While apprenticing on a farm is the post-graduate’s new answer to joining the Peace Corps, there’s often tension between the dream of living off the land and the harsh realities of farm life. Long working hours, manual labor and little (or no) pay all come as part of the apprenticeship package, and not everyone is cut out for it.Before you jump into a farm apprenticeship for a growing season or longer, educate yourself on what to expect from farm life to help you to determine if apprenticing is the path for you. It may not be for everyone, but it can be a good fit for anyone who knows what they’re getting themselves into.
Why Farmers Take Apprentices
In order to understand an apprentice’s role on the farm, you need to understand why a farmer might take an apprentice in the first place. Apprentices are typically inexperienced in agriculture, so a lot of time is spent teaching the apprentices how to do a certain task. The farm owner must also endure the cost of room and board, gas, and any tools or equipment that might be mishandled and inadvertently destroyed. Honestly, a good intern year for most farmers is if they break even. So why do they start an apprenticeship program?
Most farmers will tell you that they like having the extra help, they enjoy teaching young people, and like the enthusiasm apprentices bring to the farm. It can be a challenge—especially when an apprentice crashes the farm truck or forgets to close a gate,releasing the animals—but it can also create long-lasting relationships. If you’re considering an apprenticeship, sometimes referred to as an internship, go into it knowing the farmer isn’t using you or making money on you. More than anything, they’re sharing what they know.
How a Farmer Might Expect You to Work
Farming is extremely rewarding, but it’s also extremely hard work. You’ll likely be asked to work just as hard as anyone else on the farm, even if you’re not being paid. As an apprentice, you should embrace this––for many farms, the education, experience and exercise you get is your payment. You’ll find that most farmers are sensitive to your needs and abilities, but they’ll also challenge you to work beyond what you might feel capable. Without that challenge, people new to farming may never realize how hard they can work.
What a Farmer Might Expect You to Know
The good news is if you’re considering an apprenticeship, most farms don’t require any previous farming experience: A good attitude and a willingness to work is plenty. Ask the farmer you plan to work for, however, if there are any books they might recommend reading before you arrive. Don’t feel like you have to be a soil expert to be an apprentice, but doing a little extra homework ahead of time can help you to slip into the job more smoothly. Two of my favorite books to recommend to budding farmers are Greenhorns (Storey Publishing, 2012) and Joel Salatin’s Fields of Farmers (Polyface, 2013), as they offer good perspective on what to expect in your apprenticeship and your first years of farming.
How You Can Prepare Yourself Physically
The first thing many farms will do when you arrive is condition you. Whether that’s moving hay bales or splitting firewood, you can expect the farmer’s going to try and get you in shape for the season. Be preemptive here and do some pushups every day before you arrive. Spend some time outdoors, even if it’s cold. Your body will have to learn how to adjust itself to the heat and cold of the farm—you might as well start practicing.
How You Can Prepare Yourself Financially
Nothing is more disappointing than having to quit a season early to go make money. Try to build up some savings before going to the farm, whether or not the farmer agrees to provide a stipend. The savings will prevent you from having to get a part-time job in town, spending time away from the farm and your education. Don’t stress too much, as you won’t likely be spending much during your internship—enough savings to pay your bills and a little extra for treats at market should be sufficient.
How to Live in the Middle of Nowhere
Although some farms are within a few miles of town, or within city limits, most are 30 minutes or more from a decent bar, coffee shop or bookstore. This can often be a harder transition than people may realize, especially if you are the only apprentice. It is not always economical or feasible to drive into town every day, so consider weaning yourself off of your basic vices and “creature habits” before you get to the farm. Take it as an opportunity to teach yourself to cook a few more dishes, as you’ll likely wind up doing more cooking on the farm than you did before.
Why to Keep an Open Mind
Not everything the farmer does is going to be perfect. You may disagree with an idea here and there, but you should always know that the farmer is doing the best they can with what they have. Their years of experience may have taught them something you may not realize yet, so if you find yourself wondering why they may do a certain thing—such as using Bacillus thuringiensis sp. (Bt) on brassicas or giving a certain animal an antibiotic—don’t judge them, ask them why. If you go to the farm without strong opinions of what constitutes good farming, you’ll come back with a much richer education.
Read more about beginning farming on HobbyFarms.com:
- 11 Rules for Beginning Farmers to Live By
- 5 Top States to Farm In
- 6 Beginning Farmer Tips for Securing Farm Funding
- How to Write a Farm Business Plan
- The Beginning Farmer’s Guide to Self-Sufficiency