Host a Robust Farm Internship Program

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by Jean Shutt

For all the things interns are, they’re not cheap help. To be sure, some mentors are better than others, and some farms pay more or less than others, but generally, farm interns get a fair return on their investment. How else can anyone learn so much so fast with so little investment?

Here at Polyface Farm, we’ve been doing a formal mentor-intern program for nearly 25 years, and we’re familiar with many other programs, from which we’ve learned a thing or two. Not everything, to be sure, but a lot of things.

Internships are the ultimate hands-on, learning-by-doing educational option, dating back to some of the earliest instructional models recorded in human history. It’s a long and proud legacy. On our farm, we make a distinction between apprentices and interns. Interns come for five months, May 1 to Sept. 30. Some of the interns then graduate into apprentices and stay another year, from Oct. 15 to the following Oct. 15.

Internship is boot camp; apprenticeship is officer training school. I could write a book (and have) about apprenticeships, but in this column, I want to address 12 key elements of a successful farm internship program.

1. Be ready to teach, and be ready to learn. Mentors must enjoy answering questions about everything, because interns will probe every facet of your life, from where you go to church, to what kind of car you drive, to how you picked names for your kids. Nothing is off the table. This is an intimate relationship. Interns should assume they don’t know anything, and that every single step, word, and gesture from their mentor has meaning. The goal is to figure out all those meanings.

2. Be formal. The worst internship nightmares occur when mentors are lackadaisical about expectations. As my son Daniel says, “Nothing destroys relationships faster than unexpressed expectations.” If you expect a certain kind of behavior, language, or dress code, spell it out. Nobody can read your mind. Over the years, as our farm’s application process became more formal, the program became stronger, because clear expectations weeded out the tire-kickers. The application acts as its own vetting process; if someone can’t or won’t follow the rules for the application process, they won’t follow the instructions for watering chickens.

3. Do trial runs. Never allow someone to come with the promise “if we like you, you can stay.” Occupation is half of ownership. Once an intern has arrived, dislodging is difficult. Invite candidates for a couple of days to work, eat, and live with you, and then send them home. Make your acceptance or rejection decision after they’ve gone. If an applicant complains about coming by twice (assuming they get accepted), that indicates a whiner. If you do some strenuous grunt work alongside someone for a couple of days, you can gauge their attitude quickly. During our two-day checkouts, the one key question we ask ourselves is: Am I eager to spend the summer with this person?

4. Acknowledge that formal education is worthless for farm work. Over the years, I’ve found zero correlation between academic success and farming success. On the farm, we don’t need papers; we need performance. Classroom teaching and practical farm work aren’t necessarily synergistic; they can be, but it’s not guaranteed. We sometimes have interns straight out of the city who don’t know a heifer from a pullet, but despite that lack of education, if their attitude is good, they go on to do fantastic work.

5. Live close, but not under the same roof. Interns come from varied walks of life, and they come into the relationship fairly quickly compared with other intimate relationships. Interns revere their mentors. In their minds, proximate living enhances the experience — and it certainly can. But living in the same house isn’t healthy for either party. Both parties need time and space of their own.

On-farm housing is best. In our county, a farmer can build five things without a permit: an agriculture building, such as a barn or shed; something portable, such as an RV or a tiny house on a chassis; a treehouse, like the Swiss Family Robinson’s; something that floats, such as a houseboat in a pond; and a hunt camp that’s 900 square feet or fewer. I’ve seen atrocious and disrespectful housing for interns, such as tents and chicken houses. Don’t do that. Provide some decent space. If you wouldn’t live there, don’t expect them to; it’s just common courtesy.

6. Offer multiple enterprises. Certainly some internships are niche, such as one that involves learning spinning. But most interns want a variety of experiences. The more enterprises you have going on, the more enticing and enjoyable your program will be. Offering new challenges will keep your interns in a progressing frame of mind.

7. Provide a familial atmosphere. To an intern, a mentor is a guru, which carries an air of distance. The mentor can seem intimidating, and yet openness and inspiration require deep and ongoing conversations. The mentor must knock the edge off this distance. I’ve seen mentors who won’t let interns eat with them or come into the farmhouse. That kind of condescending distance does no one any good. At our farm, we eat the evening meal together on weekdays. Breakfast and lunch are separate, but coming together at the end of each weekday creates downtime to talk about the day, plan tomorrow, and just be family. In summer, our farm houses 25 people (10 interns, 2 to 3 apprentices, staff, and their families). To balance out the summer’s educational and relational intensity, we hire a chef for five months to make these weekday evening meals, and we eat as a family in a large pavilion. While that’s a big investment ($10 per plate), it creates a wonderful atmosphere of conviviality.

8. Take teaching seriously. Interns expect to work, but they also look forward to non-work instruction. In our program, we do a monthly lecture, usually on a rainy day, complete with whiteboards. The interns attend with paper, pens, and enthusiastic anticipation. We do field trips to nearby places, and we make sure everyone gets to the county fair. Like every community, ours has a handful of real experts, and we invite them over for dinner and short lectures. Use what’s available. Any nature or farming topic is acceptable, and most neighbors are eager to come to dinner with a bunch of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young people.

9. Administer pop quizzes. Again, this may seem trivial, but interns love feeling like they’re really in a classroom. Give a reading assignment, and then quiz them on it. Add some humor by mixing in personal trivia with serious information they’re learning. The competition to get the most right answers is typically fierce. And yes, two interns is enough to capture the competitive spirit. This is a great way to check progress and stimulate observation — both listening and watching.

10. Set benchmarks. Mentors, or masters, are highly skilled. Repetition is the foundation of skill, but midway through the season, sometimes interns can feel like they’ve already attained enough skill. That’s why recorded benchmarks for different tasks keep interns from complacency. On our farm, we’ve established benchmarks for a lot of things. Moving a chicken shelter: 60 seconds. Putting away 30 dozen eggs: 20 minutes. Eviscerating a chicken: 60 seconds. In my experience, unfortunately, perhaps 1 in 10 interns actually times themselves against the benchmarks. You’d think someone really interested in success would do that, but few do, which speaks to the desire of the intern, not the skill of the mentor.

11. Remember that safety is critical. Situational awareness is one of the key elements in military training. It’s just as critical on a farm. Young people from the city who’ve never been around cows or machinery often engage in life-threatening behavior. Mentors must think for everyone. And believe me, you can’t imagine how creative people can be at lousing something up. This is why instructions must be clear; interns that run off half-cocked may end up dead. I have one piece of equipment I don’t allow interns to run: a chainsaw. We normally do one session on basic chainsaw operation, and I let each intern make a couple of cuts just to get the feel of it. But unless someone has a lot of experience running a chainsaw, we keep it off-limits. It’s just too risky.

12. Balance praise and criticism. Like any close connection, the mentor-intern relationship is ripe for misunderstandings and breakdowns. Moments of bliss inevitably precede moments of frustration. Humans, even in the most perfect circumstances, can say inappropriate things and jump to conclusions that beg forgiveness after the heat of the moment wears off. That’s why mentors must seek early and frequent opportunities to say “good job.” Eventually, dissatisfaction must and will be expressed; some congratulations in the emotional tank will go a long way toward preserving an overall equilibrium of trust and appreciation.

As in a marriage, a lot more is at stake in a successful internship than momentary infatuation. You can’t overestimate an intern’s ability to tear up equipment, anger a customer, or do some boneheaded thing. And you can’t overestimate a mentor’s ability to be critical and impatient. This isn’t an arrangement for the faint of heart. Both parties must come to the table with clear expectations and commitment. Then, and only then, can it be a mutually enjoyable experience.

Joel Salatin is a third-generation family farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The farm offers many educational opportunities for people wanting to learn pasture-based systems.