Apprentices on the Homestead

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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This is our first year of having apprentices at our homestead, and over-all, it has been a good experience. I’ll be wiser about the best way to go about this after several more years and working with different apprentices, but I’m grateful this year has been a good beginning. 

I had different reasons for wanting young people to come and work with us. First of all, we can use some help. Our 13 acres includes a large vegetable garden, orchard, bees, Dutch Belted cows, Dorking and Freedom Ranger chickens, Red Wattle hogs, Narragansett turkeys and Ancona ducks. 

A second reason for wanting apprentices is that there’s so much they can learn here. Maintaining the holistic orchard and non-chemical garden requires knowledge that conventional farmers can’t offer. Besides raising crops, we milk and have herd-shares, raise meat birds on pasture — and give other breeds free-run of the barnyard. Helping to preserve rare breeds is a learning curve in itself, but dealing with their produce — milk, eggs and meat — provides many other learning situations. Creating meals from what is produced here as well as learning methods of storing food for winter is part of what we do. I hope that working with us for a summer would give people the basic skills to feed themselves. 

A third and final reason I want to have people come and see what this place is about is that I want the farm and animals to survive into the future. I hope that people with similar values and energy will weave into our activities and someday take over the farm. That’s an ambitious dream, but I want the precious genetics of these rare-breed animals and the restored soil of the garden and orchard to be continued for generations to come. 

I’ve talked to others with farms that have similar hopes, and finding interested young people is a challenge. We are fortunate to belong to The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) and signed up with their apprenticeship program. I was apprehensive about having apprentices here full-time both because I personally don’t want to work full-time and I need private space during the day. It therefore worked out well that both of this year’s apprentices are within driving distance, and we have evolved into having them come just three to four days a week. The one who is more interested in the animals comes earlier and the other arrives when it’s time for garden work. If we find the “perfect person” who needs to be here full-time, then having something like a small trailer-home would be helpful. 

 Part time people have also worked out well because the two people that are here this summer still need a lot of support and supervision — and that takes a lot of energy from me. I had thought they would be more independent, but even though they are 22 and 24 years-old, they really didn’t know a weed from a vegetable plant, have never made meals from whole foods and have little endurance for this summer’s heat. Anyway, it’s helpful to have extra hands for many tasks from using the apple press to slicing cabbage for sauerkraut — but it also takes a lot of my energy to keep them busy. 

Finally, my husband and I have raised our family and now cherish this time to be together. Although we do many tasks separately during the day, it’s still nice to just be able to “hang out together” at times without others around.  

Has it been positive, in the balance, to have the two apprentices this summer? Yes. It’s nice to have two because their personalities and interests are very different and that speeds along my learning curve. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy teaching and seeing these young people gain ideas and skills. I hope that gardening and cooking and canning will all be part of their lives because of the summer they spend here.  

My husband was skeptical about having others without skills here, but the young man has helped him bring in hay and I was delighted to off the hook for that task! I also appreciate the help I’ve gotten in the garden and kitchen.   

We don’t pay the apprentices for their work here although I give them money for gas. They also receive produce from the garden, milk, and processed-food such as the cheese they make, honey and canned goods. Additionally, I attempt to include one interesting and instructive thing to do each day they’re here. 

Because this is my first year with apprentices, I would be glad to get ideas and advice from others who have worked with apprentices on their farms. 

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