Building a Successful Apprenticeship Program at your Farm

Don Zasada
Caretaker Farm

The apprentice program at Caretaker Farm started in the 70’s under the direction of previous farmers who were part of the back-to-the-land movement, where individuals from all over the world participated in the exciting world of growing their own food on a small scale.  In mid-1995, Caretaker Farm formed an apprentice training program called CRAFT that broadened the apprentice learning experience to encompass methods used by other local farms.  Don's family began to manage the apprenticeship program at Caretaker Farm in 2005. The apprenticeships are publicized  through ATTRA, NOFA, and word of mouth, such that 70-80 applications are received annually.

Every year Don continues to tweak the structure of the apprenticeship to better serve the apprentices, the farm, the farming family, and the farm members. Apprentice responsibilities include assisting in all of the daily farm tasks as well as rotating through various management opportunities with the greenhouses, animals, volunteers, and CSA distribution.  Education includes full immersion into the inner workings of a small-scale family farm, from soil preparation and greenhouse propagation, to weed control and harvesting. A vast amount of education is derived from the active participation in all the farming systems throughout the season. Don also shares all the farm planning materials and budgets developed over the winter, provide weekly farm tours, share literary resources, distribute weekly farm management information, teach fall workshops specific to the interests of the apprentices, facilitate monthly feedback sessions on both field work and community life, and provide support as apprentices develop the dreams of their farming future.

The depth of the experience is aided by constant dialog to give apprentices a macro view of all decisions.  In the 16 years of supervising apprentices, Don has found that there are two educational tools that have been essential in providing a rich experience:  the honest feedback of how the apprentices are doing on their quest to become future farmers, and the practice of “framing” every task to understand why the task is being performed, not simply how to do it.  Don's family meets with apprentices once a month to share their progress and they can improve, all within the framework of supporting them to become future farmers.   During the morning meeting while going over the work of the week or the day, Don makes it a point to explain how that work is placed specifically at that time and related to the overall mission of the farm.  The hope is to allow apprentices to step back and view the farm not just as a few items to cross off each day on a task list, but rather as the weaving of various systems, each begging for priority at the whim of the weather, labor situations, needs of the land, and expectations of the farm members. The program's intent is to help apprentices enter into that type of thinking while giving them input about how to improve at the myriad of situations that arise in a given season.

Hiring apprentices is a commitment to education.  Don does not believe it is a cheaper option than hiring hourly workers, considering all the time and effort that goes into the overall apprentice experience.  The program has found that the best apprenticeships are those that begin with motivated individuals that see themselves as responsible for their education, coupled with farms that can provide a foundation for their learning.  A resource that many will find helpful is The On-Farm Mentor’s Guide from the New England Small Farm Institute.

The mission of Caretaker farm is to provide nourishment to all who come in contact with the farm. To learn more, visit