on compensation for small farm apprentices
February 12, 2012 6:37 AM   Subscribe

This is an interesting discussion. It reflects on a broader phenomenon where folks doing socially or environmentally good work are expected to do so for less compensation, apparently because doing good is part of the reward. I hope it is part of a broader trend to bring things into a better alignment.
posted by meinvt at 6:54 AM on February 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

So internships at farms are underpaid in the same way internships everywhere else are, and for the same reasons.

I actually had no idea there were apprenticeships for farmers. I am intrigued by this, and now I want to read all the farm bloggers.
posted by jeather at 7:31 AM on February 12, 2012

Some good points in that article. I like their proposed solutions as well.
posted by Horatius at 7:34 AM on February 12, 2012

I'd really like to see some statistics, maybe gathered through WWOOF or Help X-Change, on relating previous work experience, worker attrition rate, and job compensation.

It seems like most positions available through places like Help X-Change are unpaid, and further, that many or even most of them will take workers with little or no previous farm experience.

I wonder if that's because they can't afford the experienced workers who would expect pay, or if there just aren't experienced workers around, or what?
posted by edguardo at 7:37 AM on February 12, 2012

Wow. Strange to see an article that hits really close to home. I am currently in my last few months of a two year apprenticeship program here in Japan. Really want to comment more, but I am falling asleep...will have another read of the article in the morning.
posted by snwod at 8:08 AM on February 12, 2012

Replace the word ‘apprentices’ with ‘”Mexican Illegals’ and you’ve got the same argument being made by many large-scale veggie growers in Florida right now.


I have a colleague, incidentally, who believes that if your business plan is absolutely dependent on having an apprentice, you probably shouldn’t have one, because it almost ensures an exploitive situation.

Quoted for truth. There aren't too many profit-generating ventures that should have any kind of intern or apprentice program (or release from any labor laws), because this is a recipe for exploitation. It doesn't take any great degree of perception or intelligence to realize that whether you are exploiting idealism or desperation, it's bad for the worker, bad for the community, and, even, bad for the boss.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:11 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Considering the value of the education involved, I felt like my experiences with WWOOFing (for room and board) and the low paying positions that followed through networking, were well worth it. I was on a similar budget to most of my peers in university who weren't working and were without parental support. I simply learned how to live on fewer dollars and cook the food available to me instead of having luxuries. I think these are valuable lessons for a future farmer. Farming is not only a business but a way of life which requires a lot of hard physical work, effort and planning for what seems like pennies when you compare it to a desk job. I'm not sure farming is really suitable for folks who are more concerned with personal compensation in cash than embracing the lifestyle. Obviously my experience is limited and based in a certain ideology, but that's my take.

I do think the idea of providing space for an apprentice's own crop is really neat though. That's a great idea, and I hope the author finds it works for them and their apprentices alike.
posted by sunshinesky at 8:39 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Isn't the correct term "little people farm apprentices"?
posted by five fresh fish at 8:50 AM on February 12, 2012

When I was practicing law, we dealt with this problem a lot because our practice was geared toward counseling and advising small farmers. I'm going to refrain from talking about whether on-farm apprenticeships are immoral or unethical, but I am pretty well convinced that they are illegal in a lot of cases in the U.S.

The Fair Labor Standards Act has a minimum wage and overtime exemption for small farms. Farms that have used fewer than 500 man-days of non-family labor in any calendar quarter of any previous calendar year are small farms. A man-day is defined as any day on which a laborer works for at least one hour. So if you had something like 6.5 workers showing up every day during the late summer / early harvest season (say, July 1 through Sept. 31) last year, this year you're not a small farm for the purposes of Federal minimum wage law. A lot of apprenticeships are in this situation and (maybe) don't know it. It's also the case that some states don't have an equivalent minimum wage / overtime exemption, so the apprenticeship can be in violation of state labor laws even when it complies with Federal law.

Now, I do think that the ethics of these situations are a bit more complicated than the law. I have a friend who did a couple of these unpaid or barely-paid on-farm internships and I am 100% certain that she was not being exploited, even though some of her living conditions were ... not up to code, let's say. At the same time -- and I feel weird saying this -- if she weren't a white girl with a Masters degree, if she were, say, a first-generation Guatemalan immigrant who didn't speak a lot of English, I'd be a lot less certain that she weren't being exploited. Now my friend owns a farm business which she operates on somebody else's fallow farmland, and she's making an okay living doing something that she clearly loves. But -- again -- I think the ethics are complicated in ways that maybe don't make for good policy.

It would be easy to just draw a hard line and say "this situation is always wrong" -- and that's what the law does, in effect. (Enforcement of these laws is spotty at best, which is its own problem.) But I think it might be the case that small farms would completely die out in the next thirty years or so without these arrangements. On-farm internships do pass on a lot of valuable hands-on knowledge about the practice and business of farming. A lot of that would be lost without something like on-farm internships. And maybe you think that's okay. I'm not so sure.
posted by gauche at 9:06 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Considering the value of the education involved, I felt like my experiences with WWOOFing (for room and board) and the low paying positions that followed through networking, were well worth it.

Now do that for ten years and realize that's the only job you are going to get AKA welcome to grad school.

I do think the idea of providing space for an apprentice's own crop is really neat though.

there's an old-timey word for this... what is it... oh right: sharecropping.

I have a colleague, incidentally, who believes that if your business plan is absolutely dependent on having an apprentice, you probably shouldn’t have one, because it almost ensures an exploitive situation.

easily solved, don't call them an "apprentice" call them "temporary farm labor" or "your kids." small scale agriculture is built on lots of manual labor. this is like saying no one should run a small farm.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:09 AM on February 12, 2012

there's an old-timey word for this... what is it... oh right: sharecropping.

I can't tell. Are you trying to be snarky? If there were more substance to your replies, I might be more certain.
posted by sunshinesky at 9:14 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't tell. Are you trying to be snarky?

Well, technically it's not sharecropping since it is space-for-crops in lieu of wages for farm labor instead of share of the crop but the idea is the same.

It's nice that these farmers are trying to be a little honest about the situation but in the end they are actually trying to make apprentice = laborer legitimate. Either they are a laborer and are paid laborers wages (and have similar protections) or not. And that's not even getting into whether farm laborers are getting exploited in Canada or not. The upshot of the essay is paying apprentices more to do more work:
then commit to sharing a certain percentage of revenue above the minimum target—say, 30%–with the apprentice, in order to give her more incentive to work hard and to stay for the entire season.
So are they apprentices or laborers?

I think there is the idea that exploitation occurs because of bad intentions. This is sometimes true but there is no easy solution to the fact that agriculture, and small-scale agriculture for produce is labor intensive. Even in situations where it seems too small the issue is still who owns the fruit of your labor: you, or the person/bank that owns the land.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:42 AM on February 12, 2012

I'm not sure the farm and ranches around here do 'internships'. I do see ads in the paper for farm hands, but they usually want experience. So many of the farms and ranches are hobbies for people around here, yet they pull the 'poor farmer' card while driving around in a new pickup and living in a giant house. My great uncle has been a farmer all his life. He has never owned the farm he worked, he is a sharecropper. He often talks about the difference in farms then and now. How you'd have a big barn and a tiny house. Now with subsidies, you have farms with a big house and little to no barn. He often makes the joke that you make more money not farming.
posted by narcoleptic at 10:06 AM on February 12, 2012

...if your business plan is absolutely dependent on having an apprentice, you probably shouldn’t have one, because it almost ensures an exploitive situation.

Or an incredibly forward thinking, and long term sustainable mindset. That said, I know which one I'd bet on in this day and age.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:09 AM on February 12, 2012

I well remember my farm "apprenticeship". As a city kid who had spent lots of time working on various friends' farms, and someone who wanted to move into the country, my first real job was with a neighbour who hired someone for two months every summer to help him cut silage and do general help. Our agreement was $3/hr plus board. That was great for me, because Mrs. Farmer put out great meals, and I loved the work. I learned tons of stuff, and had a wonderful time. Until the end of the summer, when my boss told me that my wage was to be $3 per day, and that I should take it and shut up because that's way more than he earned at my age, and I was lucky he thought I was worth that much. Even after pressure from his adult children, and my family, he wouldn't stand up for our original agreement, which was based on a handshake.

There were a number of personal implications for me, the main one being that I couldn't start my own small farm business the following year. (Not saying that would necesssariliy have happened, but that was my plan as a 16 year-old.)

I was thinking recently how much that experience has affected my views on work and various employers, and what motivates "adults". Much as I came to hate that guy in later years, I try to see him as someone who was living out a Depression-era mentality, where screwing someone weaker than you was ok, because "how else can we make a living farming"? On the other hand, they owned a lot of land and had a big house and new machinery -- I can't say I really have any sympathy for him.

What got me thinking about this experience again was this story about two young guys in OK who each lost a leg in a grain auger while working for a grain handling company. That's some apprenticeship right there.
posted by sneebler at 11:03 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's interesting to read this, as the farmer who runs the CSA I participate in sent a very long and heartfelt email to all the CSA members about this a few weeks ago. It came off as a slightly over-wrought apology for raising the share prices for the upcoming summer, but the gist of it was that he felt that they should be paying their farm apprentices at least minimum wage. Taking care of the community and the workers is just as important to them as taking care of the land, which they are doing by using organic farming practices. I was happy to hear about this development, despite the higher share price for us this summer. It's interesting to discover that he is not the only one thinking about this issue.
posted by vytae at 12:50 PM on February 12, 2012

From my experience it seems like some people get into Woofing as a cheap way to travel. I don't know much about visas and the like, but it seems like cracking down on this would also make it harder for international Woofing to take place.

Of course a season long apprenticeship is different from a foreign Woofer who works for a few weeks and then moves on.
posted by Horatius at 1:15 PM on February 12, 2012

Maybe sweeten the deal with a signed Wendell Berry book?
posted by thelonius at 3:33 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is relevant to my interests.
posted by gray17 at 4:21 PM on February 12, 2012

Not really sure how the majority of WOOFers feel, but my experience with the WOOFers that we've hosted at our farm is less "apprenticeship" and more "I get to travel, stay for free, and eat while working a few hours a day."

I wish I knew more about the apprenticeship programs in the States and Canada. Do the programs help apprentices transition into independent farming? Cause the one I am on here in Japan seems to have nothing of the sort. As far as I can tell it's just a two year stipend (less than 20K for the year) that my boss collects and then gives to me. We fill out a ton of paperwork that says I'm working but no one from the Agricultural Office that runs the thing actually comes out and checks to see if I am working (I am, by the way...less now in the winter, but spring to fall is full up! ;) ).

Once it runs out, that's it. My boss and I have planned from the beginning that we'd continue working together, but if that agreement wasn't there I'd feel a bit lost. There hasn't been any help or information on how I'd actually start my own farm once it's over.
posted by snwod at 5:12 PM on February 12, 2012

Well, I pay really really well and you can pretty much do whatever you want on my farm as long as you don't neglect the cows. You can even keep your llamas there like the last guy. Of course my family also won't teach you anything because we don't really know what I'm doing either. If you are interested, Mefi mail me. I'm serious. We are near Madison.
posted by melissam at 5:30 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually, many eaters use a similar argument in explaining why they’re not willing to pay more for their food
posted by unliteral at 7:40 PM on February 12, 2012

Look, farming's not exactly one of those industries where it's all about the people you know. It's not like an internship at some fancy magazine publisher, where you might fetch coffee and photocopies in exchange for no wages, just in the hope that you'll network with the right people and get an incredible opportunity. Who the hell gets a leg up in farming just by meeting the right people? Only a lucky few, maybe. It's too capital intensive an industry. It would be like interning at Enbridge, hoping the CEO might go sharesies with you on a pipeline because you show initiative and promise.

These apprentices and workers work their buns off for farmers and walk away with very little -- yes, some experience and knowledge, but few opportunities for advancement and hardly any pay. And a great deal of our food production economy is driven by this, a willingness on the part of all the laborers involved (the farmers and the workers/apprentices) to accept less than adequate remuneration for the work they do.
posted by bluebelle at 6:42 PM on February 13, 2012

It's not just farm work. This article (warning: Slate) is about magazine publishing interns suing for unpaid wages.
posted by gauche at 8:59 AM on February 14, 2012

Free room and board. That means free food.
You receive an education (on farming) that would otherwise take you years or decades to learn on your own.
You often receive a weekly stipend.

An apprentice isn't a farm worker, it's a student. In other words, most likely completely unexperienced.
It's a mutual relationship. You are taught farming skills while helping your host.

I didn't get free food, free housing, a weekly stipend, or meaningful work while going to college. But these farm hosts do that for you! Isn't it great?

I don't see the problem?
If I were a carpenter by trade, I'd be pretty pissed off if some random guy wants me to spend my (limited) time teaching him how to do my trade, AND give him housing AND food, AND pay him the wage of a trained carpenter. What am I, your sugar daddy?

Yes it's hard work for too little pay, but that's how it is in small rural faming. Farming isn't a big bucks kind of business.
posted by midnightmoonlight at 7:52 PM on February 23, 2012

(Pretty good article when it comes to possible solutions, though. Will think more on it.)
posted by midnightmoonlight at 8:05 PM on February 23, 2012

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