There has been a renewed interest in farming over the past decade, especially among young people. With the average age of farmers in this country over 55, there is a very real need for a new generation to enter the field if we want to continue to feed the ever growing US population. But outside of those that are born into the lifestyle, where do these aspiring farmers go to get the necessary training? While a few colleges and universities offer great degree programs in Agriculture, Horticulture and Animal Science, many with hands-on classes, the financial hurdle that goes along with higher education can often be a barrier, especially to those who don't plan to go into big Agribusiness professions. For those who simply want to learn to produce enough food for themselves and their family, or even earn a modest living off the land, this option isn't always practical. The alternative is to find on the job training in the form of an internship.
How to Choose an Internship
You need to decide on several factors when choosing the right internship. Where do you want to live? How long do you plan to stay? How hard do you want to work? What do you hope to learn? The list goes on and on. Here are just a few things to consider.
1. Type of Farm
Do you want to learn to grow vegetables, tend an orchard, milk goats or hatch chicks? Decide whatever interests you the most and find a farm that specializes in it. Or maybe you want a diverse experience so you can try out all different kinds of jobs before committing to just one enterprise. Farm Schools exist to provide classroom based education as well as hands on training. Consider how serious you are about farming - is this a career choice or simply full immersion agritourism. Some farms offer full apprenticeships, where you work side by side with farm managers to make operational decisions and carry out all aspects of running an agricultural business. I chose three very different internships before I felt ready to venture into this career for real.
Farming can take you just about anywhere you want to go. Many in fact use farm internships as a way to travel cheaply, earning a free place to stay and often food or a small stipend as well in exchange for their hard work. Maybe you want to stay close to family and friends instead. Many rural towns are remotely located, so if having amenities close by is important you should do some research on the surrounding areas first. I chose places based on two factors: 1) areas of great natural beauty that I could likely not afford otherwise, and 2) areas similar to the climate or environmental conditions in which I imagined myself farming in the future.
3. Terms of the Contract
Typically you will have to sign a contract detailing the terms of your employment. Read this over carefully and discuss any potential issues before agreeing to anything. Decide how long you can remain on the job. Some last as little as three months, while others will expect at least a year commitment. Think about the number of hours you are willing to put in. If you are hoping to do some sightseeing on the weekends, keep in mind that farming is a round the clock, year round lifestyle and that time off should be agreed upon well in advance. If you are hoping to bring pets or children with you, your choices may be more limited. Make sure these things are okayed with your new landlord/employer before arriving.
How to Find Internships
1. Search the Web
As you might expect, the internet is one of the best resources for connecting farmers with potential interns. Here are a few of the best ones to start your search:
ATTRA - A National Sustainable Agriculture Assistance Program, developed and managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). This national database is free to use and can be searched by location, keyword or farm name. Opportunities posted here tend to be more educational in nature, posted by farms with a genuine desire to pass on knowledge, not just find cheap labor. The website also has a plethora of other resources for learning about sustainable agriculture, from new technology to financial assistance.
WWOOF - World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Designed more for those who want to travel abroad affordably, farms all over the world offer a place to stay in exchange for work. Accommodations range from a patch of ground you can pitch a tent on to private rooms in luxurious plantation homes. Typically these positions are less about teaching and more about cheap manual labor, but that doesn't mean you can't still find a great opportunity to learn here as well.
Backdoorjobs.com - This site advertises "Short-term Job Adventures" of all kinds, and does have a decent section focused on farming. Ads feature photos and lots of information, great to just scroll through if you are unsure of exactly what sort of position you are looking for.
2. Talk to Local Farmers
Visit your local Farmers' Market and talk to vendors. Chances are that at least some of the people standing behind plastic tables covered with delectable vegetables are interns that helped grow those vegetables on those farms. Strike up a conversation and ask people about their experiences. Both the USDA and Local Harvest websites offer a national directory of farmers markets.
Drop in on a Meeting. In rural areas there are often community groups that unite farmers and exist as a forum for the sharing of ideas and resources. These are typically open and welcoming to non-members in search of information. Ask around at the local feed store or stop by your local USDA extension office and you're sure to find such an organization.
Attend events such as Agricultural Fairs or Local Farm Tours. What better way to spend a summer weekend with the family than pigging out on giant turkey legs and funnel cakes while watching piglets race? Or if fried food isn't your thing, try strolling through magnificent gardens and petting baby lambs on some of your area's most scenic farms. Both of these interactions can lead to training opportunities if you inquire.
What to Expect
1. Hard Work and Long Hours
While we like to imagine the rural life as one of idyllic summer days spent outside picking berries or snuggling baby animals in rustic red barns atop lush green grassy hills, the reality is that it takes an enormous amount of labor to maintain those picturesque landscapes. Many farmers put in 60+ hours a week working the land, and its not uncommon for them to have off farm jobs on the side as well. Its not an easy profession to be profitable at, nor is any of it easy. Often times the job will test your physical limits, under whatever weather conditions nature decides to throw at you that particular day. Crops need to be tended and animals need to be fed, no matter how tired or worn out you feel.
2. Little Pay
You might think that if you are working a ton of hours that you might be taking home a sizable paycheck, but that is rarely the case in any farm position, let alone ones for unskilled labor. Some pay interns more in room and board, providing delicious prepared meals or at least a share in the bounty of the farm. Others offer a cash stipend, usually between $200 - $500 per month, just enough to cover some basic expenses during your stay. There may be opportunities to make a bit more by working farmers' market booths or special events, but likely for minimum wage at best. Occasionally an apprenticeship will include a small plot of land and limited resources for developing a side enterprise for earning some extra cash, but this also takes time and effort.
3. The Rewards
Now that I've told you the not-so-fun stuff, here's the silver lining. A farm internship is great for your health and well being! You get to be outside all day soaking up the suns rays, breathing fresh air and taking in the beauty of nature. All this helps to crank up your Vitamin D production, raise your serotonin levels and regulate your sleep cycles. Eating fresh, whole food can provide all the nutrients many modern diets are lacking, doing wonders for your overall health. The physical labor is like getting a full body workout every day, without ever having to go to the gym. You will see your waistline shrink and your muscles grow in no time. Rural communities also tend to be tight knit, so you will inevitably meet lots of like minded individuals with which to make friends. All the while you will be soaking up knowledge and learning new skills that can be used to get a job in the field or grow your own food. It can be an immensely rewarding and enlightening experience that just about anyone could benefit from.
How to Prepare
1. Get Your Finances in Order
Plan ahead! Try to pay off all debts and reduce monthly bills to a bare minimum. Since having a smart phone is virtually a necessity in an profession these days, it should be no surprise that you should plan to continue to pay that bill during your internship. If you have a car, make sure to pay off any loans on it, consider pre-paying for insurance, and factor in gas and routine maintenance into your budget. Having a bit of savings in the bank is always a good idea, but when in the middle of a low paying internship it can be an extra nice cushion to have, and possibly allow you to have a little fun with fellow interns on your days off.
2. Simplify Your Life / Make Arrangements
Do you own a home, have a pet, or hold a crucial position in your current career? Again, plan ahead! Let your employer know with an appropriate amount of notice, especially if you are planning on taking a three month hiatus to explore farming and then potentially returning to your old job. Ask a good friend to take care of your dog while you are away, or look for an internship that allows you to bring Fido along with you. Time the start of your internships around the end of your lease if renting, or make arrangements for someone to rent and/or look after your house if you are a homeowner. Consider selling or donating any unnecessary material possessions, especially large items like furniture or TVs. While renting a storage unit is another option, remember that will mean one more monthly bill to worry about. When I embarked on my first internship, I limited my personal belongings to what fit into my Honda Civic (and that included one chocolate lab named Buckley) and sold almost everything else.
3. Other Considerations
If traveling abroad for your internship, don't forget that your passport must be valid for at least 6 more months if you intend to leave the country. Also check with the destination country's immigration office regarding any work permits or special Visa's needed to live and work there.
Farming is considered one of the most dangerous professions, so you may want to pre-pay for your medical insurance during your internship. Most farms simply cannot afford to offer benefit packages to even their full time skilled laborers. Don't expect any financial help if you get hurt rounding up cattle or hauling heavy boxes of produce in from the fields on harvest day.
While it won't take long for you to develop strength just in carrying out your day-to-day farm chores, you might consider getting in better shape before embarking on your adventure. You will at a bare minimum have to be able to carry 50 lbs (standard for a bag of feed), squat, kneel or crawl for long periods of time while gardening, and likely walk miles a day just to get around the property. You may even have to run after the occasional rogue animal that decides to jump over a fence!
Most importantly, remember to have fun! Take time to enjoy the simple lifestyle, embrace the practices that brought the rise of human civilization, reconnect with nature and heal your body inside and out. Eat a tomato right off the vine, help a newborn lamb find it's mother's milk, or build a mobile chicken coop. Try not to think of it as a crummy paying job, but more of a valuable hands-on education that makes you fitter and you get paid to do it. Make the most of the unique experiences presented to you and acquire the skills and knowledge you desire. I did three internships before I felt ready to buy my own farm. I would be more than happy to answer any question you might have about farming internships in general or about my personal experience.
Thanks for reading!