Cheap labor or expensive mistake – summer interns and apprentices

Do you wonder if summer interns or apprentices could help make your farm more profitable? Will the time used to teach and supervise them hurt more than help?


Hands-on learning is the best wafor interns to discover if they are suited to farm life. Students at UMass have the opportunity to spend a spring and summer working on an organic farm while earning credits towards their Bachelors degree through the Student Farming Enterprise (SFE) program.

“The UNited States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says labor costs can be up to 18% of farm production expenses. To improve profits, farmers need to be more efficient or reduce labor costs.” said Amanda Brown of the UMass Extension Vegetable Program. Interns and Apprentices may be cheaper, but you will spend more time training them and supervising beginners. You must determine if the reduced cost can be offset with more production overall. Brown shared her farm experience working with students while speaking at the Beginning Women Farmer Conference at UMass, Amherst, MA held on March 22 and 23, 2012. She distinguished between Interns and Apprentices and their appropriate compensation.

Legal definitions

Brown offered these legal definitions according to the US Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, Small Farm and Direct Marketing Handbook but stressed that all growers should check with their state Labor Departments for local regulations before seeking certain types of farm labor.

An Intern can be unpaid if ALL of these qualifications are met. The Intern

  • Is enrolled in accredited educational institution like a college, community college or university
  • Benefits from training as they would at the educational institute
  • Pays the educational institution to be in the program
  • Receives academic credit for their work.
  • Is not replacing paid employees, but work with them
  • Is not promised a job at the end of the internship

The accredited educational institution is exempt from paying wages, Unemployment Insurance tax and is required to provide a safe work environment. The employer providing training must not derive immediate advantage from interns’ actions.

Generally, there is no minimum wage requirement for agricultural laborers as long as they are not engaged in processing value added products or selling. An Apprentice receives a personal education plan proposed and approved under state/federal law. Apprentices can potentially create this training/research plan for the next year’s Apprentice as part of their seasonal project.

An Employer of Apprentices must:

  • Have an Employer Identification Number (EIN)
  • Pay at least minimum wage with merit raises
  • Pay workers compensation insurance for work-related injuries
  • Pay Unemployment Insurance tax
  • Provide safe work environment
  • Provide set number of hours of instruction annually

An Employee is subject to scheduling by the employer and the employer must:

  • Have an Employer Identification Number (EIN)
  • Pay wages
  • Pay workers compensation insurance for work-related injuries
  • Provide safe work environment
  • File payroll tax forms

There are volunteer resources such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Their website lists interns and apprentices looking to earn their room and board. Each state has slightly different definitions, rules and per diem rates. Be sure to check with your local Department of Labor for applicable regulations.

Selection criteria

How to select (applications and interviews) and how best supervise Interns and Apprentices

  • Have written application
  • Ask why interested in farming, background and experience, academic training and success
  • Have current or past workers interview new recruits
  • Maintain consistent labor standards across farm
  • Check references; ask “Would you hire them again?”

Policies and procedures

Communication is critical in all working environments. Be sure you set clear expectations: hours, responsibilities and pay/or not. Create and make available an Employee Handbook with expectations, grievance procedure, wages, hours/schedules, breaks, NO smoking and educational contracts/learning plans. Brown and conference participants recommended that all staff cell phones be turned in to supervisors during working days and returned only at lunch breaks and after the work day. Emergency calls should be directed to supervisors or to the farm office. She also recommended a no headphone policy to improve safety and encourage human interaction. To further this goal, she has students interact with buyers in person (not via email or by phone) and make deliveries.

Post and follow an organizational chart with names/rolls. Cross train people; swap tasks weekly and have students be responsible for different tasks or areas.

Be sure to meet regularly (daily and/or weekly). Mix in some fun along with the drudgery of weeding and hoeing.

Post “Done” list of accomplishments not just the “To Do” list. Always develop and share a Plan B. If team runs out of things to do, finish early or has crop failure, what is next thing on the “To Do” list or backup plan?


Brown recommended these links and references for more information and finding applicants:

  • US Department of Labor: or call their helpline at 866-487-9243.
  • North East Workers On Organic Farms (NEWOOF), regional Farm Apprenticeship Placement Service:
  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) lists available interns, apprentices and openings:
  • National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service (ATTRA) offers a directory of sustainable farming internships, apprenticeships and on-the-job learning opportunities at
  • Agricultural, nursery and landscape jobs and internships at
  • “The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff – and Making a Profit” by Richard Wiswall includes recommendations for hiring and training apprentices.

Brown recommended watching “Digital_nation,” a 90 minute Frontline report on the changing way people interact, for a better understanding on the way today’s students think and act.

The UMass Student Farming Enterprise (SFE) program offers as a year-long Plant, Soil, and Insect Science class – spring and fall, with a summer farming component at the UMass Crops Research and Education Center in South Deerfield, MA. Students earn five credits each fall and spring through coursework and a summer internship (for pay or credit) while growing on two certified-organic acres. Markets include a 50-member CSA, campus dining services, a vegan café and a Farmers’ Market. Graduates of the Student Farming Enterprise are independent farmers or farm managers across New England; some work with The Farm School Project or The National Organic Farmers Association.

For more information on working with interns, apprentices and volunteers, contact Amanda Brown at the UMass Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences via email at, via phone at (413) 577-3976 or write 301 Agricultural Engineering Bldg. 250 Natural Resources Road, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003.

A similar story ran in the April 16, 2012 New England edition of Country Folks.


About Sanne Kure-Jensen

Sanne Kure-Jensen is a frequent contributor to Country Folks, Country Folks Grower and Wine & Grape Grower bringing regional and national attention to agriculture in RI and across southern New England. She has also written for newsletters of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), Holistic Management International (HMI), RI Beekeepers Association and RI Tree Council. Read Sanne’s work at her Sustainable Living page at Sanne has written successful grant applications for alternative energy projects, staff and board training, products and services. Clients include agricultural businesses, farm stand/markets and non-profit organizations. Recent successful grant projects include a $90,000 USDA Rural Development‘s Rural Energy For America Program (REAP), $10,000 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Farmer and $20,000 Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG). Sanne is the part-time Administrator for NOFA/RI, a Rhode Island Certified Horticulturist and beekeeper. She is a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional and has lectured across southern New England on Beekeeping, Native Pollinators and Ecological Landscape Design. Learn more about the NOFA’s Land Care programs or contact Sanne for a garden consultation through the NOFA/RI website.
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