The Keenans were up to their elbows in infrastructure projects, animal husbandry, and a burgeoning farmstay business, and needed help in a bad way. Balancing a post and beam, lime plaster home construction project against caretaking goats and chickens, while juggling four human kids to boot, left the Keenans with little time for their personal lives. So, the family turned to the outside world for help.
As a recent college grad excited about farming, I responded to their advertisement, and soon found my way to the delightful Keenan homestead. For eight hours a day (tea breaks aside - we were in The Wirral, afterall), I helped the Keenans build their future home, steward their livestock, and even watched their children. In return, the Keenans did not pay me, though I received a trailer for housing, plus three square meals each day (and tea - don’t forget the tea).
Free Labor is Invaluable
At this point, many fair-minded farmers question such an arrangement for hard-working members of their team. Others, including Joel Salatin, co-owner of Polyface Farm, who weighed in on this subject, understand that farm internships are mutually beneficial. As Joel explains, “We invest a lot in these young people and ask a lot in return.”
Despite the lack of dollars involved in the transaction, from an intern’s perspective, internships are an invaluable experience. Sure, interns work for free - but, though I didn’t earn money from the Keenans, I gained a life experience worth writing about more than a decade later.
Don’t pity the intern: a WWOOF-member olive orchard by the Aegean
If not money, what did I receive from the Keenans? I developed carpentry, bottle feeding, and cooking skills. Plus, the couple was kind enough to share with me their balance sheet, giving me a foundation for accounting skills.
For the farmer, interns bring relief in a number of ways. Because farming is often an isolating craft, interns from around the country and globe are a breath of fresh air. On the practical side, they are an extra set of hands on-call to assist with the varied challenges that may arise on any given day, whether the farm specializes in cultivation, grazing, or another niche.
How to Find Farm Interns
Once a farmer comes around to the idea of bringing (unpaid) help onto the farm, it’s time to figure out where and how to find an intern. Thankfully, there are a number of institutions that make this a smooth, painless process.
ATTRA’s directory, in use since 1989, is organized visually with a map of the US and Canada, easy to navigate, and conveys all of the important details an intern should know about your farm prior to applying for an internship. For $5, farmers can list on ATTRA their farm’s address, contact info, and website, the season when work is available, work responsibilities, and what is offered to interns in exchange for their labor.
With each opportunity receiving its very own blog post on the website’s front page, this platform is an ideal place to showcase the unique learning opportunity your farm offers. To list on BeginningFarmers.org, your internship description must include a photo, and contain at least 300 words, among a few other reasonable requests.
Interspersed between hostels and B&Bs, this platform boasts a number of family farm hosts. One of the best benefits of listing your farm for free on Helpx.net is that it attracts a wide range of visitors, not just those from the United States.
Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) requests a $20-50 contribution to set up a USA host description. Though restricted to organic farms, the upshot here is that WWOOF is an almost 50 year-old organization with international recognition.
Schools are also a fantastic place to list your formal learning opportunities; Auburn University keeps an updated internship list, and Oregon State University encourages you to “Recruit at OSU.” Many students are eager for hands-on experiences, especially during their free (and your extremely busy) summers.
The platform which best serves a farmer in sourcing an intern depends on factors such as geographical location, work offered/needed, and desired candidate qualities. No matter how a farmer sources their intern, one thing is clear: interns and farming operations bring immense value to one another.
What (and What Not) to Offer
For the past 22 years, from May 1st to September 30th, Polyface Farm has hosted a team of 10 interns, three apprentices, and a farm chef. Polyface Farm offers interns a variety of learning experiences while participating in the management of 650 owned acres, plus 1,200 leased acres spread across 10 parcels. That land supports “just under 1,000 head of cattle, about 5,000 laying hens, 600 hogs per year, 20,000 broilers, and 2,000 turkeys.”
For the size and complexity of Polyface’s internship program, its recruitment strategy is deceptively simple. Rather than use any of the above-mentioned platforms, which have “stipulations about pay, work hours, etc. that interfere with our immersion experience,” explains Joel, “We list it on our website.” After that point, however, the process is a bit more intensive.
Over the years, Polyface has refined its internship program, from recruitment through retention. For starters, applications are only accepted during a 10-day period - no exceptions. From there, vetting and voting is conducted dialogue-free by Salatin family members only, behind closed doors. Candidates who proceed to the next round are invited for a two-day checkout. Then, current staff select a “dream team” of 10 from the pool of 40, using a system “designed to minimize argument and incentivize consensus.”
The program itself has expanded to include May, so that interns “get here before the real crunch of the season sets in, so they get hardened up to the workload.” This approach has “really reduced early sickness from fatigue.”
Finally, Joel and Polyface also have several “no-gos” for interns:
We do not take couples.
We do not let anyone live off-farm.
We allow no overnight visitors on site, even family.
Adding Value to the Farm Internship
Finding an intern is a surprisingly simple process, though providing value, and the proper structure necessary to support a learning environment, does take significant effort on behalf of the farmer.
Once you have sourced your intern, ways to enhance the value to the intern is by showcasing a bit of local culture, history, and natural beauty. If your intern is from abroad, consider including them in family and religious holidays. Be sure to question your incoming intern as to their educational aspirations, and prepare to teach them at least one skill they are motivated to learn.
Likewise, encourage your intern to bring a musical instrument, hobby, games, or even just stories from wherever they hail from. This will enrich life on the farm beyond having an extra set of hands to do your bidding.
At the same time, don’t be shy to state clearly precisely what you need help with on the farm, even if it’s not always what the intern wants to learn about. Setting clear expectations from the outset will set the internship up for success.
Successfully navigating the dynamics of a farm internship is not always easy, but it will be immensely rewarding. When in doubt about how to offer an agricultural internship that is mutually beneficial, ask fellow farmers for advice.
Greg Heilers interned at market gardens and grassfed livestock operations across the US, Europe, and the Middle East. He freelance writes for B2C and B2B audiences: gpheilers.com