Evaluating the Effectiveness of Meeting Seasonal Labor Demands by Integrating a Farm Internship Program

Project Overview

FNC06-633
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2006: $5,905.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: general silage crops
  • Fruits: melons, berries (brambles)
  • Vegetables: sweet potatoes, asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), leeks, onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), rutabagas, sweet corn, tomatoes, turnips
  • Additional Plants: herbs
  • Animals: poultry, goats
  • Miscellaneous: mushrooms

Practices

  • Animal Production: free-range, pasture fertility
  • Crop Production: crop rotation, cover crops, fallow, nutrient cycling, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking
  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture, marketing management, value added, agritourism
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: chemical control, cultural control, economic threshold, field monitoring/scouting, flame, integrated pest management, physical control, mulching - plastic, prevention, mulching - vegetative
  • Soil Management: green manures, composting, nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, analysis of personal/family life, community services, social networks, sustainability measures, quality of life

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    Smith Gardens Community Farm is a 16 acre family farm nestled among the rolling river bluffs of Western Wisconsin. In 2003, the farm began as a way to provide a rich, nurturing environment for the Smith family to live and eat healthy while caretaking the land for future generations. Today, the farm continually grows into a more sustainable business and place that brings community together. The farm’s mission is to create and enhance community relationships through fresh, locally produced naturally grown foods.

    Currently, over 2 acres of vegetables and raspberries are cultivated and an unheated hoop house helps extend the seasons. Taking raw ingredients to the next level in the licensed food processing kitchen helps diversify the farm and create economic stability. Handcrafted soaps, homemade jams, and wood fired pizzas fit this value added niche for Smith Gardens Community Farm. However, the two primary farm enterprises are CSA vegetable subscriptions and seasonal wood fire pizza nights.

    Being a diversity based small scale farm, it is essential that we utilize our resources as best as possible. We continually work towards becoming more sustainable in every aspect of our farm: social, environmental, and economic. When the grant was first written, full time off farm work was required to meet economic necessities by both partners. And today, only minimum part time off farm work is sought with the farm becoming the primary source of income in 2009. As we transitioned from a start up farm to becoming a full time sustainable farm business, some form of seasonal labor was and still is needed that was low cost, beneficial to the farm, and yet beneficial to the laborers.

    We recognized that we were not alone in our struggle for seasonal labor demands and sometimes diminished quality of life when trying to do all of the farm work, marketing, and bookkeeping demands of small scale family based intensive agriculture. Other area farmers could potentially benefit from an internship program that would help connect interns and employees to their farm, by joining together, area farms could offer a more well rounded experience to interns and would benefit from the camaraderie and supportive community of local farmers. This grant helps explore the interest and feasibility of developing a farm internship program in west central Wisconsin/southeastern Minnesota similar to CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program that currently exists in southern Wisconsin/northern Illinois.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    The problem to be addressed through the grant was the lack of seasonal labor due to cost and lack of availability. The lack of seasonal labor lead to other problems experienced at Smith Gardens such as a decreased quality of life and limited productivity from the vegetable production acreage. The objective of the grant project was to evaluate the efficiency of a farmer to train and manage seasonal farm interns and the potential for increased farm profitability and quality of life through the farm internship program. The grant was designed with three benefactors in mind: Smith Gardens Community Farm, Smith Garden’s farm interns, and the community of regional farmers. The goals, process, and results for each benefactor follows.

    The Farm
    The farm’s goal was to increase farm profitability from the current vegetable production acreage. Gross income data was used to compare between production years. The sum of three different farm enterprises was analyzed for yearly gross income comparisons: CSA vegetable sales, wood fired pizzas sales, and wholesale vegetable sales. In 2006, the year before the grant project, only 1 intermittent intern assisted on the farm. Gross income was $13,760 for 2006. In 2007, two full time interns committed to the farm and gross income jumped to $26,484. In 2008, one full time intern committed to the farm and a working CSA member program was implemented to help fill in seasonal farm labor needs. Gross income for 2008 increased to $39,175. It is good to note that changes in labor alone did not affect gross income but it was a myriad of factors including the desire for the farm to scale up to reach true economic sustainability.

    I wanted to efficiently manage off farm labor by trying to plan in the off season and schedule farm needs and workers to best match those needs during that off season so that my time could be focused more on production and daily maintenance during the busy growing season. The number of hours off season labor worked was recorded over the two growing seasons. In 2007, 1048 hours were worked by off farm labor. In 2008, 984 hours were worked by off farm labor. An average of roughly 1000 hours is now used to plan when to schedule off farm labor primarily during the busy season of May-September with the peak being June-August.

    A comparison of the needs for facilitating and training the different kinds of farm labor was used to evaluate the efficiency of managing different types of off farm labor. The more time an off farm laborer was scheduled to work the less overall training was required in teaching them how and why to do a particular task. For example, if someone was only going to work 1 day at the farm, they would need to be trained to every task and then they would leave never to come back to reuse any of their training. If someone was going to be assisting on the farm repeatedly over 3 months, tasks could be trained and learned and further executed with increasing independence as they were repeated over the season. It saves time and creates a more efficient working environment to work with longer term laborers then short term ones, but sometimes that decision had to be balanced with availability of interns, off farm laborers, and the other benefits received from working with a particular individual or group of individuals.

    It was also realized that interns who lived on the farm seemed to better understand the ebb and flow of the seasons and what life on the farm was really like. There was better commitment and adherence to the work schedule from interns who committed to living on the farm for a long period of time compared to part time interns who commuted to the farm for their work shifts.

    Another grant goal was to increase the number of sustainable farming practices implemented on the farm. The number of sustainable farming practices implemented at Smith Gardens was calculated by using a qualitative scale from none (0) to excellent (5). Each farming practice was evaluated by Heather Smith and given a number based on how that practice was being utilized. These values then were compared over the different farming years. An intern in the 2006 season originally asked us to create this evaluation tool for his college presentation. The numbers that were created in 2006 for the 2004, 2005 and 2006 seasons were included in our current yearly comparisons in order to gain a longer term view on how the farm’s practices were changing. The following farming practices were evaluated: multiple plantings, beneficial pollinators, organic pesticide usage, hand weeding, mechanical weeding, mulching, cover cropping, fertility and amendments, tillage and crop rotations.

    The sum of all the ratings of each of the different farming practices implemented each ear was used to compare yearly changes in sustainable farming practices. A maximum score of 50 was possible and would be considered to be the best or most excellent implementation of the identified sustainable farming practices. In 2004, the total sum of sustainable practices implemented was 14 out of a possible score of 50 and in 2005, the yearly sum was 15. In 2006 there was a small jump to 19. In 2007 and 2008 there was a large increase in the amount of sustainable practices being implemented which correlated with more off farm labor and committed interns on the farm; the values for both of those years were the same, 34 out of the possible score of 50 even though there changes in between some of the values of individuals farming practices.

    Another goal during the grant period was to improve the quality of life for the Smith family. By prioritizing family fun time and having interns available to assume farm chores during short periods of time, the Smith family was able to enjoy a couple weekends away from the farm. Heather was pregnant during the 2007 growing season and the baby was born in September 2007 which increased the necessity of Heather to better balance family and farm life.

    Improved off season planning for the growing season helped to better plan for off farm labor to utilize extra hands when they were available and accomplish prioritized tasks, such as the particular sustainable farming practices identified above. In general, the Smith family worked a more normal working schedule during the 2007 and 2008 summers that could better include routine meals and community events. We encouraged the interns to also try to create balance between farm work and their personal times so as they did not get burned out during the busy season as well.

    The Interns
    Goals created for the interns were to increase their monetary and non-monetary compensation, broaden their knowledge about sustainable farming and holistic thinking, and increase their awareness about local foods production while having a well rounded and satisfying experience at Smith Gardens.

    The stipend given to interns at Smith Gardens began as a strictly volunteer ($0) position in 2006 and has grown steady over the last couple years. In 2007, the stipend was $250/mo and was increased to $325/mo in 2008. The stipend will be at $400/mo for the current 2009 season. This trend for increased stipends seems to be occurring across the board between farms as there may be more demand for interns than available people and monetary compensation is one way to better attract an intern to your farm.

    Other non-monetary benefits include shared meals, intern kitchen space, rustic living quarters separate from the Smith family, laundry and bathroom facilities in the Smith home, and an on farm sustainable farming resource library.

    In order to try to broaden the intern’s knowledge about sustainable farming, I had the two interns in 2007 come to a CRAFT spring orientation program held at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wisconsin, that specifically was designed to introduce emerging farmers to a variety of sustainable farming techniques and other beginning farmers. It also gave the interns a chance to network with other people about to engage in a similar farm internship/work experiences. However, the two Smith Garden’s interns seemed to only minimally enjoy the experience. It’s important to recognize that not all interns that want farm experience internships actually want to pursue farming for themselves. Some interns want to develop practical homesteading skills, others want to just know where food comes from, and other like the community aspect of growing and eating locally.

    In August of 2007, we were planning on going on a farm visit to another CSA farm but the farm ended up getting hit by the major flood in SW Minnesota which cancelled our plans. The next season, we did not attend the Michael Fields CRAFT orientation program, but offered the interns the option of attending farm tours that were coordinated through the Land Stewardship Project. The 2008 intern choose not to attend any farm tours but said in her exit interview that she wished she had taken the time to do so.

    Coming along to farmer’s market was enjoyed by many interns as well as delivering the CSA weekly boxes. The idea of connecting with the farm customers seemed to leave the biggest impression with everyone. In truth, the direct customer relationship is one of the greatest personal rewards of direct marketing my farm products for me too.

    At the end of an internship, each full time intern was given an exit interview to evaluate their experience at Smith Gardens and give us suggestions for improvement. All in all, the three full time interns of 2007 and 2008 rated their intern experience a 5 out of 5 (excellent). All full time interns were college students that committed to the internship during their summer break. Non e of the interns were going to purse farming as a career, but felt the experience would stick with them for a long time and the experience of growing their own food on the farm was life changing. They all believed that the 8-10 hour days were about right in length even though they were tired and often felt like relaxing to their universities after the internship was completed, all three interns became involved in some type of local foods project such as creating a campus garden, serving on the local farmer’s market committee, or living in a vegetarian community based dormitory that purchased a CSA share.

    In 2008, another source of off farm labor was created by offering an optional working CSA member program. This working CSA member program was adopted from Two Onion Farm, a CSA farm in south central Wisconsin. CSA members were offered a $20 rebate for each 4 hour work shift they signed up to work during our growing season. I created a schedule that highlighted the dates that most beneficial for the farm to have extra hands available. CSA members who wanted to work signed up for any number of these particular days. I have found the program very beneficial as the CSA members gain greater connectivity to the farm, I get to know the face behind the CSA box as they get to know me as well, it helps to reduce the price of a CSA member’s share while giving me low cost labor, and I do most of the scheduling of this program during the late winter/early spring time when my work load is lesser.

    The Regional Farmers
    Goals for the community were to increase the number of students interested in farm internships, increase the number of potential candidates entering fields related to sustainable farming and increase the appeal of an internship program through the creating of a potential regional program that linked farmers and interns.

    In 2007, 2 Japanese college students attending school in the United States completed full time summer internships at the farm. That same summer, 2 other college students came to the farm on a part time intermittent schedule and 14 volunteers and extended family members assisted with sporadic farm tasks. That summer, 2 other community member intermittently assisted on the farm as their schedule allowed. The working CSA member helped fill in other holes in the work schedule but still 6 other people volunteered their time on the farm sporadically.

    As far as I’ve seen, the college age group seems to have the most availability to pursue summer seasonal internship experiences and I’ve choose to look for interns within the university settings. Thereby, a meeting is scheduled to occur in March 2009 that targets Winona State University students and community members potentially interested in internships or employment opportunities with local farms. The interested persons preferences will be forwarded to LSP so their information can be emailed to the LSP farming membership.

    I collaborated with LSP because they are a non-profit organization that aims to support sustainable agriculture, foster an ethic of stewardship for farmland, and develop sustainable communities. LSP also offers a Farm Beginnings course which helps train beginning farmers in low cost sustainable farming methods, farm management, and also networks experienced sustainable farmers with beginning farmers. The Farm Beginnings program has been active for over 10 years and they had realized there may be a need for somehow providing further assistance to the farmers that were on the land and becoming more established.

    Sustainable local farmers, generated from a database from the Land Stewardship Project, were surveyed to help define interest in a west central Wisconsin/southeastern Minnesota farm internship program perhaps similar to the CRAFT program in southern Wisconsin/northern Illinois. Of the 25 surveys sent out, 20 farms of wide diversity of enterprises responded to the survey letter, survey and survey summary. Two thirds of the farms required seasonal off farm labor and they needed the labor and over two thirds of the farms only needed the off farm labor as part time labor. Cost and availability were the main reasons why a farm didn’t have the extra help that they might need. The farm has utilized a variety of forms of labor ranging from only immediate family, to local adults and students, to interns and volunteers to immigrants. A majority of the farms surveyed stated they usually only needed 1-4 outside laborers when extra help was needed.

    Of the farms surveyed, 75% thought there was a need for a CRAFT-like program within a 100 mile radius of Winona, MN (which is the closest bigger city to the main office of the Land Stewardship Project). the farmers were most willing to travel up to an hour of their farm to attend workshops or farm events. And many of the farm were willing to participate in many different ways (farm tours, farming mentor, sharing farm story, events, committee member) for a program that facilitated an employee/internship aspect and also focused on farmer networking and education.

    In January 2009 at Winona State University, a farmer-based meeting was held with LSP to discuss the CRAFT program potential. In attendance were 14 regional farmers and LSP liaisons. This meeting and the following developments are discussed later in the outreach section. It was important to first establish the basic interest and platform between local farmers and LSP as a network to further connect potentially interested internship/employment seeking individuals from the upcoming March 2009 meeting.

    PEOPLE
    I am grateful to the many people who assisted with this project.

    Karen Stettler, Land Stewardship Project Farm Beginnings Director, me with me to discuss my ideas for a regional farmer network/internship program. LSP surveyed Farm Beginnings graduates to help determine the needs for a regional program. Karen assisted organizing and attended the Winonna State University CRAFT discussion. She also recommended my proposal.

    Parker Forsell, former director of CRAFT-through Angelic Organics Learning Center- and now a program organizer with Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings program, met with me to discuss my ideas for the proposed regional program. He also assisted in organizing and attended the Winona State University CRAFT program discussion between regional farmers. Parker has taken over the reigns of where my project has left off and is utilizing feedback from the farming community to help steer the future direction of the new farmer training program that is being facilitated by LSP.

    Bruno Borsari, a Winona State University professor, has acted as a liaison between WSU students and Smith Garden’s farm interns interested in WSU university credits and sustainability coursework. Bruno assisted with reserving campus space for grant outreach projects and continues to promote meetings with students interested in local foods engagement in the community. He also recommended my proposal.

    Heather Flashinski, Farm Beginnings facilitator, helped create a Farm Beginnings farm tour at Smith Gardens in June 2008 which was attended by 21 people interested in beginning sustainable farming.

    Michael Fields Institute organizes a yearly spring orientation weekend for farm interns in southern Wisconsin for regional CRAFT program supporters. Two interns and I attended this orientation in the spring of 2007.

    Finally, I would be remiss, if I did not thank my very able farm help. Without them there would likely have been far less data collected and goals accomplished. They are Naoko Hachiya, Mayuko Warashina, Holly Schmidtlapp, Ben Bowditch, Caitlin Kearns, a variety of intermittent farm volunteers, and the many working members of Smith Gardens CSA vegetable subscription program.

    DISCUSSION
    I learned that if you want to see change and growth, focus on it and keep better records. For all the issues I was looking at, positive changes occurred: available low cost seasonal labor, increased farm income off of current production acreage, increased sustainable practices implemented, improved quality of life, satisfaction of internship experience, and a local program being created to help connect interns with local farms and further network and educate sustainable farmers.

    With regards to the increase of sustainable practices implemented at Smith Gardens in the 2007 and 2008 seasons, I attribute this change to the fact that small scale intensive agriculture requires a minimum of labor to successfully accomplish tasks. The more hands available at critical times to do these tasks ensures greater success and also adds to the productivity of the current acreage. By determining what tasks were needed when and the amount of time needed to accomplish each task, I was better able to prepare for the seasonal surge of farm work and plan for off farm labor needs to be fulfilled during those times. Maintaining more thorough records of the labor hours worked, I learned how to better manage and plan for the seasonal labor that was essential for farm growth and increased sustainability on social, economic, and environmental levels.

    I also was able to brainstorm different approaches to solving labor problems when I knew what I needed and looked beyond the standard solutions; i.e. the implementation of the working CSA member program. This program was adopted from another CSA farm in Wisconsin by discovery of their program on that farm’s website. The web has provided a useful tool in learning about how other farms operate that might be similar to your farm and farmers are often willing to share ideas amongst themselves, especially during the winter time. I believe by having a Smith Gardens website lets others also read about the different kinds of enterprises and internship offerings we have at our farm.

    In general, I learned that it was more efficient to manage longer term laborers than shorter term laborers because of less time spent training and orienting the person to the farm and its standards. However, the benefit of working with CSA working members works for Smith Gardens, perhaps due to the smaller size of our operation. CSA members who are working members tend to have even greater retention in the CSA program than nonworking member because they are having connected to their farmer and their farm on a much deeper level than a customer only CSA member.

    I also learned that its important to match the right job to the right person for everyone’s benefit. If someone is only there for a short time, it might be best that they do a rather simple, straightforward task or work closely with another person who knows what they are doing and can guide them. A shorter job will be accomplished during the time that they are there and they will feel good about their work and their experience on the farm.

    If someone has had experience before gardening, it still is very important that I teach them the way that I want a particular task completed on my farm and then check in with the people to see if the task is being done as instructed. When first training off farm laborers, I choose to work closely with everyone in order to work through all the questions and learning that is involved with each process. I also can be certain whether the job is being done well to the appropriate farm standards before it is done independently by someone else. This ensures that quality does not suffer and that people feel comfortable with their tasks.

    The question among farmers “is having interns worth the effort” was contemplated. It seems the questions is really more of a question about whether a farmer is interested in education and passing along skills and information or does he/she just want an employee who does a job? Defining an individual farmer’s needs and personality style most greatly affects the answer to that question. For Smith Gardens, we are dedicated to sharing information and skills with other interested people who may utilize these skills in whatever manner suits them, but we hope that the experience of working with the land and growing food will stay with these folks for the long run influencing their lifelong decisions. I feel that there is always room for improvement when it comes to the way I teach others about sustainable farming and holistic farming/living. However, interns who have come to Smith Gardens seem to appreciate the hands on style we use which is balanced with lots of farmer and customer interaction.

    The biggest downfall of relying on interns for seasonal labor is that I have never had a committed crew until the last month before the season starts. If people did not choose to commit to the internship, I would be in a pinch and would have to scramble to get all the tasks done in a timely matter without impacting the improvements that have occurred with the intensive hands on field work that is needed for our small scale vegetable production and food processing kitchen. Because of the lack of early work commitments, I have choose to have the working member CSA program to help schedule some help on high priority days early. If I could find a way to get earlier commitments from interns, I would have more peace of mind for the upcoming season. To date, all the full time interns have meshed very well with the farm and there have been no personality conflicts. I attempt to paint a very clear picture of what the internship will entail and what life on the farm will feel like before the intern commits to the position.

    The more established Smith Gardens becomes, I’m finding that more and more interested people are contacting me about internship and employment possibilities. I believe having the internship posted on the Smith Garden’s farm website (www.smithgardensfarm.com) and also on ATTRA.org is essential to the traffic that has come to me from prospective interns.

    PROJECT IMPACTS/OUTREACH
    As a way to reach out to potential interns and educate people and customers about the offering of Smith Gardens, an informational website (www.smithgardensfarm.org) was created by Heather Smith. Currently, the website is averaging 824 visits per month and then number of hits has been increasing by 10% compared to the previous year’s month. The website is not advertised but comes up on a simple web search and is often directly referred to by the user. All publications created by Smith Gardens farm list the website as a reference to learn more about the farm. to date, the website has been visited over 18,000 times.

    During June 2008, a Farm Beginnings farm tour was held at Smith Gardens which was attended by 21 people interested in beginning sustainable farming. During the farm tour, I talked about our farm’s internship program and this NCRSARE grant that was helping me to evaluate the farm’s program and determine any potential for developing a regional internship program.

    The earlier mentioned January 2009 meeting at Winona State University gathered regional farmers who responded to the farmer survey that was sent out as a part of this grant to address the potential inerest in a regional internship/farmer network program and formally initiate a grass roots push for this idea to gain momentum within LSP. A total of 14 people were in attendance at the meeting and a “mostly local” lunch was served.

    At the meeting an idea was proposed for a farmer handbook to be created that would voluntarily list farmers and state what ways they were willing to network with other farmers and whether they offered employment or intern opportunities on their farm. as a first step to better try to connect interested interns and employees to farms, LSP thought they could minimally forward any interested information from prospective intern/employment seeking individuals onto farmers to let them directly communicate with the interested people. As this program develops, a steering committee of farmers will help guide the direction of this program.

    A farmer network handbook is in the process of being created by LSP. The handbook will be a tool to connect farms and farmers in our region and aid beginning farmers in their transition into agriculture. About 450 letters were sent out to LSP farmers and graduates of the Farm Beginnings program. The handbook is supposed to be completed in early March 2009 and will be given out by the Land Stewardship Project. The handbook will be specifically for the Driftless Region of farmers within a 100 mile radius of Winona, MN up and down the Mississippi River in a total of 13 Minnesota and Wisconsin counties.

    LSP duplicated the efforts we’ve done with the farmer survey and farmer meeting in this regionwith another region in western Minnesota called the Prairie Region. The Prairie region encompasses 12 counties of farms and farmers. A total of 120 letters were sent out to LSP members in this region to be included in publication of a Prairie Region farmer network handbook.

    Another meeting is scheduled in March 2009 at Winnona State University with Professor Bruno Borsari to address students and interested community members about the internship and employment opportunities with local farms. The Winona State University campus is focusing on “local foods” for its 2009-10 academic year which may help highlight future local connections between students and local food producers.

    If awareness about local foods work and experiential opportunities could be highlighted at this campus in a positive and fruitful way, it would be easy to adapt these presentations to other local campuses and perhaps connect other students to farms or at least educate them about the importance of local, healthy food choices. Perhaps it will one day be easier to find interns and employees for the farm who view farming as a career or lifestyle worth pursuing or at least worth experiencing for a time to better understand where their food comes from.

    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.