Many Hands Farm Corps

Final Report for CNE11-088

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2011: $14,995.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Grant Recipient: Many Hands Farm Corps
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Ryan Karb
Many Hands Farm Corps
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Project Information

Summary:

The goal of the Many Hands Farm Corps was to hire 15 interns for one month periods for the months of June, July, and August, and to work with the interns on Many Hands Farm Corps’ own farm as well as a dozen different farms in the area. We advertised our internship opportunity at Colleges and highschools in the area (Umass, Hampshire College, Amherst High School, Putnam Vocational HIghschool)as well as the WWOOF page (Wwoof.org), accepted applications (see attachment), and conduct interviews (see attachment)before hiring interns. We also advertised our services as work crews to farms in the area. We wrote letters to over 50 different farms in the area whose addresses we found on the CISA web page (buylocalfood.org), and often times we volunteered on farms in order to talk directly with the farmers about what we were doing.

We exceeded our goals in hiring interns and being hired by farms. We were able to hire 30 interns over the course of the summer, doubling our crew sizes from five to ten interns. We were also successful in advertising to farmers and were hired by 16 different farms including Red Fire Farm in Granby/Montague, Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Riverbend Farm in Hadley, Farmacy Gardens in Belchertown, Town Farm in Northampton, Old Friends Farm in Amherst, Atlas Farm in Deerfield, Amethyst Farm in Amherst, and more. Most farms preferred to hire crews of five interns and one leader as opposed to ten interns and two leaders.

Each intern as well as two leaders facilitating the program were scheduled to work 44 hours each week, some farms hired crews regularly every week, while others hired crews every other week or once a month or once throughout the season. We scheduled crews to work on most days ahead of time but left some time open in case new farms wanted to hire us so that we could have the interns go to as many farms as possible while also balancing our need to ensure regular employment on other farms, and we also ensured that each intern worked on our farm at least twice a week to be trained in a variety of farm activities beyond the weeding other farms typically had us do (seeding, planting, bed preparation, fertilizing, pest control, mulching, construction projects). We charged farms a rate of 6.50$/hour per person. This figure was calculated to cover expenses such as rent, transportation, food, and a monthly stipend of 600$ for each intern. We would recommend charging $7.25 per hour in order to cover administrative costs.

The work and residential aspects of the program also had educational focuses. We conducted formal lessons and discussions pertaining to agriculture, group dynamics, leadership, environmental science, community organizing,and politics, all within the context of our work, living arrangements and weekend recreational activities.

Project Objectives:

Two key milestones for the success of the program were hiring crews for the three sessions (15 employees throughout June, July, and August) and securing contracts with other farms for the crews to work on. The goals for hiring were to have the crews hired at least two weeks before their first day of orientation (crews for the first session starting June 1st should be hired by May 18th, the second session starting July 1st hired by June 17th, and the third session starting August 1st hired by July 18th). We were able to find a house that could accommodate 12 people and the interest from prospective interns was so great that we increased our goal to 10 interns for each month. Interns were hired before our two week goal, in some cases far sooner, though in the first two months people who were hired changed their plans before arriving and did not show up or let us know they wouldn't be coming until the day of orientation. Having back up interns lined up (a sort of waiting list) would have been beneficial).

Legally, there are many difficulties associated with hiring and housing interns. Housing technically requires a farm labor camp registration and contracting labor to other farms requires farm labor contractor registration. Minimum wage laws in Massachussetts can be met if the internship follows the guidelines set by the federal government. Incorporating as a 501(c)(3) can help one to avoid all of the regulations except for the farm labor camp registration. Hiring a lawyer to for counsel and to help file for 501(c)(3) status is recommended.

Reaching out to farmers and providing them with information about the program and how it can benefit them was essential for securing contracts. A goal of meeting with at least 24 individual farms throughout the Pioneer Valley was met by May 1st, with the hopes that 6-12 of those farms would be interested in hiring our crews. We had originally thought that farms would hire for extended periods of time (a few days of a week) sporadically, but found that more farms were interested in hiring us one day a week every week. By May we had secured contracts with three farms for six people (a half of a crew) on four days, in other words 4 out of ten slots were contracted ahead of time. During the last week of may and the first week of June we had more than enough requests from another four farms to fill up our schedule (our training farm hired half crews for two days). As the summer progressed we and more requests from farms to work than we could meet.

Introduction:

Over the past decade, agriculture has attracted increasing interest from young people across the U.S. and around the world. Farmers in need of labor and willing workers wanting experience have connected through various resources such as WWOOF, an online and printed directory that allows farmers to advertise opportunities for work on their farm to interested people. The majority of people that use resources like WWOOF are college aged youth without any experience in agriculture, looking to learn, and the farmers that advertise for workers via WWOOF cannot often afford to hire full time labor, though their need for labor is dire.

Satisfaction on the parts of the farmers and workers is inconsistent. Many farmers require a more reliable source of labor, and often find that the time and effort it takes to train volunteers is not made up by the volunteers work. Workers often find that the learning experiences they hoped for are not available in the busy schedule of farming, and are often dissatisfied by the unglamorous tasks they must perform without much in the way of compensation.

Many Hands Farm Corps specializes in training new workers, providing a more reliable source of labor through the summer than volunteers, with better performance through intensive training and leadership provided by the leaders of Many Hands Farm Corps. Many Hands Farm Corps also emphasizes education as part of their training and as an effort to keep morale high. Farms are charged a minimum rate (6.50$/hour), and the workers are paid monthly stipends (600$)along with the benefits of housing, food, and transportation, all provided by Many Hands Farm Corps.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

We selected distinct time periods (one month starting on the first of each month June, July and August, And ending on the last of each month)for which our interns would commit to working with us and interacted with the interns during each time period as a crew. The interns, all coming and leaving at the same time shared new experiences and relied heavily on one another, growing very close over the course of a month. We found applicants by advertising on the WWOOF directory and speaking at classes at UMASS Amherst.

To advertise with farms we sent out letters to dozens of farms in the area, as well as emails, phone calls, and often we talked to them face to face at farmers markets, and by volunteering on their farms. Each farm that hired us, hired 5-10 interns plus one or two leaders each day. Leaders accompanied interns and spoke with the farmers to establish goals and methods the farmers wanted used and passed the information on to the interns. Leaders worked closely with the interns assuring quality work was done in a timely fashion. Leaders also made sure the interns were well hydrated, safe, and maintained high morale, no matter what the task.

Education for the interns happened at almost any time. There were formal lessons and discussions held at night after work for about four nights a week, but there were also informal discussions during work, and workshops and recreational trips during weekends. The leaders made good use of their personal networks to introduce such things as permaculture, blacksmithing, herbalism, and more. Lessons that applied context to the actions being carried out at work on the various farms helped improve both the education of the interns as well as their work.

The program began with an orientation on the farm during which participants became acquainted with the Many Hands Farm Corps farm, the leaders, and each other. Participants were walked through a typical day, with thorough demonstrations of chores, work activities, and community building activities. Over the course of the first few days, participants completed a wide range of activities on the farm, receiving intensive training from the leaders to prepare them for work on other farms as well as continued work on the Many Hands Cooperative Farm.

The first week training focuses primarily on hand cultivation and weeding, as well as working as a group. Interns are given hoes and taught the correct posture and motions for cultivation, and are also shown the crops they will most often be working with (carrots, onions, beets) as well as common weeds. Plant identification starts early on and is continued in a few lessons including herbalism, weed science, and others. Since many interns arrive having never worked full days outside, leaders stress safety and safe practices to maintain health and avoid injury. Stretching, drinking water frequently, using sunblock or wearing protective clothing, eating properly, and proper posture as well as understanding personal limits are all emphasized frequently throughout the day.

As the weeks progress interns learn many tasks at other farms including trellising, planting, stacking hay, mulching, etc, but since we cannot ensure that other farms will provide a diverse set of tasks (farms most often require hand weeding and it is not uncommon for interns to spend 4 days of the week doing nothing but hand weeding) leaders ensure that interns spend time working on an aspect of farming that they have not experienced on other farms. This often includes greenhouse seeding, field transplanting, direct seeding, bed preparation, fertilizing, irrigating, and harvesting. Interns work for half days on Saturdays at The Many Hands Farm Crops farm and are split up among three leaders to rotate through three different projects or tasks in which each leader explains what the task is, how to do, the tools involved, and the context in which the task or project is done before having the interns practice.

Under the care and supervision of the leaders, participants lived in a house rented for the summer specifically for this program and shared the responsibilities of cleaning, food preparation, and work preparation as taught by the leaders. Dividing chores up among leaders and interns often became a group decision making process in which interns had a chance to practice making decisions as a group by consensus. Each morning the crews and leaders eat breakfast, prepare for work, then go to work either on the Many Hands Farm, or on another farm, driven by the leaders in a van or bus bought for that purpose.

Work days were eight hours long and generally consisted of one hour lunch breaks. Leaders were responsible for providing the crews with goals (as the farm or contact dictates) and ensuring the crews have the training, understanding, and supplies necessary to meet those goals. Each morning leaders would meet with the farmer upon arriving at whatever farm the crew was scheduled to work at, the farmer would instruct the leader on where to go and what to do, sometimes how to do it and the farmers would provide any tools needed though the crews always came equipped with hoes. Leaders provide examples of how the work was to be done and worked one on one with the interns, instructing them on how to work and giving encouragement or suggestions on how to improve.

As weeding was generally the work farms had crews do, leaders ensured the crews knew what was a weed and what was a crop, and set goals for the amount of area covered in a certain amount of time. The average pace for weeding was 6 row feet per minute, though the number varied from one row-foot per minute to 20 row-feet per minute depending on the spacing of the crop, and the severity of the weed pressure as well as the size of the weeds. Motivating and inspiring interns is the chief job for a leader when weeding because the skill required is low and task is monotonous. Engaging with the interns with discussions, playing games, and reminding them to drink water help to pass the time and keep morale high, though reminders to avoid sitting and to always use two hands are frequently necessary as well.

After work, the crews were responsible for daily chores associated with the farm and general living, were engaged in nightly educational activities and/or discussions pertaining to agriculture and conservation, participated in team building activities, and had down time to relax, write, or spend time alone before going to sleep and starting over again. Weekends consisted of recreational trips intended to broaden the crew members’ experiences in the Pioneer Valley by exploring various trail systems, swimming holes, historical sites, and non profits that also benefit the community.

The overall goal is to minimize downtime and keep the crew members engaged through diverse experiences focusing on increasing the quality of life for farmers. Crews were given options found by the leaders and decided what they did with their free time. Recreational activities included but were not limited to visiting a blacksmith, visiting an herbalist, hiking, swimming, meditation at the Peace Pagoda, bird watching, visiting a bee keeper, eating at the Dirty Truth where our farm sells produce and hearing the owner talk about the business's philosophy and relationship to small farms, participating in food not bombs, picking berries, going to potlucks hosted by other farmers, making salves, pickling produce, making jam, going on mushroom walks,going to concerts and more.

Interns were able see various methods practiced by different farms and to compare them. Though they worked for only a month their experiences were far more diverse and greater in number than someone working on one farm for a month in a traditional manner.

The budgeted and actual cost of the program is seen in the Budget spreadsheet below. While some expenses were more than anticipated, we did end up in the black only with the help of the $15,000 grant from Northeast SARE.

Research results and discussion:

Farmers that hired our crews filled out surveys and sent them back to us (See scanned survey copies below). Responses were mostly positive and nearly every farm wrote that they would likely hire our crews again in the future. Crews reduced weed pressure and thereby increased productivity (in both quantities and harvest time) and decreased insect pressure (by eliminating host plants). Overall, farmers could get more done and have more time to focus on tasks other than weeding, or finding people to hire to weed.

It is difficult to put a price on how much farmers saved by hiring Many Hands because crews were hired instead of relying on regular staff, we did not typically replace other part time workers. However, since many of our interns were found through the WWOOF website, and most or all of them were willing to work for free, we were able to provide them with a more valuable farm education experience than most farms on the WWOOF site can offer to inexperienced farmers and pay them 600$ as well.

Having more interns than we would normally be able to afford on our four acre farm allowed us manage our fields better and take on challenges by hand instead of with expensive equipment (or not taking on challenges at all). Many of our CSA members also appreciated the interactions our internship allowed them with college students in the area. Too often in Amherst, interactions between college students and residents occur over disputes about noise and trash, negative incidences that may often involve the police. Interns also got involved in many community events including an agricultural commission meetings in Amherst in June, food not bombs in Northampton, and community concerts and potlucks at our farm.

The greatest impact was on our interns. Many without any background in agriculture enjoyed their experiences so much that they took on jobs with farms they were introduced to during their session after the session had ended. A few went so far as to change their majors to agricultural based studies in college. Close relationships were built during each session, and even between interns from different sessions and continue now, almost a year later. We had intended to have the interns fill out surveys as well as to fill out progress reports in the middle of their sessions, and "diplomas" for completing the session, but difficulties in time management and limited access to office materials prevented us in completing this paperwork, though we did conduct oral progress reports and surveys. Out of thirty interns in our first year, only two were unable to complete the one month sessions. That statistic and a high incidence of applicants refered to us by word of mouth from previous interns speaks highly of our success with the interns.

The money farms paid to hire crews all went to intern stipends, housing, food, and transportation, so we received no financial profit from their labor. However the impact of having so many people available to work on our farm and doing so together improved our ability as farmers to grow crops and care for the soil and other farm resources for future health and productivity.

Ultimately, I would recommend that the rates charged to farms be increased due to the demand, and the difficulty for the leaders in administrative tasks as well as daily operation. We are currently charging 7.25$/hour without decrease in demand and have increased our sessions by one month so we now have four one month internships that run from mid-May until mid-September. The greatest difficulty in continuing this project without outside funding is paying rent on a house suitable for 12 people and the legal requirements for insurance and registering the house as a farm labor camp. Upon finding an ideal house for the summer internship we decided to lease it for 18 months so that we could ensure that it would be available the following summer. The house which is perfect for our program is too large and expensive for the leaders facilitating the program to maintain year round and the idea of renting a house only for the summer is flawed because few landlords are open to the idea of having 12 people living in one house.

The budget which includes the rent of the house for the months in which the internship is running (as well as utilities, the cost and maintenance of a vehicle, the cost of the tools used by the interns, the cost of provisioning for meals for each month, and the stipend for the interns as well as leaders) can be met by charging farms 6.50$/hour/person, and charging 7.25$/hour/person can help pay the administrative costs, but the cost of maintaining a house when the internship is not running is an obstacle that should be considered carefully.

Having a consistent and comfortable income, or already owning a house would greatly improve the odds of success for those endeavoring to replicate a cooperative labor structure such as Many Hands Farm Corps. It would be better to begin such an endeavor with an established farm to avoid the uncertainty of success of a new farm.

Finally, we have continued our internship for a second year, further developing our relationships with farms and working with new farms we did not work with in our first season.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Leaders as well as interns from the Many Hands Farm Corps have given and will be givingpresentations of the cooperative structure of Many Hands Farm Corps to college classes and conferences in the area (Sustainable living in the plants soil and insect science department at UMASS Amherst, Hampshire Colleges New Farmer Conference, the horticulture program at Putnam Vocational High School in Springfield, MA) . This summer Project Leader Ryan Karb will be hosting a work shop on cooperative labor structures at the summer NOFA conference held at UMass Amherst this summer. Our website, manyhandsfarmcorps.com is also available online to anyone at all times. Word of mouth continues to be our greatest method of dissemination though, as farms, interns, CSA members, and other well wishers all share with their peers who we are and what we do.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The project gave young people tools to work together, and farms more options to hire labor. We facilitated connections between the local community and young people from all over that bred discussion and understanding. We introduced a new approach to training and labor that focuses on increasing cooperation both between farms and between individuals, and packaged it in such as a way as to benefit farms and farm workers.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

The concept of hiring from the large pool of inexperienced young people interested in agriculture for one month periods and training them intensively through work on multiple farms is one that any group of farms within a 30 mile radius of each other can benefit from. Small farms that struggle with labor issues on account of the variability of their need for labor and willingness to train inexperienced workers for short periods of time can benefit most from this model, though larger farms with full time staffs can also benefit, and often the combination of 1-4 acre farms and 20-100 acre farms is ideal.

Future Recommendations

One difficulty we’ve had is attracting and maintaining qualified leaders to run the internship program. There are many people with experience in leadership and management, and many with agricultural experience, but few with both that are willing to make the commitment to leading crews for the summers. Many Hands Farm Corps has succeeded in offering introductory training but must now improve training for leaders who will provide the introductory training. One thought for improvement is to work with the the employees already on the farms that hire the services of Many Hands Farm Corps to act as leaders during the days that interns from Many Hands Farm Corps are working on that particular farm. Leadership training could occur through a week long training program that has the leaders from each farm gathering together on a differnet farm every day and roleplaying as a leader with a crew. Also, as Interns who successfully completed our program gain more experience on other farms, they will be great candidates for future leaders at Many Hands Farm Corps.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.