When I attended the Indiana Horticulture Congress recently a conversation and discussion came up that wasn’t on the intended schedule but it should have been. Internship, interns and the ups and downs of them.
This topic came up while discussing organic pest management and the study with biochar. The biochar discussion quickly turned over to interns and the benefits. This carried over into the organic pest management and came back up in a later discussion. The majority of small farms speaking indicated that they had previously steered clear of interns and internship believing that they would spend more time having to “babysit” the interns and their involvement with the school would micromanage their normal operations and be more geared to academic study vs growing. This perception was smashed when all the farms involved in the study met monthly and discussed lessons learned, tools, and how to optimize resources. All the farms stated that interns were a valuable asset to their operations. Surveys of both farmers and interns showed for the most part a positive perception change and positive educational experience on both parts as a result of the interns working with the farmers. Some interns have never been on a farm and didn’t know how their food got to the plate. The internships get more people excited and hands on into farming. It also give the farmers a way to pass on their knowledge, and assistance for regular farm chores or the extra set of hands to complete projects that otherwise have been put off for lack of time or manpower.
While we have not looked into the option of an intern we are not at a production level that we could support that type of involvement. This is why we do have tours. It exposes people to some of the farm operation without a huge time commitment.
Speaking from experience, I somewhat interned at a friends farm who needed some extra help, and in turn I got an education. Interns typically are paid but not always. Sometimes it is a share of crops/products, sometimes it is a wage but lower than a farm had as the education is part of the payment. I personally had never been around a animal based farm production model. I spent about 3 years helping and sometimes working while the owners were otherwise engaged at Simpson Family Farm in Martinsville, IN run by Darby Simpson, and his Family. This experience was extremely valuable in the little things that were learned. What works, what doesn’t, little tricks that aren’t taught in school, but farmers take for granted. I asked a bunch of “dumb” questions that Darby took as just farm life and the way things are done. There isn’t a one size fits all model of what to duplicate. Each situation, each farm, each individual is different and systems that work on one farm for one reason or another may not work on your farm. The key is to learn, and experience what other people are doing and adapt it for your own situation. As an example, Darby is a full time farmer, and income is based on production, so many things going on at once, and volume. 500 meat birds in each cycle, and five cycles is a lot of birds. That is a lot of feed, lot of chicken tractors, having to have a processor lined up, way to transport birds to processing, being able to store the birds after processing, timing of when to get chicks, when to start the next batch. It has taken him years to get a system that works for him. Would this system work for the newbie? Maybe, but his land has been developed over years, his land can support that number of chickens, he has the bugs in the pasture, he has the forage growing. He has a large flat level area of pasture and cows rotated with the birds, water is already set up, tractors are already build, tractor designs have gone through several rounds. LOTS of stuff I learned by working beside him. Darby, also has a consulting site where if you feel you are ready to go the commercial route he can help advise at DarbySimpson.com. Spending time with him made me realize we needed to work our land for three to five years before we were even to start looking at commercial meat production as an option. I learned a lot from Darby, some things I really liked, some things I liked but modify for our own situation, some things I would stay away from as they were just not right for our operation. The things that we determined were not right, we would have tried on our own farm if we had not experienced them first on theirs. Not that they were bad, but just didn’t fit into our operations. An example would be all his farm operations are geared around single adult operator, say moving chicken tractors. While Brandie can and did move them successfully, Wee One could not, but his system wasn’t designed to have a 5 year old move them nor perform the operations, it was designed with an average adult with enough strength to do the jobs at hand (lifting 5 gallon buckets of grain and water). This is also where I learned a HUGE and valuable lesson, scaling up is NOT just adding more of X, being animals or plants. There usually is a tipping point where the current size system will no longer support more X. You have to have a new system to get bigger. And the same goes true for scaling down, what works on his level of operation, may NOT work for a homesteading model.
Brambleberry Farm down in Paoli had an opportunity for interns and their situation was 16 hrs/week work in exchange for free housing, and access to sections of land to do with as you wanted. Read all about it at the link. It was a separate living space, and the land use had to be approved with their overall farm policy. In past years the interns grew market vegetables and sold at the farm stand and farmers market booth, some grew their own food and had an outside job for income. I have toured Brambleberry several times and incorporated portions of things I learned there into our own operations. It was a tremendous learning experience. Completely different from my experience with Darby who is a meat based operation, Brambleberry was more a plant based operation with animals adding inputs to the farm. Animals were there as meat/protein but not the focus. A more let the land show you what to farm/grow vs change the land to what you are growing. Changing the land isn’t necessarily a bad operation, as an example Darby took a historically GMO traditional crop field and turned it into a lush organic pasture feeding cows, ducks, chickens and turkeys. It’s working with nature, BUT needed man to change it in the right direction for the intended purpose.
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms one of my mentors and a farming icon has a completely different model of “Fiefdoms” on his farms. He also has internships and apprenticeships, as well as books, tours, videos, documentaries, presentations, speeches, and interviews While not directly intern related, it does allow someone with a specialized knowledge get further into farming without some of the issues on starting from scratch. And I am not even going to summarize, but you can watch a presentation he gave about it.
From speaking with other farmers I have heard positive and negative on both sides of internships. There are bad farm managers who don’t know how to manage interns appropriately, and interns who don’t want to work or won’t follow directions and are disastrous for the farmer. My best advise whichever side of the equation you are on is to talk with people who have had real experience with interning, and if possible people who have directly interned in the situation you are looking to get into. If you are a farm, go to markets and talk to other farmers who have had interns before. Go to conferences where other farmers can share their experiences. Learn how to weed out bad interns. One lesson I heard about at the Horticulture Congress, was application, letter about why farming important to them, references, and a 1 day trial period before committing by either side. A try before you buy. Could they do one day labor, could they follow direction, could they put their phones down long enough to work, are you ready to manage an intern, how bad does it mess with daily operations. Same holds true for interning on a farm. I know of a intern program where the interns have to pay for their internship, and are encouraged to “beg” from friends and family, even GoFundMe pages to get more money pumped into the educational opportunity. They are worked hard for having to pay for education. Just not something I can support. I know of another “internship” where interns are treated like slave labor because they are required a set number of credit hours of working to offset a regular school education. Hours are stretched and approval signature is dangled like a carrot. No signature and either tuition is due or kicked out of program. How do you find interns and intern opportunities. There are programs like Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOF-USA) and Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. I do not have any experience with either one so cannot speak to them. I think we need a better local database/website of connecting local farms, interns, and opportunities. Purdue said they were working on something. But, best way to find opportunities is get out there and start talking to people, farmers, and get connected into your local farming communities.
I highly encourage you to tour as many farms as you can. Do not try to duplicate 100% of what you see and expect identical results Sometimes variables (soil, light, temperature, wind, lifestyle etc.) are not the same on your farm and you may not get the same result. But do experiment, and never stop experimenting, even after you are successful. Do not risk your whole operation on an experiment, but the only way to improve is to continue to evolve. If you are running 200 meat birds at a time, and want to try a 100% pasture/forage type bird try 20 or 40 alongside your regular 200. If it doesn’t work, try to figure out why, and improve. Rather than risk your whole operation failing, you learn one way that did’t exactly work for your operation.
Tours on our farm should begin this spring. If you want an individual/family tour please use the Contact Us page and we will try and work something out.