Often I am asked the question, “How did you get into farming?” I grew up in Westchester County, a Suburb of New York City. While my family ate healthy food I would not say that local, organic food was emphasized the way it is today. My memories of going to the farmers market with my dad and brothers are from recent years, not my childhood. Farms did not surround me and I did not know any farmers.
In this article you will find:
Part-Time Urban Farming Opportunities
Full-Time or Seasonal Farming Opportunities
Introduction. While my story may seem unique, it is a story that is becoming more universal. It is a story that speaks to the times that we live in and it is one worth sharing. It is worth sharing because it is both easy and hard to shift your life to meet the values and ideals that are important to you. As a thirty year old I decided to leave my job and pursue something that I felt passionate about. Starting to learn how to farm as an adult was both exciting, rejuvenating and challenging. Below, I have mapped out my journey of a farming education in hopes of giving other young (and old!) people the courage to follow a path that they believe in.
Acknowledge Privilege. I want to acknowledge a couple of things before we get into the nitty gritty. The journey I am sharing was done without college debt. This does not mean that if you have college debt you should stop reading, but it is something to acknowledge. I grew up in an upper/middle class family with economic and racial privileges. This gave me more economic freedoms as an adult. I think that often this privilege is not talked about in the context of farming apprenticeships and internships. That being said, I have tailored this article to speak to as many people as possible. I have met people from all walks of life in this journey and hope to provide as much insight as I can.
My Story. I was living in New York City when I first started to feel that I didn’t know how to truly sustain my community and myself. I felt disconnected from where the things that I needed to live were coming from. I felt helpless that I didn’t know how to grow food and I wasn’t quite sure where to start. I learned about Just Food, an organization in New York that hosts workshops and events, connecting growers, advocates and the public to educate them on growing food and the resources that exist in New York.
Even if you are not based near New York, they are a very inspiring organization.
I went to a free workshop and met tons of people and learned about organizations that were doing great things throughout the city. One of my favorites was BK Farms, a project in Brooklyn. I started volunteering there on Saturday’s and for the first time in my life I was digging beds and planting vegetables! I was hooked. Saturday mornings I would travel out to Crown Heights and meet high school students and teachers that were committed to improving their community through healthy living and food. Since that time, BK farms has expanded and is now offering an Urban farm training program for adults.
Another organization that was extremely helpful early on in my quest for knowledge about what was going on in the food movement was Hazon. They focus on food and environmental issues and the connection to Judaism. Green Thumb, a totally secular, city-government-funded project, which introduced me to all the community, gardens in NY.
Shortly after I started getting involved in farming in NYC I moved up to Boston, MA. I continued to work in a non-food related career as a union organizer, and on the side, continued learned more and more about growing my own food. I was soon growing peppers in a window box, and was hungry to learn more about farming.
As my desire to really want to learn how to farm increased I was met with a big decision: Do I leave my job and go learn how to farm? As a 30-year old women, the idea sounded both scary and exciting. As I said earlier, I had a little more financial freedom because I wasn’t in debt and had saved a little bit of money over the years. But changing careers is always scary, and when that new career is farming it is even scarier. Farming is hard and demanding work, often with little financial security. At a stage of life when many people are thinking about how to support a family, I was thinking about taking a great leap with little knowledge of what I was getting into.
In the end, I decided to take the risk and pursue something that would give me real world skills. I think it would have been completely possible to continue to get these skills while working another job, albeit slower, given the scarce time that a career leaves for pursuing other interests.
Part-Time Urban Farming Opportunities. Below are some organizations that have workshops or part time internships if you decide to go that route. There are also lots of farms that offer CSA programs where you can be a member and volunteer, or get a subsidize membership by volunteering. Again, I’m being sensitive to the fact that not everyone will quit his or her job--although I would recommend it! The world needs more people growing food.
Here is a small list of organizations that host volunteers. But just do a local search on the web for farms in your area.
- HSPS Farm or East NY Farms. If you are interested in the New York area definitely check them out. East NY Farms is focused on community education and food justice
- The Food Project. Based in Boston, MA, they are very established and do work with both urban and suburban youth, focused around food justice. They have some volunteer opportunities for adults.
- Drumlin Farms. Located just outside Boston, MA, Drumlin Farms is owned by the MA Audubon Society and focuses on education with lots of volunteer opportunities.
Thinking Money. The thing that I have learned, and am still learning, is how to shift my thinking around money. Coming from New York, where everything has a price, I had to start thinking about what benefits I was receiving which were not simply monetary. Getting free produce and eggs adds up—that was a good start to cutting my bills when I was volunteering and working on farms. Learning how to store and keep foods also helped reduce my expenses, HomeGrown is a great online forum to learn about food preservation. All of these things allowed me to eat, even without the same old paycheck, and also helped me get closer to living more self-sustainably.
Health insurances is a challenge. In Massachusetts, Mass Health (a government-subsidized healthcare option) is great, but other than that it is tough to find affordable health care.
Full-Time or Seasonal Farming Opportunities. You will be presented with many different options when you start your search. Paid farm internships are harder to find but do exist. Payment is usually in the form of a living stipend. In general, the thing to keep in mind with a paid internship is how much time is being allotted to your education, or are you more of a paid-employee with less commitment from your employer to teach you.
Questions to ask, may include: Do you have a curriculum for interns? What topics do you cover? What does a typical week look like on the farm? If there are three farm workers and a 200 member CSA, or if you’re going to markets 5 days a week, chances are there might not be time for formal teaching. A farmer’s best of intentions can easily fall short when there is a lot going on, so keep that in mind during your search.
The websites I have listed below are great places to look for internship opportunities in the Northeast:
- Maine Organic Farming Association. If you want to work up in Maine for the summer this is a great resource. You can search many different types of farms from education-based farms, to production, to homestead. There is a large directory and ample information.
- New England Small Farmer Institute has a lot of resources for a variety of different levels of experience. They provide mentorship and also have a database of farming opportunities, which lists some room and board apprenticeships.
- The CRAFT (western Mass and NY) and EMassCRAFT (Eastern Mass) collectives organize events on host farms, each focused on a particular farming practice or activity. Farms that are part of this network may be more excited about education for other farmers and their apprentices. So I would look through this list and call and visit farms and ask them about work opportunities. EMassCRAFT also has a very active list serve where farms advertise their opportunities in the Spring.
- Farm Fresh Rhode Island has a great network of farms in the RI and MA area. I found my job this past summer, on Langwater Farm, by looking through these farms and calling farmers. I went out and volunteered for a day or two and that’s how I found a place.
- NOFA Mass offers several levels of mentorship programs for beginning farmers. The advantage of a program like this is that NOFA works with the mentor farms and therefore you have some assurance of your educational experience when working with those farmers.
- WWOOF USA. Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms lists farming opportunities where your labor is exchanged for room and board. WWOOF not only offers farming opportunities in foreign countries, but also has a database of farms in the USA, which is searchable by region. If you WWOOF make sure to ask lots of questions about what kind of work you would be doing, how many hours are expected, and what the living conditions are like as farms can be hit or miss.
Living Situation. Something to keep in mind for all of these internships, paid or not, is that you are doing hard work. Farming is physically challenging work, if you are getting paid or not. Since you will be doing a lot of work, it is especially important that you make sure you are being compensated for your time, through education, housing, and food, if not money. It is important to find out what the living situation is. Sometimes interns stay in a farm house, old camper, tents, or there is not housing offered. Make sure you know what the housing situation is and that you feel comfortable with it. Your living situation can impact your internship experience as much as the farming, so put some time into thinking about and researching it. You should find out if there is a family, or communal living situation, and what responsibilities you have to the household such as chores etc... Some families want you to be a part of the household and some do not. At the first farm I worked and lived on, Rosasharn Farm, I learned a lot from being a part of the family for the summer. It not only taught me about farming but also gave me many sustainable living tools, from construction to canning skills. But you have to keep in mind that you are moving into someone’s home and at times it might not feel like what you signed up for—so make sure you get as much information as possible.
Programs. The last set of options I will talk about are programs that you pay for. I did the Santa Cruz program in Ecological Horticulture in California. As farming training programs become more and more popular it is easy to say, “why would I pay to learn how to farm when there are lots of free or even paid apprenticeships and internships?” After spending a summer living and working on a farm, I felt like I had a lot more to learn. Being a little bit older then the average intern, I also wanted to find an experience that could introduce me to many different types of farming in a short amount of time. I spent my fall and early winter visiting all different types of farms. Large farms, small ones; some sold at markets, others ran CSAs. What I found was that every farm was unique, and working on just one would give me a set of knowledge about that particular type of farming. I felt like I wanted to get a broader overview of farming and soil science and a deeper analysis of the food system. Although there were several farms that offered very good apprenticeships, I wanted something that was solely focused on education. Most of the education-programs still have a field work component. You will still have production pressures but you will also always be able to stop and ask questions and have structured class time, something that I valued tremendously. I gained confidence in my understanding and abilities through a structured education experience. I learned about many different kinds of farms, production practices, and crops. After completing the program I was in a better position to apply for farming jobs and education programs, in which I could get paid, something I didn’t feel qualified for before. I have listed several programs that I would recommend.
- The UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Apprenticeship program. This is the one-season program that I did and would highly recommend. If you have ever done Americorps you can use your education stipend towards this program. They also offer scholarships.
- University of Vermont Farmer Training Program. Started by alumni of the UCSC program (above), it is a similar program (also one season) based in Vermont. This program may be better if you plan to farm in New England. They offer some financial aid.
- Michigan State Organic Farmer Training Program. This program has a longer duration, giving you more experience with pre and post season. They also focus on season extension, which is a hot area of growth in small-farming.
- Farm School NYC. This is a relatively new program for people interested in urban farming.
- Farm School in Massachusetts. This is a yearlong program that is more in depth, intensive and expensive. I am less familiar with it but I have heard good things.
- Adamah Jewish Environmental Fellowship. If you identify as being Jewish and want a space to explore Judaism and farming, this is the place. It is a wonderful program with excellent staff.
GO VISIT! The more you know, the easier it is to choose a place that is right for you. Volunteer for a day and get to know the farmers! You spend a lot of time with the people you will be working and living with, it is worth investing the time to meet them in person, if you can. Also it is always nice to ask to talk to others that have worked on the farm to get another perspective on the experience.
In closing, it is important to recognize that there are 2-3 million farm workers in the United States many of which do not get to write blogs about their journey. Their stories are courageous and often not as much fun as some of the experiences I have shared or suggested. I am highlighting this because we must keep this in mind as we talk about opportunities in farming. 75% of farm workers today earn less than $10,000 annually, and often get paid piece rates which means getting paid for how productive and quickly they can work. Farm work is still one of the least respected jobs in our country exempting farm workers from many labor laws that exist.
I share this because it is the reality of the food system and something that I have grappled with from my introduction to farming as an intern on a picturesque farm in MA where we shared fresh meals and learned about the nitrogen cycle, to the Santa Cruz program where I was introduced to many farming systems, to the farm in Easton, MA where I now have a salaried position as a farmer. As your journey into growing food is an amazing exploration and discovery of the natural world that we live in, it can also be an window into the unjust systems of agriculture that still feed our world. I hope you continue to pursue and learn about both.
Holly Stein has spent the past two summers working at three different farms, Rosasharn, in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, Langwater Farm, in Easton, MA and The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems in Santa Cruz, CA. Prior to farming she worked as a union organizer in Boston and spent several years in New York working for a youth development organization called Project Morry. Holly will be working at Freedom Food Farm, in Johnston, RI this upcoming season. In the future Holly hopes to teach young people how to create farms in urban and suburban settings.