Offering Farm Internships

Margiana Petersen-Rockney
Rosasharn Farm, Pasture To Plate, BFN

At the BFN Mass 2012 fall forum the topic of farm interns and apprentices came up during the round table discussion. Many farmers, once established on a piece of land, need help with daily or seasonal farm work. There are different labor structure options. The one I am going to address here is the exchange of an agricultural education for labor, otherwise known as an internship/apprenticeship.


Basic Offerings

An Education


Nearly five years ago I leased five acres of land and started Rosasharn Farm CSA, a vegetable CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and pastured meat operation. With little capital to think of paying for labor, I asked myself, “what else can I give people?” The answer was an education. With so much enthusiasm and opportunity for sustainable agriculture there are many people interested in learning about farming. Offering internships is a great way to create a win-win situation for the farmer and the intern, as long as the arrangement is well planned and practiced.

Some people may distinguish between an internship and an apprenticeship. For the sake of this article however, they are variations on the same idea and I will use the term internship to cover both. Someone who works for free part-time on the farm is generally a volunteer, while someone paid outright (without expectations of an education or room/board) is an employee.

Having interns can be wonderful and fulfilling. I love working alongside the diverse interns who bring their enthusiasm, experiences, skills and interests to the farm. Interns are excited to learn and ask lots of questions. Interns come from all backgrounds, but the experience of working on a farm will be a life-changing one no matter what. Farm Commons has some wonderful resources on creating farm internships.

At its core an internship is, and should be, a learning experience. As a farmer thinking about establishing an internship program keep this in mind. It is important not to view interns as cheap or free labor, but rather as students who may become future farmers. If you offer internships you become not only a farmer, but also a teacher, a mentor, and a guide. If you are thinking about developing an internship program be ready to take on this role. Also know that managing a successful internship program takes time, work, and energy and is not necessarily easy. If this is not for you, there are other more efficient labor options, such as more traditional employees.

Internships provide an education. Some provide housing, some don’t. Some provide a stipend, some don’t. The logistics of the internship you set up will depend on the resources you have available on your farm. It is ideal to offer both housing and a stipend, but as a rule of thumb, if you can’t offer one, you should offer the other. For example, on my farm when I first established the internship program I had little spare cash, but I did have a farmhouse and therefore offered room and board, but no stipend.

Basic offerings:

Housing: If you have a house on the farm with real bedrooms that may be ideal for some interns. Other on-farm housing options include old campers, tents or yurts on platforms, and camping tents. All these options can work well. If you can, it is nice to offer potential interns their choice of living situation. I have had interns in the past who prefer spending the summer in a tent where they can sleep under the stars to living in a busy farmhouse. Some farms offer off-farm housing such as an apartment or house in town. This can work as long as interns have transportation to and from the farm. 

Food: Pretty much all farms offer their interns food raised on the farm. Many offer a kitchen space or even communally prepared meals. Some cover all food needs, including purchased food (not produced on the farm). On Rosasharn Farm we provided all food seven days a week, with breakfast on your own and lunch and dinner prepared and eaten communally five days a week. We calculated spending about $10 per person per week on purchased food (such as pasta, peanut butter, and flour).

Amenities: There are some essential amenities you must provide for interns such as a bathroom. On my farm we decreased the strain on our septic tank by installing an outdoor shower with a gray water system. Building an outhouse with composting toilet is also a great idea. It is nice, though not strictly necessary, to provide interns with Internet, laundry facilities, and other basic amenities a house may have.

Transportation: Some interns will have bikes or even cars so think of where they can store those while on the farm. Others may not have a form of transportation. It is important to ensure that everyone has the ability to come and go from the farm. Over the years I have learned that interns who make a point to get off the farm once in a while are happier and more fulfilled by their experience. Think of keeping a few extra bikes around the farm, or offering rides into town for those interns who do not have their own transportation.

Stipends: When determining a stipend it is important to consider the living expenses of the intern while they are working with you. If you provide the above, their living expenses should be relatively small and you can therefore offer less, or even no, money. If, however, you do not offer all of the above you need to provide a stipend to cover the costs of those services in your area. Many college students (the largest summer intern pool) have the ability to work and learn for a few months without putting money in the bank, but they generally cannot afford to spend money on living expenses if they are not getting paid. The law regarding minimum wage for farm interns varies state to state. In general everyone must be paid minimum wage for their labor, except when there is a strong educational component to the program, i.e. a good internship focused on learning. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (US Dept. of Labor), an internship does not need to be paid if the following requirements are met:

  • The internship is similar to training in an educational setting.
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  • The employer/mentor does not receive immediate benefit, perhaps operations are even impeded by presence of intern.
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of internship.
  • The employer and intern understand that the internship is unpaid.

Liability insurance and workers comp: Make sure your farm has comprehensive liability insurance that would cover injury of a farm visitor or employee. It is also important to have workers comp, which protects the farmer from lawsuit in the case of intern/employee injury on the farm. It is very important to have the appropriate insurance just in case something happens. You should have liability insurance to cover injury of visitors, volunteers etc… even if you are not offering internships. If you offer internships or have other employees you should have workers comp too. You can draw up a volunteer agreement that interns sign to dissuade potential lawsuits, but how much such an agreement would actually cover you is questionable. Almost everything you need to know about the legalities of setting up an internship program, liability insurance, and workers comp can be found at Farm CommonsFarm Family Insurance is a company that deals with farm insurance and can help you choose the right policy. We ask that all of our interns carry their own health insurance. The UMass Extension Service has resources on farm labor laws in MA.

An education:

Learning: Interns come to learn. As a farmer and mentor you should encourage them to ask questions. You can make the hands-on farm work educational by explaining the big picture. Instead of just telling your interns to spread that compost and weed those carrots, explain how those actions are connected to the whole system. Show them how you do tasks, but also encourage them to think of their own methods and ideas. You will be surprised at the great ideas that come from fresh eyes and minds. Emphasize the importance of time management and task efficiency, but also take the time to communicate and teach. Don’t be afraid to stop tasks and gather everyone in the field for a minute to point out an interesting insect. These lessons will improve everyone’s quality of work and investment in the farm.

Selecting Interns: You can advertise for interns on several websites and databases. The most widely used is ATTRA, some other good ones are Good Food JobsBeginning Farmers and NOFA Mass for a local listing. I offered three internship spots each summer and fall (three months for each season) and routinely received over 20 applicants. Over the seasons I refined my selection process to:

  • Receive cover letter and resume from 20 or so applicants by March 1st
  • Choose the best 8-10 to interview, in person if possible or on the phone. Prior to interview send them the contract to review.
  • Contact references for the 4-5 most promising.
  • Use all this information to create a team of three interns that will work well together. Notify them by April 1st. Sign contract.
  • Internship on farm Begins June 1st.

Contract: Before your interns even arrive have a plan, draft a contract. At Rosasharn Farm we sent all prospective interns a sample contract before we even interviewed them. Once selected, interns were asked to sign the contract, which included:

  • Outline of expectations of interns and what is provided in exchange. This should be specific. Include dates, numbers, hours, example activities and tasks, and expectations of proper conduct (such as no drugs, respect for others at all times etc…)
  • Explicitly stated that their first week on the farm would be a trial period.
  • A weekly schedule with clearly marked work hours, breaks, class time, meeting time, etc…
  • A list of sample daily activities and a preview of an average day.

Developing a curriculum: The education that you offer to interns in exchange for their work and dedication does not have to be formal, but I would strongly recommend that you do create an educational plan, or curriculum. MOFGA has some resources on curriculum development, but the best thing to do is ask farmers who already offer internships what they offer. You can email me for more information on my curriculum. On Rosasharn Farm I developed a three month long curriculum (the length of a college semester and my internships). The curriculum included:

  • A syllabus outlining classes. There were 13 classes, one two hour class each week. The syllabus began with an overview of the food system, then covered business, science, specific practices, food and cooking, and the politics of food. Under each theme were several classes. Each class had a description of the class goals, discussion questions, the reading assignments for that week (usually 3-4 articles or book chapters), and any project assignments due. 
  • A book list. On the farm we had one copy of each book and article assigned on the syllabus. We also encouraged interns to begin collecting their own farming library.
  • Field trips. Every other week we had a field trip to another farm in the area. This allowed the interns (and myself) to get off our own farm and share ideas with other farmers.
  • Season-long projects. Interns had the option to take on more responsibility for specific projects or aspects of the farm. For example, one intern took over the management of the 150 laying hens, another helped manage restaurant sales and call chefs, another oversaw the high tunnel for the summer. Being in charge of a specific project helped interns feel responsible, accountable, trusted, and part of a team.

Social cohesion: During the season a lot of energy can go towards creating a good social atmosphere. Farming involves spending long periods of time with each other and it is important that the team can work well together. Some tips include:

  • Do fun things! Go on field trips as a group, have shared mealtimes, take a vacation day to the beach.
  • Facilitate healthy communication. Every week we had group meetings where people were encouraged to bring up any issues or concerns in a safe and respectful environment. We also encouraged people to share highlights of the week or say nice things. Additionally, I conducted bi-weekly one-on-one check-ins with each intern. This was a time for honest feedback, of both positives and deltas (things that should change).
  • Adjust the program. There is a steep learning curve for both the intern and the farmer. Each of the four seasons I offered internship positions I learned a great deal and adjusted the program accordingly. Ask for feedback, listen to it, and make changes throughout the season.

Moving on: A common progression is for interns to fill longer-term positions on the farm once they have learned the ropes and become part of the team. Almost every season an intern from the year before became my assistant manager. If your interns want to move on in the world of farming, help them find other programs, internships and opportunities in sustainable agriculture. They should be able to ask for, and receive, letters of recommendation and advise from you into the future of their farming careers.

Margiana grew up on a dairy goat farm in Rehoboth, M.A., where she was homeschooled until going to Brown University. In college she studied geology and biology with a focus on nutrient cycling. While still a full time student she began leasing and farming five acres- Rosasharn Farm CSA. The farm grew to include a 50 family vegetable CSA, pastured hogs, chickens, and lots of educational programming, including internships. Now Margiana is working with BFN, continuing to direct the Young Farmer Night Series in MA/CT/RI, and developing a certified mobile kitchen, Pasture To Plate, to allow farmers to host on farm dinners and add value to raw farm products and services.