This research examined the role that farm internships played in the lives of people wanting to learn to grow food sustainably. A mixed-method research design was used to capture the voices of interns who worked in the Northeast Region of the US on sustainable farms. Through interviews, farm journals, a websurvey and three focus groups we gathered data on the personal characteristics of interns, their intentions for participating in internships and their experiences on farms related to agricultural training, remuneration and future aspirations as informed by their internship. Results from the project demonstrate the importance of intern’s social status to complete farm internships and three exchanges that occur simultaneously during their work on farms: labor, learning and social. These exchanges were influenced by both the non-conventional farm and food systems where they occurred and rationalities of interns that were studied by looking at motivations and perceived benefits of these people. Learning to farm sustainably using organic methods was a central motivator for the study’s participants, and garnering skills to become a farmer was rated by a majority of participants as very important to becoming an intern. During internships, participants in this study performed essential labor on farms and were rewarded with basic remuneration that met their physical needs including food, shelter and a stipend. On-farm education was not reported as part of the typical intern remuneration package. Internships on sustainable farms subsequently involved little teaching; instead, interns expected and were provided opportunity to learn by performing farm tasks appropriate to the season and farm where they interned. Benefits of a farm internship included being trained in basic farm work, with a greater focus on the rewards of contributing to a social good and doing work that was personally meaningful. Findings will be presented in the following forms due for completion by December 2013: 1) a Master’s thesis to be presented to faculty in the program of Rural Sociology at Penn State University; 2) a public presentation hosted by the Penn State in November 2013; a one-page fact sheet on the findings and attributes of a successful internship presented to organizations that assisted in this research including the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, PA- Women’s Agricultural Network and the Beginning Farmer’s Institute of Cornell University. Finally, an electronic document with a summarized version of the study’s findings will be sent to participants of the study for their review and dissemination.
Research on sustainable agriculture generally focuses on farmers, the environment and consumers. To date, very little scholarship exists on the effect of sustainable agriculture on labor processes. Even less attention in food systems research and advocacy is dedicated to the workers that trade their labor for a future in sustainable agriculture. Interns work on sustainable farms in exchange for education about sustainable growing practices in addition to non-traditional remuneration including housing, food and a modest-stipend. Most literature about these programs originates from organizations writing for farmers with intent to establish an internship program. Academics and activists focused on sustainable farm production have largely overlooked the intern perspective. Pertinent to the future of sustainable agriculture is how people with an interest in growing food with little training or resources begin to farm. The contribution of this project is a novel exploration of interns’ experiences on farms, their treatment as participants in sustainable agriculture, and the organization of farm internships that determine the types of exchanges between farmers and farm interns.
Investigate, document and analyze the role of farm internships/apprenticeships in teaching sustainable farm practices to the next generation of farmers.
Assess how the internship/apprentice model provides an alternative to traditional labor practices by making internships/apprenticeships economically viable for participants.
Assess how the internship/apprentice model provides an alternative to traditional farm labor by ensuring the nonexploitative treatment of interns/apprentices and establishing socially responsible labor practices with dignity and respect
A mixed methods approach to this study provided insight into the meaning of the farm internship as a labor process and training opportunity on small farms in Pennsylvania and the Northeast region. This study was conducted using a combination of phenomenological and feminist methodologies appropriate to exploring the experience and structure of farm internships in sustainable agriculture. The four instruments used to collect data, guided by the methodologies above, provided mechanisms to understand how people make sense of a major life experience within the structural forces that influence their actions. The design of this concurrent mixed-methods approach entailed collecting qualitative and quantitative data simultaneously, and analyzing and interpreting the results at the same time during the study. Farm internship experiences were explored for constituent characteristics occurring in different times and places, taken together to denote patterns of shared meaning and agency for interns working in sustainable agriculture.
To answer the questions under investigation, qualitative data was collected through individual, in-depth interviews, small-group discussions and reflective farm journals, and quantitative data using an online survey. To examine the role of interns on sustainable farms and within alternative food systems in Pennsylvania and the Northeast, the research focused on persons who labored on sustainable farms between 2009 and 2012. There was no time frame that restricted participation for the online survey. Participants were not required to be working on a farm at the time of the study. None of the participants in the qualitative phase of the research had transitioned to farm operators, but this was not the case for the online survey sample.
This research is based on fieldwork conducted in the sustainable agricultural community of Pennsylvania and the Northeastern US. A purposive sampling technique guided the selection of interns for interviews and time-use diaries. This sampling design aimed to offer contrasting views of internships from people who could provide detailed information about the research problems from a range of experiences. Sample selection focused on vegetable and fruit growers, and to a lesser extent, meat operators. Based on personal experience the researcher sought to include interns who worked on the following types of farms: 1) Community Supported Agriculture farms with a local-consumer base; 2) student farms operated by a college or university; 3) sustainable farms with a large intern work force (more than 4 interns); 4) farms in an urban area; and 5) farms with formal training program and structured curriculum.
All of the interviews and farm journals were completed with persons who worked on farms in Pennsylvania. Two focus groups were held at PASA’s Sustainable Agriculture conference and the third focus group was held at a sutainable agricultural conference in the region. The majority of respondents who took the survey worked on farms in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts (Table 1-1). These results might reflect the convenient sampling measure used to disseminate the survey and the number of farm internships in these three states.
The web survey was designed for exploratory purposes with no attempt to examine a random sample of the population of farm interns. Instead, the sampling technique sought to include individuals who were knowledgeable about farm internships based on personal experience. The intention of conducting an online survey was not to make inferences about the general farm intern population nor reach conclusions with statistical precision applied more broadly about internship programs. Alternatively, the online survey format provided a low cost option, which could have wide geographic reach within the dispersed farm intern population.
Survey participants were initially recruited through farms soliciting interns during the 2012 growing season. A list of 106 sustainable farms seeking interns in Pennsylvania was created from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service Sustainable Farming Internships and Apprenticeships website (ATTRA accessed June 2012). Individual emails were sent to each farm on the list on August 27, 2012. A standardized message introduced the study and petitioned farmers to distribute a standard recruitment letter to interns currently working, or who had worked, on the farm since the 2009 growing season. The recruitment letter was electronically circulated by two Pennsylvania agricultural organizations on August 21, 2012. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) posted the letter on their online blog and listserve; the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network (PA-WAgN) distributed the standardized recruitment letter by email to their network of 1,500 members, in addition to posting it on a social networking site (Facebook).
The survey was distributed throughout the Northeast region beginning on October 23, 2012.To reach the highest possible number of farm interns in the Northeast, and to have a broad regional distribution, the survey was sent to the Community Foods Listserv hosted by Tufts University, and provided to regional chapters of the North East Organic Farming Association in November 2012. None of these organizations offered the researcher access to the list of their members; instead, they solicited participation of their members on behalf of the research team. Staff agreed to send out the survey link through listservs or posting the link on Facebook. However, these chapters did not promote the survey through their public communication channels. To the researcher’s knowledge, the only regional organizations that sent the survey link through its network were two new and beginner farmer programs in New York state.
The survey appeared as a self-administered questionnaire hosted by SurveyMonkey. To achieve a higher response rate without having direct access to lists of interns, the researcher chose to keep the digital survey open for an extended period of time. The survey opened on August 21, 2012, and closed on March 15, 2013. During that time, there were 155 responses collected of which 132 were determined valid according to the sampling frame of the research study (i.e. participants had to be non-waged workers, on farms for at least three months from the years 2009-2012).
In-depth interviews were conducted to examine the lived experiences of farm interns on sustainable farms. In-depth interviews were used to collect data that illuminated the complexity of experiences of farm interns as both laborer and learner.
Both general and specific criteria were used to determine whether individuals met the study’s definition of a farm intern while striving to include diverse perspectives. The sampling criteria used to include participants in the interview stage sought to distinguish volunteers and employees from interns. Those individuals who stayed a minimum three months on the farm, worked for more than 20 hours weekly, who were not exclusively waged workers but received alternate or supplemental remuneration that included some expectation for training or education, and who had not transitioned to a farm owner since their internship were included in the study.
Initial participant recruitment for in-depth interviews was implemented concurrently with the recruitment strategy for the online survey. The recruitment letter sent to farms announcing the survey included instructions on how to contact the research team for interviews or focus group participation. Extreme efforts were made to build a comprehensive list of contacts before selecting participants based on the sampling framework described above.
In total, sixty-three people contacted the research team from July 2012 through March 2013. The research team communicated with all of these people to determine their eligibility for participation in interviews. Three of the twenty-five interviews were conducted on a farm due to logistical circumstances of the interns, fifteen were conducted in person, and ten were held over the phone appropriate to the distance of the intern from the location of the researcher.
In these interviews, interns were asked: 1) their motivations for working as an intern and apprentice on a sustainable farm; 2) to describe the training or skills derived from the experience; 3) to explain the remuneration during their internship and their quality of life while working on the farm; 4) whether their future participation in agriculture and/or food systems was impacted by their work as an intern or apprentice; and 5) to assess whether their experience on the farm met social sustainability standards. Interviews were recorded with an audio devise and transferred to a password protected electronic file. Following the interview, participants completed a written questionnaire soliciting descriptive aspects of the intern and internship including age, gender, educational level, assets, farm type, location and remuneration.
The time-use diary in this study intended to assess the types of work-related activities completed by interns on farms. The journals also provided a record of the people on farms that work with and mentor farm interns. The time-use diary will be referred to as a “farm journal” and aimed to make transparent certain aspects of everyday life not immediately apparent in the other instruments.
The primary sampling frame used to select interview participants was applied to select farm journal participants. Those who met these criteria were then chosen based on the farm location to provide equal representation in the four PASA regions and farm type (researcher sought to include a CSA, meat farm, student farm, and farms with both large and few number of interns).
Farm journal participants were recruited through emails and web announcements related to the online survey recruitment phase of this study that commenced in July 2012. Five of the final eight participants were selected from this recruitment strategy. The remaining three participants were selected via personal contacts made at regional WAgN field days during the 2012 growing season. Only one of the farm journal participants was included in the interview phase of the research.
Journal participants were provided a standard “Composition Notebook” used as the research instrument. On top of each page of the farm journal were a series of categories for interns to self-report information pertaining to daily tasks. A “Reflection” page followed each day’s diary entries.Of the eight participants initially recruited to participate in this phase of the study, six interns returned completed instruments. Two participants failed to complete the journal and therefore did not submit the instrument at the end of the study period.
Three focus groups were conducted to gather information on best practices of internship programs. Focus groups allowed farm interns to talk about their experiences, revealing not only what interns thought about particular aspects of farm internships but why they think that way based on a comparison of others’ experiences.
Fliers were placed in public spaces throughout conference facilities and the focus group time, place and topic were announced at conference workshops. At least one third of the final participants were recruited using person-to-person contact.
The researcher began the discussion by introducing the topic, notified participants of protocol regarding informed consent, and asking participants to introduce themselves by stating their name, the state where they worked as an intern and the crops that they worked with during that time. Three questions pertaining to successful internships were developed to guide discussion. An audio devise recorded the session, which was summarized in detailed notes by the researcher subsequent to the discussion.
The mixed-method approach to data analysis in this study fulfilled a “complementary” purpose. The qualitative and quantitative instruments measured overlapping, but distinct features of farm internships. Data analysis occurred simultaneous with data collection; this served the purposes of identifying emerging themes, shaping theoretical concepts, linking factors across instruments and defining categories for the qualitative coding technique. The research schedule of each instrument allowed for a progressive evaluation of the structure of farm internships and participant’s perceptions of this structure (farm journals), that moved into the individual experiences within the farm internships (interviews), to ending with the larger picture of the process and outcomes of the farm internship (survey) and a group assessment of the quality of farm internships from multiple farm intern viewpoints. Such timing was matched to the seasonality of farm internships: farm journalers provided data in real time while working on farms in the late summer, interviews captured the experiences of many of the participants soon after their internship ended in the fall, the survey was disseminated while work was slow on farms and farm interns more likely to be inside and using computers during the winter, and the small-group discussions were conducted shortly before the spring season when farm interns were looking for new farms or anticipating a new season and considering the qualities of desirable internship programs. The process of analysis thereby followed these cycles; weaving the findings from each phase of the research was completed in the summer following data collection when the researcher had full exposure to the data collected and the interconnections and divergences that emerged through the overlapping phases.
This section of the study’s findings explicates the descriptive characteristics of farm interns who participated in the study. The findings in this section should not be generalized to the larger farm internship population due to the methods used to collect data. Nevertheless, the discussion is important to the intern experience based on the evidence that the participants’ social position bears on their ability to take a salary sacrifice to participate in a farm internship for reasons other than monetary return. The data in this section was collected from demographic sections of the survey and written questionnaires provided to farm interns who completed journals and were interviewed for the study.
Farm Intern vs. Farm Apprentice
There is no standard definition that differentiates interns and apprentices on sustainable farms and thus, no definition was provided to assist survey participants when selecting the role they played on sustainable farms. The study’s survey included both titles to reflect their common use in the sustainable agricultural community, but the distinction between intern and apprentices was not a theme presented to study participants in the three other data collection methods. The term that survey participants chose to describe their role on sustainable farms can be found in Table 2-1. Of the one hundred and thirty two persons who completed the survey, only ten were currently working as interns (7.6%) and twenty-seven were current apprentices (20.5%). Many more had been interns in the past (45.5%) or former apprentices (42.4%). Only those who had formerly worked as both interns and apprentices selected more than one category (19%). It was not the goal of this study to establish a schematic typology of the different roles that interns and apprentices play on sustainable farms. Participants from this point forward will be referred to as “interns” and the process of their training as an “internship”.
Nearly ninety-four percent of survey respondents identified as white, with only three respondents identifying as Black, Asian, and Native Hawaiian, while five elected the “other” category that included people refusing to disclose their ethnicity (Table 2-2). All but one of the interns who participated in interviews and farm journals identified as white (n=31); demographic information was not collected from focus group participants. Of the total one hundred and sixty three participants in the study (including survey, interviews, and farm journals), ninety-five percent identified as white and only six from this sample (3.7%) reported having a different country of origin other than the US. As a white, male survey participant succinctly concluded, “I find that if it is an alternative food organization, almost everyone is white.”
Eighty-four percent of interns in the survey reported having earned a Bachelor’s degree, while twenty-two percent received a Master’s degree, thirteen percent had some college but not completed a degree and only one percent of the sample had received less than a high school diploma (Table 2-2). Of those interns who took the survey that pursued an education after high school, over a third (39%) received degrees or a certification in an agricultural-related discipline. Persons interviewed for this study were also highly educated. Only one person interviewed did not finish college and the remaining twenty-four people in the sample had earned college diplomas in diverse fields. For those participants who had just graduated from college, their education was an important introduction to work on farms. Literature on the food system is making its way into college curricula according to participants and an increasing number of universities and colleges have farms on campus or associated with the institution. Four of the interview participants worked initially on their school farms as volunteers before taking an on-farm internship either at the school or with a family farm enterprise.
A majority of participants in this study were women. Seventy five percent of the survey participants (74.2%), four of the six interns who completed farm journals (66%), eighty percent of persons who gave interviews and seventy percent (70.5%) of focus group participants identified as female (Table 2-2). Based on the sampling methodology of this study, in no way does this data offer a representative view of the number of women and men working as farm interns. However, this many women offering their stories as farm interns is an important finding as it relates to the longer history of women’s participation in agriculture.
Young and Transient
In this study, the average age of a respondent was twenty-eight. Nearly fifty-five percent of those who completed the survey reported participating in multiple internships on different farms (Table 2-3). Of those who reported having more than one internship, sixty-five percent had completed two internships, twenty-two percent participated in three, and nearly seven percent were interns on four or more farms. More than half of survey respondents had worked on a farm within three years of taking the survey (Table 2-3) and another half had moved in the previous twelve months to participate in their internship. Mobility and flexibility provided farm interns access to a variety of farms with different production systems. This trend to work on different farms was thought by interview participants to increase the diversity and comprehensiveness of a farm education. At the individual level, mobility is viewed as an advantage and privilege. Migration between farms was a choice, not a function of economic necessity. A former apprentice responding to the survey noted that negative aspects of migration could be mitigated by the relationships developed between interns and others in the farming community, “Being an apprentice can be a very transient experience – and force you to move through various communities to learn the skills that you want. But I worked with a model of CSA that had high member involvement, and I was able to build more relationships with the community, which really helped battle the isolation that can come from transience.” Such social acceptance acted as a buffer to the solitude experienced while working in a rural area in the absence of embedded support networks.
Access to Healthcare
Seventy three percent of survey respondents reported having health insurance. However, the question did not ask respondents to specify whether they had insurance coverage while working on farms. The same question was asked of interview participants and who provided their insurance plan while interning. The majority of respondents received benefits from a family member, followed by an employer other than the farm and a small percent were self-insured (Table 2-4). No one involved in the study reported having medical coverage provided by the farm where they interned.
Professional Career Paths
Survey respondents who worked in the past as farm interns were asked to list their current profession in an open-ended format. Of the eighty-seven persons who responded to the question, the largest group identified their career as a farm employee (24.1%), which included being a paid farm manager or farm worker (Figure 2-1). The second largest group was people farming as a profession (23%) followed by former interns who were attending school (17%). The high response rate of former interns who pursued careers in farming could be attributed to the agricultural networks through which the survey was distributed. When prompted on the study’s survey to report whether they would pursue an additional internship, over sixty percent of participants answered affirmatively (Table 2-5). What these results indicate is that not everyone who is trained on sustainable farms applies these skills directly to production agriculture. However, current interns in the survey and interviews did express strong interest in continuing to do farm labor either as an owner or worker and stay involved professionally in the sustainable food movement.
Farm interns were asked about their personal motivations for seeking on-farm internships and why farm internships mattered in the context of their lives. Interns’ motivations extended to how they chose farms and what criteria helped them make a decision about what might be a suitable host farmer. The analysis in this section specifically addresses what farm interns expected to gain from an internship, farm internship attributes that would fulfill these expectations, and the motivates behind these expectations.
General Motivations to Become a Farm Intern
Overall, a majority of survey participants considered gaining agricultural skills important (88.6%) compared to other motivations listed on the survey (Table 3-1). More than half of the same respondents considered receiving farmer training (59.8%) as very important to their reason for becoming an intern. Of the twenty-five interns interviewed for this study, sixteen (64%) expressed the desire to pursue farming as a vocation and affirmed that an internship was critical to actualizing their desire to farm in the future. Working on a farm, wrote one survey participant, was a means to exploring whether they were suited for the work, “I want to be a farmer and I wanted to see if I could do the work.” Another survey respondent asserted that though confident he wanted to farm, his farm internship helped him “figure out if I can do it long-term.”
A Desire to Understand Agricultural Production and Farm Systems
For those who chose to intern at multiple farms over the course of several seasons, these participants’ objective was to understand how farming practices could be applied to the multiplicity of growing systems, and to continue practicing what they learned under varying conditions. Lisabeth volunteered on her University’s farm and completed a previous internship on a private farm before working on a vegetable CSA in Pennsylvania, “I didn’t have a tangible thing in mind, but I was really excited to just build on my skills that I already had – a better understanding of what foods are grown when and how to harvest them, how to market them. Really studying how different varieties of plants grow.” Considering that no one interviewed from this study came from a farm background, farm interns expected a steep and rapid learning curve that would be climbed by practicing what they were learning.
Motivated to Work in Sustainable Food Production to Change the Food System
Farm interns sought to gain knowledge and skills that dealt with the technical aspects of farming so as to better understand the US food system. An interest in the social and economic consequences of conventional agriculture prompted interns to want familiarity with farming methods used to grow food distributed in the alternative food movement. Their reasoning suggested that without the experience of what it takes to grow food, invoking a fundamental change to the structure of the conventional food system to a more sustainable model might ultimately be misguided. This perspective is articulated by Aden who worked on an organic vegetable CSA: “I don’t think that everyone going into this is saying, ‘I’m going to be a farmer in the future’. It was more of ‘I’m very interested in agriculture and I really want to work in the food system arena.’ So I said to myself: ‘How can I advocate for the modification of the food system if I don’t know where the roots of it lie?”
Acting on Food Values Described in Popular Media
Emerging from popular media about local and sustainable food is a young cohort of what a professor of agricultural economics calls “Pollen-ators.” Randy exemplifies this pollenator characterization: he was a college student who lived with his parents during the summer and found work at an urban farm after becoming more aware of the benefits of local food. His path to an internship began with an interest in healthy food that he explored through print and film initially. It is not an exaggeration to say that interns, such as Randy, opened a book into the farm world after discovering a new way to think about food.
Aspirations to Support Collective Efforts to Grow Sustainable Food
The high social value of food grown sustainably emerged as a strong factor in how interns connected their personal decision to work on a farm to a social cause. Characteristic of those in this study who expressed a desire to contribute to a common good was their motivation to provide food access to eaters and educate the general public on the importance of sustainable agriculture. The rationality applied by interns in these cases was that by working on a sustainable farm, one could contribute to amplifying (and making available) the amount of sustainable food in the food system. As a vital feature of life, interns’ anticipated the rewards of providing food grown sustainably to the public. Sean moved to Pennsylvania after receiving a B.A. at a liberal arts college in the Midwest and pursued an internship to learn how to grow food for other people: “It’s a great way to contribute, people need food and you don’t have to convince them, people need food. I like that. It’s a necessary thing for people. And it’s growing food organically and sustainable is a positive way to make an impact on the community around you.” Moreover, the food interns expected to produce would be imbued with social and economic values via the production process and could potentially challenge many of the inequities they observed in the conventional food system. By supporting a farmer’s efforts to grow food with her own power and not rely on mechanization, an intern was engaged in activities that protected natural resources with the dual benefit of the farm and local community. Supplying subsidized labor improved the profit margin of a farmer who struggled to make a living in an oppressive cheap food economy. An intern’s labor therefore was justified by respondents as achieving social, environmental and economic sustainability while providing the community an essential resource required for the survival of the human species.
Promoting the Importance of Eating Sustainably Grown Food
Working on farms also presented farm interns opportunities to connect with eaters, either through a farm’s direct marketing practices or community programming on the farm. Nearly a quarter of those who shared their story in interviews based their decision to participate in internships on a farm’s explicit social directive to increase community food access and/or educate eaters. Family farm enterprises offering internships made it possible for persons interested in food, and motivated to contribute to a social good, an experience that combined labor with service and teaching.
Performing Outside and Physical Work
Motivated by the cause and outcomes of sustainable agriculture, there were many personal reasons why women and men sought farm internships. A factor presented in the majority of farm interns’ stories about why they sought farm internships was the desire to work outside using their bodies to work. The phrases “desk job” and “using my hands” were commonly employed when farm interns juxtaposed working in conventional jobs and the joy they found in taking an internship. Farming provided an alternative way of working that allowed interns contact with nature, a connection to their body and freedom from walls and bright lights. Albert discovered while studying for a Bachelor’s degree that his volunteer work on the school farm could be a permanent solution to sitting inside all day, “At that time in my life I was a serious college student so I spent just about all of my time indoors using my brain and very little time outdoors using the rest of my body. The feeling that I would have the opportunity to do that part time and once I started doing that part time I realized this was the one thing I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Quality of Life During Farm Internships
A third of survey participants ranked factors related to quality of life very important to their choice to become a farm intern. These included the desire to experience farm life (34.1%), to live in community (31.8%) access to local food (28.8%) and moving to a new place (9.1%) as very important to their decision to be a farm intern (Table 3-1). Interviews and comments on the survey told an important story about these factors: the food, place and farm community were central to maintaining the intern’s well-being during the internship. The importance that these factors had to becoming a farm intern varied according to the participant’s lifestyle choices before the internship and expectations of their lifestyle during an internship. Notably, monetary compensation was never mentioned as a motivating factor to taking a farm internship during interviews.
Expectations of Farm Internships
Receive Training on How to Grow Food for Self and Others
There was broad expectation on the part of farm interns that an internship would provide agricultural skill development as discussed above, but there were also expectations on how these skills and experiences would be delivered. Farm interns reflecting on what they wanted from their internship spoke about being able to do farm work, rather than knowing more about agriculture.
Hard Labor and Long Hours to Learn Sustainable Farming
Though farm interns expect to work hard, in reality they could never have expected to work as hard and as long as they did on farms. Kristine spoke to this point saying, “I expected to work really hard. I expected I would be working really hard but I also knew that I couldn’t possibly imagine how hard it would be, because I’d never done that kind of labor before.” Although they anticipated that the best way to learn was to do the work farmers do, farm interns were clearly surprised by the intensity of labor performed on sustainable farms. However, farm interns working on private farms reported working more hours than they agreed to work, or were unclear of the work expectations and left in disbelief by the amount of labor required of them by the farmer or farm manager. Conversely, there were strict regulations against working more than originally agreed upon among programs overseen by Universities and non-profit organizations. Farm managers from these internships enforced working hours established contractually at the beginning of the season.
Work and Train within a Program Structured by the Farmer
Farm interns who reported wanting to work but not necessarily as long or hard, also were expecting a structured program that would provide deliberate educational and mentorship opportunities in addition to labor. Constituent to this expectation is that farm mentors would be knowledgeable, experienced and capable of sharing what they knew to interns working on the farm’s operation. The context for workplace learning is oriented more towards learning than teaching. Naomi acknowledged that her expectation was a formal training and education that would be more technical: “I guess I expected it to be more structured and formal in some areas than it is. I guess most of the time it’s sort of working, let’s get this done, and if I can give you a piece of knowledge along the way then I’ll do it. The farm manager can show us something, point out something along the way then that’s our education. I think that most of our education is up to us to ask questions and be observant and watch what they’re doing, they don’t write it down on a worksheet and test us on it. “ Interns assumed that more of their time would include explanation from a farm mentor or they would be working in an educational setting. The informal nature of most internships where participants learned to farm dictated that the teaching and educational program was left to the farmer’s ability to teach and their individual personality.
Remuneration to Meet Basic Needs while Working Without Pay
In return for their work, farm interns expected planned educational opportunities, but many did not expect to be paid or paid well. When looking for farms that offered internships, participants were aware that they should not count on financial compensation at levels expected of other jobs that involve manual labor. As one respondent of the survey noted, “It isn’t a position where I’d expect to earn a lot.” which was echoed in the words of another former intern, “I was learning and didn’t feel like there was a certain amount to earn.” Farm interns who were interviewed and surveyed were not asked a specific amount in regards to what was fair compensation for a farm internship. Survey and interview participants were asked instead whether what they did receive was fair. Retrospectively, those who had trouble making “ends meet” during their internship suggested that they should have expected to earn more.
A Personal Relationship with a Farmer
A crucial factor of a farm internship is what an intern expects from their relationship with a farmer or farm manager. Interns who recalled anticipating challenges or seeking specific features of an on-farm training arrangement did not include healthy relationships and compatible personalities with people on the farm as part of the process. When unexpressed expectations on how each person in the relationship anticipated relating, there was resultant tension. None of the stories about agreeing to an internship included a discussion about the interpersonal conduct between a farmer and farm intern. Living in a farmer’s house, participating in family life and embedding one’s social time with the farm crew was not unusual to how an internship was socially organized. For those working on farms with a family, an intern became a member of the farm enterprise. Farmers and interns might have very different or much aligned expectations of how to behave under such circumstances. Based on personalities and individual styles, interpersonal relationships between farmer and intern, and intern and others in the farm community, unfolded differently. Conflict occurred when assumptions about social and lifestyle preferences were not identified and clearly communicated.
Factors that Influence Farm Interns’ Choice of Farms
Survey participants tended to rank factors related to on-farm production and educational opportunities as important to choosing their specific internship opportunity (Table 3-2). The factor rated most important to choosing a farm internship was the growing methods of the farm. The role of education (52.3%), the specific products grown on the farm (50.0%) and having a farmer mentor (47.3%) were ranked very important to selecting a training program by half of the survey respondents. Quality of life and economic factors including compensation (34.1%), living in community (29.2%) and housing (28.2%) were ranked below the top tier that dealt more specifically in farm and education characteristics than personal care factors. Survey participants rated the size of the operation (18.9% said it was very important) lower than the reputation of the farm (22.3% very important category) when considering factors important to choosing their internship or internship.
More than three-quarters (77%) of survey participants said that the production methods of a farm were very important to choosing where they worked. Philosophically, interns aligned their preference to small-scale producers who produced fresh food and directly sold to customers. Farm interns in this study highly valued organic food and, therefore, expected to learn on farms that used organic practices. None of the interns who were interviewed in this study or completed farm journals expressed a desire to pursue agricultural jobs with conventional farms that used synthetic chemicals. Based on these responses, a conclusion of this research is that farm interns are seeking a specific training in organic or natural methods as they are applied on specific sustainable farm operations. Moreover, the remuneration given for a farm intern’s labor was not ranked as important as other factors. These findings corroborate the qualitative findings of this research that farm interns seek farms for reasons that pertain to the production system and living conditions of the farms, considering the compensation provided for their work as important but supplemental to educational and experiential resources of the farm internship.
The labor exchange explored in this section pertains to the kinds of labor practices that organize sustainable farm internships.
Hiring Farm Interns
Interviews and the hiring process for farm internships were informal and often brief. Routinely, a farm intern would make initial contact over the phone and be invited to visit the farm. During the visit, the farmer would show the potential intern the property, invite him for a meal and have a conversation about the farm’s operations and the conditions that might be expected if he were to be an intern. In very few cases did these conversations between farmers and interns include reviewing a contract or determining terms of agreement between the farmer and potential farm intern. In a select number of cases, interns living outside of Pennsylvania committed to the farm before ever arriving or meeting the farmer in person. These phone conversations were simply described as the farmer confirming there was available work and to arrive whenever might be convenient and stay for the time they had available.
Very rarely did interns report signing a formal contract after agreeing to participate in a farm internship. For interns working on private farms, there was a verbal commitment made on the part of the farmer as to the type and amount of compensation offered in exchange for an intern’s labor. Without a firm agreement in writing, interns were left without a vehicle to regulate the intensity of the work as it related to working conditions, compensation for extra work and a mechanism to advocate for changing the arrangement if the need arises.
Length of Farm Stay
Many internship positions advertised during the 2012 season on ATTRA were flexible to hosting workers according to the traditional school schedule (summer vacation) and accepted individuals with shorter vacations, denoted by the one to three month time commitment common to ATTRA intern listings. Consequently, the study’s sample was drawn from those who worked at least three months on a farm. However, those who wrote farm journals committed to working a longer season from late spring (March or April) to late fall (October or November), and in their reflections they signaled the importance of working the entirety of the growing season to familiarize themselves with tasks undertaken in different weather conditions. Slightly more than half of the survey participants (52.3%) worked six months to a year on a farm, suggesting that opportunities exist for persons to work for a full growing season and many do (Table 4-1). Nearly a third of survey respondents worked less than six months on a farm. Taking into consideration variable lengths of growing season throughout the Northeast region and Pennsylvania, even the shortest average growing season extends over four months. Therefore, interns who work a shorter time period of the season were exposed to fewer tasks and skills dependent on day length, plant growth and animal maturity and lifecycles.
The six interns who kept farm journals worked very different schedules. On average, farm interns who kept journals worked eight and half-hours per day, typically beginning at 7:40 in the morning and ending at 5:30pm. This average is greater than the national average for hours worked per day; full-time employed persons in the US spent an average of 7.6 hours per day at their job in 2011 (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011). Nearly half (49%) of the survey respondents reported working between forty-one and fifty-nine hours per week during their internship or apprenticeship, with the second highest group of respondents working less than thirty-four hours per week (19%). More than seventeen percent of participants from the survey worked on average more than sixty hours per week, and the fewest number worked between thirty five to forty hours per week (15%).
Rare was the account of an intern suggesting that she worked more hours or days than a farmer. Farm interns often spoke with reverence for the farmer’s ability to provide the majority of labor on the farm year-round. The slower pace and intensity of how a farm intern worked in the field compared to an experienced farmer, distinguished the intern as a novice. Based on the interviews it was clear to farm interns who had no intention of becoming farmers that finding a willing labor force to grow food at scale for other people would be difficult. Drawing from their experiences of the physical and emotional energy required to make farming a viable livelihood, farm interns postulated that few people could be farmers due to the physical, time and emotional demands on the individual. For the study’s group of interns, enthusiasm about sustainable food and alternative food systems had not waned, nor their interest in growing food for themselves. But they were incapable or unwilling to become part of the sustainable agricultural labor force working in the field. Reasons that interns gave for not continuing to work in sustainable farming included the physical demands of the work, the financial risks and sacrifices as a non-landed farm worker, having other interests and skills that were unrelated to farm work, and skepticism that farming could provide for their financial needs without having to sacrifice their desired quality of life.
Farm Interns’ Labor
Food Grown by Farm Interns
The types of tasks performed by interns are determined largely by the production system of the farm where the intern works. Both survey and interview respondents were prompted to report the products grown on the farm where they interned. The majority of survey respondents worked in vegetable crops, with more survey than interview participants listing experiences with animals and dairy production (Table 4-2). These results reflect the types of workplace learning experiences offered on ATTRA that were primarily performing labor in vegetable fields. Of the one hundred and thirty respondents of the survey, over ninety percent had worked as an intern in vegetable production and twenty-four of the twenty five interviewees were vegetable interns. Of the six farm journalers, only two worked on farms where the majority of work revolved around animal and dairy production.
Variation in Tasks
The opportunity to work in a variety of tasks and thus, experience different aspects of farm production, purportedly distinguishes farm interns from hired farm labor. Unlike conventional crop operations that specialize in one or few crops, farm interns expect to work in a diverse farming system that requires being familiar with production and marketing techniques. The differing models of on-farm training programs in the Northeast region offer most or all of the following training components for a well-rounded internship in specialty crops: 1) production planning; 2) nutrient and soil management; 3) weed and pest management; 4) direct marketing strategies and systems; 5) infrastructure management; 6) harvest and post-harvest handing of crops; and 7) sustainable farming methods.
Survey respondents were asked to report the work expected of them during their internship on a farm. The task performed by the largest number of farm interns was harvesting; nearly ninety percent of survey respondents had harvested a crop during their internship(s) (Figure 4-1). Hand weeding, transplanting, post-harvest handling and seeding were four tasks completed by more than eighty percent of participants. Due to the design of the survey, it is impossible to determine whether the low responses to some work activities can be attributed to farms where these tasks would not be performed. Not all farms use machines or have animals, thus there would be no opportunity to do machine work or animal husbandry. Fewer farm interns from the survey were introduced to activities that might be performed by a manager or demand a higher skill level to complete successfully (such as tractor work, of which only half of participants indicated they had performed on farms).
Remuneration – Sustaining Interns on Farms
Farm internship remuneration is composed of a trio of basic resources in addition to promised training and education. These were housing, food and living stipend. Interns received these three resources in different combinations based on the circumstances of the farm and needs of the intern. All of the interview participants, and eighty five percent of survey respondents received food as compensation for their labor. More than half, but still fewer farm interns received housing and a stipend during a farm internship. These results can be found in Table 4-3.
For interns who relocated to work on farms in rural areas they agreed to let farmers arrange and if necessary, pay for housing, either on-site or near the farm. Such arrangements differed considerably in the type of structure and amenities provided in the dwellings. The majority of survey participants lived in homes (48%); thirteen percent of survey participants lived in types of housing that traditionally are smaller that included tents, a dormitory and small shelter such as an earthen hut (Figure 4-3). Survey and interview participants reported that in extreme cases farm dwellings did not have private or accessible bathrooms and kitchens. In these situations, farm interns were forced to either build their own facilities or manage without. The general expectation was that provided housing was functional (a place to sleep and cook) rather than comfortable or appealing. These needs dealt both in the physical dimensions of the space as well as interpersonal relations between those with whom they shared housing. Interns who had poor experiences sharing housing and those with positive experiences living alone made a strong argument that private housing was good for the social and emotional heath of interns. As one respondent recalled, “During one apprenticeship I had my own room in the farmer’s house. For the most part this was fine, but I think ideally apprentices and farmers need their own spaces, as they spend so much time together doing intense work, and need to have some distance to decompress.” Common to nearly all stories about deficient housing during farm internships was the limited time that interns anticipated enduring the situation. Interns who anticipated leaving the farm at the end of the season were less concerned with having to endure poor housing indefinitely. Regardless, harsh living conditions had an effect on the intern’s state of well-being while laboring on a farm.
Without exception, farm interns were provided food grown on the farm as reward for their labor. For those interns depending on the farm for their essential needs, food was a necessary subsidy that supported an intern’s livelihood while they forfeited a standard income. Eating the farm’s sustainably grown food was also valued for its importance to the intern’s lifestyle choices. The themes of generosity and abundance dominated conversations about farmers who provided interns food. As a result, interns reported purchasing little food off-farm and thereby reduced their expenditures, which supported their efforts to live within their means if reliant on a stipend. How food was allocated to interns varied according to farm. When eating farm produce at free will, interns and farmers would preference “seconds” or food that was deemed unsuitable for sale before taking produce that could be marketed and potentially profitable for the farm enterprise. Yet, interns who reported eating seconds also said they were allowed to eat while harvesting vegetables or fruit, had the first opportunity to try new products, or picked fresh produce or special farm items when they wanted. Food as compensation for hard work functioned, not only to reduce an intern’s financial costs but also supported their health while engaged in hard, physical labor.
The ability of farm interns to work without pay is an important factor in regards to who can participate in farm internships. The small living stipend provided to farm interns in this study was often adequate to meet basic needs, but not enough to sustain an intern financially over long periods of time. Even for those who could make a salary sacrifice to participate in a farm internship, the decision required that farm interns draw on money saved prior to the internship; farm interns also benefited from the support of family members and made notable changes in their consumption patterns to be financially solvent during an internship. The study’s participants considered these strategies not permanent livelihood strategies, but necessary in their pursuit of sustainable agricultural training. However, the financial risk of farm internships were considered a potential economic threat to the future success of those wishing to operate their own farms. An exchange which circumvented paid wages seemed to work best for the intern if there was a personal investment made not only based on the educational and financial outcome of the work, but within the personal exchanges that were part of the daily experience of working on the farm. None of the justifications given by farm interns for taking a salary sacrifice negated the interns’ belief that their demanding work deserved good pay. The irony not lost in the stories of sixteen hour days, digging their own latrines, chasing pigs in the woods or harvesting tons (literally) of vegetables was that interns were doing the hardest work of their life and receiving the least amount of money that many had ever received for their work.
Resoundingly, participants in this study concluded that farm internships were only financially sustainable for a temporary period of time and limited to those persons with financial resources to sustain themselves while absent from the formal workforce. Interns who held college degree referred to potential job opportunities in a different occupation to supplement a farm income or leave agriculture entirely. A former apprentice who completed a survey and specified the reason that the compensation she received was fair saying, “I have a college degree and was being paid about 5$/hr. plus food and education. It worked for me because I wanted to learn, had housing taken care of, and am single with no children. I also know how to live off of very little.
Though interns utilized their social and economic resources to remove themselves from the labor market for a short period of time, not all financial obligations could be removed from a farm intern’s life. Participants who recently graduated from a college or university reported making a salary sacrifice by temporarily reducing expenditures, but one inflexible expense common among this demographic were student loans. Farm interns described varying strategies to pay these loans while interning; the two most common were drawing from a savings account to cover monthly payments and also using their grace period to work on farms and then exited agriculture for jobs in their academic fields. A compounding factor to these strategies was an intern’s ability to find a job in her or his field. A farm internship that covered basic living expenses was considered a meaningful way to spend one’s time out of the job market.
Overtime Work Hours and Compensation
Those farms without adequate labor relied on interns who then were cast as an integral member of the farm crew. Without adhering to formal work schedules or accountable to external agencies to pay overtime or give breaks, interns felt pressured to work the extraordinary hours kept by their bosses. However, farm interns did not receive additional rewards for additional work. The type of remuneration provided during internships made it difficult to increase what farm interns received if they contributed more labor than was originally agreed. A farm intern only needed one place to stay and a certain amount of food. Working additional hours was not an uncommon practice during farm internship. A survey respondent described the difficulty of working for the same remuneration saying: “Based on the theoretical hours we are ‘contracted’ to work, the stipend is adequate. However, I definitely feel as though some weeks/months, the number of hours I worked far exceeded what was appropriate for my compensation–even when considering other benefits such as housing and food that are provided through the internship.”
The economic reality of paying farm interns is that farmers operate in an economic system that disadvantages family farm enterprises that grow and sell produce outside the conventional agricultural system. Farm interns acknowledged that the low wages and small profit margins on family farms encouraged management decisions that minimize the amount spent on labor, including the farmer’s salary: “The compensation was adequate considering the education and training I received. Also, knowing the financial situation of the farm made me feel like I got as much as they could give.” The expectation that one would not receive a waged salary as a farm intern suggests both structural (the constraints of the price of food produced in the conventional food system not adequate to pay farmers well for their work) and socially constructed elements of inequalities deeply rooted in agriculture (the socially marginalized role of farm work and workers, and perception of what is owed to whom for such work). Farm interns recognized the limitations placed on farmers by an American public conditioned to cheap food. Farmers who “made it their goal” (quote from a survey respondent applauding her boss for paying workers a living wage) to pay farm interns a decent wage were characterized not only as admirable, but unique.
The inherent conjunction between work and education is elemental to how farm internship programs are described by interns. The investment in this training by farmers is largely structured around the amount of education that accompanies the performance of tasks on the farm, time spent in educating the intern apart from the work, and the opportunity provided by the farmer for additional training at outside venues that might not be available if the person was not an intern or apprentice.
Mode of Learning
Manuals describing on-farm internships in sustainable agriculture identified common modalities through which learning occurs during farm internships. In an open-ended question, participants on the survey were asked to report the number of times that they received instruction via each of these modes of arranged instruction. Half (49.6%) of survey participants reported that while a farm intern, they did not attend an on-farm class (Figure 5-1). Of those who did attend an on-farm class, most took part in only one class (13%) followed by those who attended two classes (11%). Compared to on-farm classes, a third (32.7%) of participants said they never attended a class offered off the farm. Another third attended at least one class off the farm, and nearly another third were participants at more than four off-farm classes (Figure 5-1). Close to fifty percent of farm interns never attended a regional field day workshop or multiple day workshop (Figure 5-2). Fewer interns participated in multiple-day workshops than other modes of instruction (59.6% said they did not attend such a workshop) and of those who did participate, the majority (27.3%) attended only one such workshop. Taking time away from the farm, the cost associated with attendance and infrequent offering of such a multi-day events might be contributing factors to why this method of learning was least attended.
Instructed on Sustainable Farm Topics
Farmers who host interns have a responsibility to instruct and not simply manage the labor of farm interns (Mills-Nova, 2008; Smith 1999). A section of the survey measured the frequency with which farm interns were instructed on labor tasks. The majority of interns reported receiving “a little instruction” on tasks dealing with farm planning (Figure 5-3) and “regular instruction” on topics that pertain to nutrient and soil management (Figure 5-4). Farm interns received the least instruction on topics that did not involve manual labor on farms. For example, the majority of farm interns in the survey received minimal instruction on integrated pest management (39.2%) but regularly were instructed on weed management (41.1%; Figure 5-5). Similarly, on topics related to handling the harvest, over forty percent (42.6%) of survey participants were instructed “a little” on food quality and safety topics and a third were instructed regularly (36.9%) or intensively (27.7%) on harvest and post-harvest handling techniques (Figure 5-6). These findings suggest that farm interns are more likely to be taught on topics that involve the work they are assigned during their internship. The following discussion draws on interview and farm journal data to discuss how labor is substituted for learning during farm internships.
Interns in the study were motivated to pursue an on-farm learning experience for the advantages they associated with learning-by-doing. Many of these interns juxtaposed their former education at formal institutions with their internship as not only a difference in learning style, but also a radical change in their acquisition of content. Through repetition and mistakes, sustainable farm practices were transmitted in a practical context and reinforced through practice. Considering that farming methods employed are dependent on numerous site-specific factors, there was general agreement among respondents that being able to see how a practice worked in the field and how a farmer made a decision based on the context was primary to the intern experience. Interns in the survey who continued to farm after their internship reflected that without the ability to apply what they were learning while acquiring new skills and knowledge, the transition into full-time farming would have been very difficult.
Learn-by-doing for farm interns was also learn-by-necessity; to perform one’s job required familiarity with skills and being able to perform them when called upon. Often, the nature of farm work dictated that an intern perform one task that required applying a set of skills recurrently over a period of time. If a farmer did not offer instruction or supervise farm tasks, farm interns were compelled to problem solve and ascertain how to perform a task independently to complete their job. This process for interns was associated with both a high level of frustration and if a task was ultimately performed successfully, satisfaction. A benefit of farm work mentioned by interns included the thrill of being challenged and obtaining self-confidence in their ability to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. Accompanying the gratification of overcoming a challenge came displeasure that the path to this accomplishment was made difficult by the absence of instruction from a knowledgeable farm mentor. Farm interns who worked with farm mentors who were difficult to access reported being happy to take charge of critical tasks and find solutions to problems that helped them perform their job better. But such satisfaction was couched in frustration that the farmer did not meet their promise of providing instruction and mentoring during the labor process. Farm interns did not consider circumstances where excessive labor prevented structured learning opportunities as a violation of their agreement with farmers. Those participants who reported working long hours without independent time for instruction rationalized that the necessity of their labor to meet the farm’s production demands left little or no time for other activities. Such a commitment to the farm’s production success at the expense of training or education proceeds from the personal relationship established with the farmer and the importance of the intern to completing the farm work. However, though this circumstance was not acceptable to farm interns, it was expected on farms where labor supply was short and workload high.
Labor as Farm Mentor
Interns who bemoaned the lack of intentional instruction during their internship suggested that farm supervisors relied on labor as a learning tool to be relinquished of the responsibility to provide constructive teaching. Though many interns expressed concern that their knowledge and skill acquisition was not sufficient and hence incomplete after their internship, few suggested that having an opportunity to learn in a classroom setting or structured lectures would be an appealing solution to increasing their understanding of growing methods or skills. Instead, more direct contact with the farmer who could explain the particular subject matter in the field, or having other farm experiences with greater exposure to tasks and different farmers, were suggested recourses to a lack of learning during the internship.
Farm interns, retrospectively wished they had been better at being self-directed learners; they described such efforts as drawing out information from their farm mentor, seeking outside course work, and securing additional tasks beyond their internship responsibilities, or supplementing their work with reading and research. Yet, there should be careful consideration that interns may not have the skills or the personality to adequately create learning opportunities for themselves while also completing difficult physical labor. Farm interns who felt motivated to improve their training experience took an active role in shaping the learning environment by asking farmers questions and seeking off-farm events. Those who wanted more instruction on the job did not hesitate to “interrogate the poor farmer”, as Kaitlin described her approach. Unless a farm mentor or internship program structures the work environment with explicit educational components, farmers and interns prioritize growing plants and animals, learning in practice as new skills and knowledge is incorporated into daily work.
Those farm interns who reported working more for the same pay justify the imbalance with a reward distinct from the originally promised remuneration. A benefit often cited was the additional knowledge that interns derived through longer work hours and the importance of contributing to the farm and farm community. A former intern responding to the survey suggested that though the workload was more than she agreed to, she benefited regardless, “Mostly, I ended up working many more hours that I originally agreed upon, but was compensated instead with invaluable knowledge.” Training and on-farm mentoring is certainly an explicit benefit that motivates women and men who participated in the study to work longer and not assess the circumstance as exploitive. Though this benefit was expected, the effectiveness and quality of training offered by a farmer or farm manager largely determined the intern’s assessment of fairness and satisfaction with the exchange. Many interns who described themselves as “cheap labor” also complained that the level of training they received was extremely poor.
The success of on-farm mentorship is influenced by the relationship between the intern and the farmer. This is a specific kind of social organization that is distinct from the traditional labor arrangements between a farmer and farm employee. Farmers in both scenarios depend on outside workers that include interns to meet farm labor demands. But the farmer and intern are bound in a personal exchange that does not rely solely on exchanging money for work performed. Farmers invest in the future trajectory of a farm intern through teaching, modeling a farm lifestyle and providing for essential needs (i.e. housing conditions and providing food) of intern(s) whom they host.
Good farmers do not necessarily always translate to good trainers. Training with a farmer with a difficult personality of poor social skills requires that the intern consider the potential consequences on the quality of training under these circumstances. A positive relationship with a farmer was viewed as an asset and foundational to the future trajectory of the farm intern. A healthy relationship is not simply based on the personality of the farmer or the farmer’s ability to relay agronomic information to an intern. Instead, a dynamic occurs where the farmer and intern engaged in an intimate way that often reflected kinship relationships. This farmer-intern exchange demonstrated a need for mutual respect and investment in the relationship.
But being considered a member of the family means that an intern was exposed (and in some cases involved) in conflict and unequal power dynamics between family members. In circumstances when interns were treated as family, there were few if any boundaries between work and personal relationships explained a former intern responding on the survey, “Workplace relations are just as importance as the agricultural experience – in living on someone else’s property AND working for them, you inevitably become privy to family issues which can make the internship experience difficult.” The authority imposed by the farmer can thus immigrate into the personal lives of interns, especially when the intern is dependent on essential goods via this relationship, such as housing and food. Authority expressed in personal space that distorts the relationship between employee and family member can be oppressive.
Following the methodology employed in this research, the reccomendations of this study are derrived from interns who participated in the research. The primary source of this data comes from the three focus groups conducted with farm interns who worked throughout the Northeast region. The section retains the style of recommendations made by farm interns to hypothetical farmers during the three group sessions. While attempting to maintain the spirit of what was said, none of the language used in this section is directly quoted from participants.
Learning and Laboring
Farm interns emphasized that it is important to structure educational experiences during farm internships. Suggestions for doing this included having an educational plan and sitting down with an intern to impart information that would supplement the work. Participants felt that this kind of structure is critical for teaching people sustainable agricultural skills. Consequently, farm interns felt that a certain amount of teaching was required during their on-farm training experience; they simply did not feel that being given tasks was sufficient. Farm interns discussed the compromised quality of such teaching opportunities when they depended on moments that were only convenient for the farmer and occurred at the last moment. A component of being a good farm mentor included being understanding when things go wrong. Participants advocated for a system to be put in place on farms to facilitate discussion when something goes wrong that would allow farm interns to learn from the mistake.
During the focus groups participants emphasized that it was helpful to know what to expect out of a farm internship. For example, farm interns want to know what work needs to get done and when, how the intern will be involved and for what purpose. Being included in planning and communicating expectations of how and why farm tasks are to be completed can help the intern work more efficiently and effectively. Participants agreed that if a farmer does not talk to the intern about what is going on at the farm, the intern would be less likely to engage fully on the farm. Open and regular communication between a farm intern and a farmer facilitates good relations and a better work-learn environment. For interns, one of the most important parts of an internship is getting a sense of what goes on in a farmer’s head. Even if the decision is made on the fly, understanding why a decision is made a particular way is considered helpful to interns. This expectation of participants requires a certain amount of transparency on the part of the farmer to communicate not only what needs to get done in what way, but why.
Farm interns expressed that their primary reason for interning is for the opportunity to farm, but abundant food, good housing and fair compensation are essential to sustaining farm interns. Having access to good food that interns grow with their own hands is an important factor of a successful internship. Participants agreed that it is also an important part of the experience to be able to eat the food that one helped to grow. Of those interns who were provided housing, a common sentiment shared was that living and working with the same people can be intense. Farm interns advised farmers to provide their interns a comfortable space where people can have time to themselves. The offering of free housing is important to make ends meet, particularly when there is no money exchanged between interns and farmers. However, participants voiced that such remuneration was used to bypass fairly compensating farm interns for their labor contribution. These farms were characterized by participants as just looking for cheap labor who do not invest in the intern but just want people to work. There was discussion in the focus groups that money can be an incentive to make people work harder. But this idea included the notion that when farmers do not pay someone such as interns, then interns may work harder to derive more out of the experience other than a salary. A prevailing recommendation from interns in these groups is that farmers should not look for interns because they need laborers. The likely result of such motivation is a bad experience for the intern. Participants attributed the circumstances above as occurring when farmers are not ready for interns. To host interns, participants concurred that farmers have to be have the time and the knowledge to teach. Under circumstances that farmers just want a worker, focus group participants concluded that they are mistreating interns.
Participants were widely frustrated that few organizationa and individuals in sustainable agricultural circles are talking about what happens after a farm internship. Focus group discussions tended toward the case when an intern invests time working on sustainable farms without earning money and feels prepared to operate a farm but has no way of paying for it. Participants suggested there are few farmers who want to hire labor and that the best kind of internship is one where there would be opportunity for retention. Under the current model of a farm internship, people want to learn on a farm for more than a short period of time but afterward would come away from the farm internship with very little money to make it possible to farm. Farm interns iterated that not everyone who completes an internship wants to be a farmer immediately following their internship. According to participants it is more likely a farm intern wants a farm worker or farm manager position after an internship, but these positions are rare and seldom pay enough for someone to make a decent living.
Few published studies have investigated the farm internship on sustainable farms as a workplace learning model. The practice is anecdotally recognized within the sustainable farm community as a common method that farms secure needed labor, and one of the most accessible ways interested people can be trained in sustainable farming methods. The barriers to conducting this study were numerous in part due to the migratory nature of farm interns, the lack of a centralized database of people who work on farms and the geographic isolation of farms that host interns. As a result of our research team’s outreach efforts, we have been asked by farmers, farm organizations and researchers in related disciplines to present at public meetings. These have included the Agriculture and Human Values Conference (June 2013), Penn State University (November 2013) and the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network Symposium (December 2013).
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Conference Presentation, AGHV Conference, Lancing MI (June 2013)
Conference Presentation, PA-WAgN Symposium, State College PA (December 2013)
Master’s thesis presented to Rural Sociology Program of Penn State, (October 2013)
Presentation to the College of Agriculture (November 2013)
White Paper, Laboring to Learn on Sustainable Farms: Farm Interns and Sustainable Food Production (Forthcoming)
Areas needing additional study
Future studies should address the following factors of farm internships that emerged from this research project:
1) How particular farm systems (distinguishing farms by production system, size, market) utilize farm interns as part of the labor process; and, the economic impact that hosting interns has on sustainable farms as an alternative to waged labor
2) How a farm intern’s goals and intentions for participation in sustainable agriculture are advanced or deterred by their participation in an internship (potential factors include the effects of a salary sacrifice, lack of employee provided health insurance)
3) What intermediary positions are available to persons after completing an internship, and the implications on new and beginning farmers
4) The role that social standards, such as those developed by the Agricultural Justice Project, might have in addressing workplace conditions of interns on sustainable farms including overtime hours, housing conditions.