslie Moskovits and her partner Jeff Boesch worked a rigorous schedule during their 6.5 month internship: 60-70 hours per week. They don’t regret it, especially as their hosts were so committed to their education, a factor Leslie believes is crucial to making an internship worthwhile and fair for the intern.
Leslie and Jeff operate Cedar Down Farm in Neustadt, On., which includes a 150-member veggie CSA, with plans to introduce a grain CSA in the near future.
“I don’t think learning should just be a side note to what you’re doing on the farm. The education has to be totally intentional on the part of the host. That’s the only way an internship lives up to its title.”
For Leslie and Jeff, this means integrating their interns into every aspect of the management of the farm. “Every Monday morning we do a field walk and come back and talk about what we saw. We empower them with knowledge so that they can take on a decision-making role in the farm. They understand why decisions are made and what we are reacting to. They’re part of it. This is crucial to their education being thorough and comprehensive and not disjointed.”
Daniel Brisebois is telling me about his first internship with Lorenz Eppinger of Greenfields Organic Farm in Campbellville, ON, which gave him the fundamental skills necessary for efficient farming. That was years ago. After that, he managed another farm for two years before completing a second internship. He later co-founded Ferme Tourne-Sol, a worker cooperative in its eighth year of production. Tourne-Sol operates a 6 acre garden that supplies a 250-member CSA, farmers’ markets and some wholesale accounts. The co-op also includes a seed company, and produces cut flowers, culinary herbs, and herbal teas. They will be hosting interns this season for the fifth time.
Tourne-Sol is unique among the farms featured here in two ways: it pays its interns minimum wage and requires them to find room and board off-farm. It’s remarkably different from Dan’s own internship experiences, although he describes them with fondness.
Dan explains that while he doesn’t think minimum wage is crucial to a fair and beneficial arrangement for interns, there are some benefits to offering it. “We haven’t yet had an apprentice quit on us. We get so many great candidates that it’s hard to choose. They’re friendly. Some of our applicants wouldn’t apply to an apprenticeship without a decent wage. We get those applicants.”
Every one of these young farmers are making a successful go of it after starting out as interns with little to no prior farming experience. Yet after speaking with them, it strikes me that this success isn’t the greatest legacy of the farmers who provide internships and the non-profit organizations that help facilitate them. Instead, it’s the passion and conviction with which these new farmers are approaching the internships that they are now themselves providing. It predicts an even better prepared next generation of young farmers. Credit goes to all of the hosts who seek improvement of their intern experience each year, and the people who worked hard to get this system up and running in the first place.