I should have known I had the “farming bug” when I was more excited to hear back about apprenticing with a local sheep farmer than I was for a first date. I didn’t have a car, so I biked the seven miles of hilly western Massachusetts roads to the farm with my heart in my mouth. I desperately wanted to learn more about sheep. I was willing to do anything, and I was pleasantly surprised when the shepherd offered to pay me for my time. The thought of payment hadn’t even occurred to me.
Since that day, I have apprenticed on three organic farms and worked on several more. Each experience has taught me something new about farming, from pest control to dealing with on-farm injuries. I met other apprentices along the way and was able to learn from their experiences as well. Many of us started out the same: Eager to learn and willing to do anything to get our hands dirty.
But there is such a thing as being a little too eager. I was lucky with my first apprenticeship, but not all opportunities are created equal. It is your responsibility to find an apprenticeship that fits your needs and goals, as it will largely affect your enthusiasm, physical and mental health, and farming career.
Farm apprenticeships offer invaluable hands-on experience for beginning farmers. As an apprentice, you are more than an employee. You are there to learn the craft of farming from a mentor, someone who is willing to share his or her experiences and knowledge to help you gain the skills you need to start a farm of your own.
This is a great time to get into farming, and farm apprenticeship opportunities are increasing across the U.S. and even around the world. National agricultural organizations like ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Assistance Program) and state-based organizations like Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) provide comprehensive lists of apprenticeships for prospective apprentices to choose from. Do a little research to find organizations that can get you connected with local apprenticeships if you want to stay put in your area. Or combine a love of travel with your passion for farming, and look for opportunities in other states and countries.
What to look for
With a few exceptions, most apprentice programs offer a relatively small stipend, housing, and access to farm products like produce and meat. You won’t strike it rich working as an apprentice, so it’s important that your apprenticeship meets your personal farming goals. Here are three things I learned to keep in mind while searching for farm apprenticeships.
1. Make a list of your goals before you reach out to potential mentors. If you are new to farming and not sure of a direction you’d like to go in, look for a farm that has multiple ventures (market gardening, livestock, dairy, etc.) and offers a wide variety of learning opportunities. This will help you establish a basic farming skill set. If you have some farming experience and an idea of what you want to do on your own farm, seek out farmers who are already doing it. Farmers are a resourceful bunch, and every farm you set foot on has a blueprint you can adapt in the future for your own needs.
2. Your learning style is just as important as your goals. If you work well in groups, look for farms with multiple apprentices or larger farm crews. If you prefer one-on-one learning, a smaller farm where the farmer has more time to answer your questions will be a better fit.
3. Housing is usually the last thing apprentices consider. Many apprentices don’t care where they live, as long as they get to farm. I certainly didn’t. Some farmers consider “roughing it” or communal living a part of the farming experience. This lifestyle is not for everyone, and you should not feel obligated to embrace it or feel that you are somehow “less of a farmer” if you choose not to.
Communal living can build strong friendships. It can just as easily result in tension among a group of people when you live, work and eat with the same people day after day. Be sure to ask about housing options if it’s something you are concerned about, and think carefully about your personal habits and preferences before signing on to any on-farm housing situation. If you are not comfortable in your living space, your discomfort can easily overshadow your entire apprenticeship.
Questions for potential mentors
Your interview is not like a regular job interview. You do want to impress your mentor with your enthusiasm and work ethic, but this is also your opportunity to ask questions, see the farm for yourself, and decide if it will be a good fit.
Bring your list of goals with you to the interview. Ask your mentor if he thinks you can achieve those goals during the apprenticeship, and ask how he will work with you to achieve them. This helps you determine if your learning style matches his teaching style.
The farmer’s expectations are just as important as your own. Ask what he or she expects from you during your time on the farm. What will your hours be like? What time do you start and end work? Keep in mind that many farms do not have a set work routine. You will probably finish when the day’s work is done, whether that is at 3 in the afternoon or 8 at night.
Many apprentices overlook a very important part of apprenticing: paperwork. Contracts, liability waivers, tax forms, and health insurance are boring. They are also your protection in the event of an accident. Farming comes with more risks than most professions. You will work long, taxing hours around dangerous equipment and animals. Next time you meet a seasoned farmer, ask him how many times he has gotten hurt on the job. Farm accidents happen. Liability waivers protect your employer from lawsuits and make you aware of the risks. Every good farmer should have one attached to the contract, and it is your responsibility to read the contract thoroughly.
Most farmers are not in it for the money. You should, however, get paid for your time as an apprentice, and you should be on the books. Be very wary of farmers who pay under the table. That cash is nice in your pocket, but it comes without the legal security of documentation.
Finding the perfect apprenticeship is ultimately personal. The farm your friend raves about might not be the right farm for you. There are thousands of opportunities out there, each of them unique, each of them offering different perspectives on sustainability and agricultural techniques. Some farms are in the city, others are off the grid, and each farmer has his or her own way of doing things.
Despite the differences, there is one thing every perfect apprenticeship has in common: It will show you how to overcome the many challenges of farming, ultimately teaching you not just how to farm, but how to farm safely and sustainably. The lessons are not always easy, and you will dislike it at times no matter how perfect the position. Looking back on my own experiences as a farm apprenticeship, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Read one man’s roadmap for leaving behind the rat race and turning to small-scale farming.
Anna Burke is a freelance writer and farmer. She lives with her spouse and their two dogs in Virginia, where she spends her free time hiking, reading, and resisting the urge to start more needle felting projects than she has time to finish. You can visit her at www.annahburke.com.