If you’ve been wanting a career in regenerative organic farming, but you’re not sure where to start, you might want to check out the Rodale Institute. The nonprofit organization has worked to further organic agriculture for more than 70 years and is currently accepting applications for the 2023 Rodale Institute Farmer Training (RIFT) program.
According to a 2021 Rodale Institute report, “In the United States, organic sales have topped $55 billion annually, and continue to grow. Yet, only one percent of U.S. cropland is certified organic. We have a need for more organic farmers, as well as beginning farmers. Today, there are six times as many farmers over 65 as under 35.”
That’s a big part of the group’s motivation to equip would-be farmers with the knowledge and hands-on experience needed to start their own regenerative farms. To that end, the RIFT program began about 12 years ago.
The nine-month-long program takes place at the 386-acre Rodale Institute Experimental Farm, located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Participants are eligible for on-site housing, are paid hourly wages, and have access to free veggies for the duration of the internship.
Interns work from March to November.
In addition to working on the farm, interns get market experience at local farmers’ markets in downtown Allentown and Redding, Pennsylvania. There are some field trips, too. “[Current interns] were just recently helping to build a new greenhouse at one of our partner farms,” Rodale Institute Director of Marketing and Communications Dave Pryor says.
“This program is not just a how-to-plant type of internship,” notes Dan Kemper, master trainer at the Rodale Institute. “It’s a fully immersive farming internship.”
That includes classroom learning, complete with exams. “We have this really next-level experience of immersion between college education and farming,” Kemper says. “Then, on top that, what we’ve done in the last three or four years is [added] this enormous focus on operating your own business…. We talk to lawyers. We talk to consultants. We talk to loan officers.
“Everything that I need to get these people ready to own their business is something that we acknowledge in this program.”
To successfully complete the program, interns must “attend all classroom sessions and off-site farm visits, complete all classroom assignments, and pass all quarterly exams.”
Past RIFT interns have ranged in age from 18 to to 60-something and hail from across the U.S. Some of them already had a little farming experience. Other successful candidates had no prior experience.
What many past interns have had in common? “A lot of people really understand the negative impact of conventional agriculture and want to get into working with regenerative, organic agriculture,” Pryor says.
“They’re very positive, solutions-based people. A lot of them are very environmentally focused and shop at farmers’ markets. They see that connection with farmers and they’ve gotten hooked with that sort of lifestyle. They have seen and heard that it’s an actual way of life and a business and a career.”
Applicants need to be able to work at least 40 hours per week, including some evenings and weekends. They also need to be able to work in any kind of weather, lift in excess of 50 pounds, and have a valid, U.S. driver’s license.
There are also some intangible qualities that can help set applicants apart. Ideal RIFT interns willingly accept new information and are ready to learn. And, when the going gets tough, they can stay positive and have energy to spare.
When & How to Apply
The number of internship spots varies from year to year, depending on available funding. “We’re looking at just under 20 students starting this year,” Kemper says.
Competition for those spots can be pretty stiff. “We usually receive close to 100 applications,” Kemper adds. “I’m already receiving lots of applications, and I would strongly recommend that people send in their applications right now.”
Applications for the 2023 season are available here. Aside from the usual details, the RIFT program application includes several essay-type questions. You’ll need to be able to describe your long-term goals, most and least interesting aspects of farming, and more.
You can email or snail-mail your completed application. The Rodale Institute also requests a resume and three work-related references.