The human cost of food: Sustaining farm labor using alternative labor practices on diversified farms in Pennsylvania

2012 Annual Report for GNE12-050

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2012: $4,042.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Grant Recipient: Pennsylvania State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Carolyn Sachs
Pennsylvania State University

The human cost of food: Sustaining farm labor using alternative labor practices on diversified farms in Pennsylvania


This research examines the role that farm internships and apprenticeships play in the lives of people wanting to grow food sustainably, and the impact of this experience on interns’ future vocations and participation in alternative food systems. 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 economic and social implications that internships have within sustainable agriculture and the impact that interns and apprentices impart on food produced in the alternative food system. These questions are lived daily by interns and apprentices in the Northeastern region of the U.S. and their work growing food and cultivating skills drives this research. The project is designed to capture the voice of interns and apprentices who offer a unique perspective on sustainable labor practices not documented in the literature. The mixed-methods approach is appropriate to exploring the personal characteristics of interns and apprentices, their intentions for participating in internships or apprenticeships and their experiences in sustainable agriculture. This research is based on fieldwork and a survey focused on the sustainable agricultural community of Pennsylvania and the Northeastern U.S. To date, we have conducted 20 in-depth interviews with former or current interns and apprentices in Pennsylvania. Seven interns throughout Pennsylvania kept a farm diary for 14 work days in October, 2012 to document the daily tasks and quality of life of interns in the state. A websurvey disseminated throughout the Northeast region has been completed by 111 persons, and the research team has four focus groups scheduled for January – March 2013 in different states within the SARE Northeast Region.

Objectives/Performance Targets

As this research is on-going, meeting the objectives identified in the original grant proposal should be considered in process. Listed below are the data collection methods which are being employed to address the primary research goals.

Objective 1:
Investigate, document and analyze the role of farm internships/apprenticeships in teaching sustainable farm practices to the next generation of farmers.
-A websurvey, designed from previous literature and course curriculum drawn from formal sustainable agriculture programs is being disseminated throughout the NE SARE region. The survey is currently live and thus far has received 111 responses. Current and former interns and apprentices in this region are prompted with questions about the training they receive, their motivations for learning to farm and implications of their internship or apprenticeship on their future in farming.
-A survey guide was developed with intern and apprentice supervisors, and former interns and apprentices regarding appropriate training and education goals for internships and apprenticeships. The type of training and skills that participants receive on farms is one of five topical sections of the interview. The principal investigator has conducted 20 of these in-depth interviews with another 10 interviews scheduled during January, 2013.
-7 farm interns completed farm diaries for 14-work days on the tasks they completed, who was present during their work and asked to reflect on these experiences after each day.

Objective 2:
Assess how the internship/apprentice model provides an alternative to traditional labor practices by making internships/apprenticeships economically viable for participants
-A quantitative survey is completed by interview participants that collect information on financial resources available to them and compensation during the internship or apprenticeship program.
-During in-depth interviews interns and apprentices are asked to describe the financial resources which allow them to work on a farm for minimal pay, the compensation that he or she receives in exchange for labor (including wage or stipend remuneration), and the financial position of participants after their experience and implications for future farming.
-Focus groups conducted in January – March 2013 will encourage interns and apprentices to examine their contribution as low-paid labor to a burgeoning fair food system and their future in farming related to their economic.

Objective 3
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
-During in-depth interviews, interns and apprentices are asked to describe their quality of life while working on the farm, their relationship with supervisors and the farm community.
-Focus groups conducted in January – March 2013 will provide opportunity for interns and apprentices to identify experiences and circumstances during their internship or apprenticeship that supported socially justice practice or were exploitive and/or exclusionary. This information will be compiled, analyzed and presented in a best-practices document made available to farms and farm organizations.


During the first phase of the study, 20 (still interviewing) in-depth interviews were conducted with women and men who are working as farm interns or apprentices in Pennsylvania, or who previously worked as an intern or apprentice since 2009. Interview participants were initially recruited through farms soliciting interns and apprentices during the 2012 growing season. A list of 106 sustainable farms seeking interns or apprentices 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. A standardized message introduced the study and petitioned farmers to distribute a standard recruitment letter to interns or apprentices currently working, or who had worked, on the farm since the 2009 growing season. The email message included a link to an online survey; embedded in the survey was a question that sought the participation of interns who worked in Pennsylvania for an in-depth. Included in the recruitment letter sent to farmers was contact information for the research team. Personal phone calls were made to each farm one week after the email was sent (July 2012); in the last week of October a second round of calls was made to farms who had not responded to the email or who had yet to be represented in the study. Following the first round of emails to specific farms, the recruitment letter was electronically circulated by two Pennsylvania agricultural organizations (the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network (PA-WAgN). Research recruitment took much more time than anticipated; the response rate from farms proved challenging and success in finding interns and apprentices has come slowly through local networks. The websurvey remains active with 111 participants thus far, of which several have been interviewed.

The research team recruited 8 interns or apprentices working on Pennsylvania farms in 2009. These individuals were selected based on the farm location, the number of hours the intern or apprentice worked on the farm and remuneration package. The data collection instrument solicited information on living conditions during the internship and apprenticeship experience, and the type of work that interns perform on sustainable farms. Farm journal participants were screened and then provided explicit dictions on how to record their daily tasks, who they performed these with, where and with what outcomes. In addition, diary participants also wrote short reflections on their motivations, what they learned and observations on sustainable agriculture related to their work.

Outreach to recruit interns and apprentices proved more difficult than anticipated. The poor response rate from farms who solicit interns and apprentices to our emails and phone calls required a labor-intensive search process that has been slow. As such, the focus groups which were scheduled to be held in the fall were moved to the winter to allow more recruitment time. Despite the slow start, the coverage that the study has achieved geographically is notable. Interview participants from Pennsylvania represent different farms and areas in the state. The farm journals also reflect the diversity of sustainable agriculture in regards to product, marketing style and geographic location in Pennsylvania. The goal of this next research phase is to translate these successes into recruiting participants for the focus groups. More effort will also be placed in disseminating the websurey in the NE SARE states through sustainable farm organizations and networks.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

The response to this research has been overwhelmingly positive from both the individual and organizational level. To date, three institutions in the NE SARE region have asked to collaborate on publications following the data analysis phase of the research. There seems to be genuine interest in examining the effectiveness and impact of internships and apprenticeships from the worker perspective as this has yet to be done. The majority of publications that speak to this issue are guides for farmers, outlining on-farm curriculum and farm management suggestions. At the community level, the experiences of interns as both a labor force and cohort of new farmers will inform best-practices publications that hopefully will be useful to those who oversee on-farm mentoring programs.

Interns and apprentices themselves have enthusiastically endorsed this research. In nearly every interview thus far, participants express gratitude for the opportunity to discuss the positive and negative consequences of their experiences on their personal lives and within the greater alternative food system. The goal of the study is to return the collected data to those who participate (farm journals have already been returned and a third of those interviewed have also been provided transcripts of their interview) to instigate further reflection, and involve these women and men in future efforts to make this research relevant. Interns and apprentices have requested that the findings be available to others searching for training on farms to address the dearth of information on what to look for in an internship or apprenticeship, how to advocate for better treatment and the potential outcomes of dedicating oneself as a worker in sustainable agriculture.

Within food systems research, little has been published on this form of on-farm mentoring. To date, no studies have looked at the demographic characteristics of interns and apprentices, nor collected empirical data on the experience and potential trajectory of these persons from their perspective. The study is therefore a novel contribution to the sociology of agriculture field, and transcends into sociology of economics and small-farm labor practices. The research has garnered attention from scholars who research sustainable agriculture as a potentially important topic with many implications for future studies on the availability of farm labor in sustainable agriculture, the gap between farm work and farm ownership, the intersection of identity and social characteristics and sustainable agriculture (gender, race, class), and many other topics implicated in this study.


Stephanie Bailey

[email protected]
Research assistant
440 Pike Street
State College, PA 16801
Office Phone: 9044039192
Katie Mann

[email protected]
Research assistant
218 Pine Tree Ave
Boalsburg, PA 16827
Office Phone: 8142033415
Dr. Carolyn Sachs

[email protected]
Armsby Building
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 8148638641