Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The challenge with apprentices

Our apprentice last summer with Viola, one of the goats he milked twice daily
Quite a few people have asked why we don't have an apprentice or intern this summer. The simple reason is that I have not been trying to get one. And here is the long answer --

When we had an ad on WWOOF, we received a lot of inquires from people who were completely new to homesteading and agriculture. Being completely new to it ourselves ten years ago, we didn't really see that as a big problem. And if people were as motivated as we were ten years ago, it would not have been a problem. Unfortunately it can be a challenge to judge someone's motivation. I had learned from reading internship descriptions from other farms that it was a good idea to have potential interns visit for a day to get an idea of what real farm life is like. And that is an excellent idea. It weeded out a couple of people. Unfortunately, it doesn't weed out everyone who may not be a good fit.

There were numerous people who did a great job during their trial day. We got along great, and they seemed to be genuinely interested in this lifestyle and work. Unfortunately, as it turned out, they were just passing time while trying to get a real job. After accepting apprenticeships with us, several wound up calling at the last minute to tell us that they had accepted a job offer and would not be coming out. There was one who just never showed up and didn't answer my emails or phone calls. It was especially frustrating because in most of those cases, there were others who had also applied, and we told them that the position for that time period was filled. It felt like they had only viewed the apprenticeship opportunity as a fun way to get a "free" vacation while job hunting.

I thought about requiring $100 deposit for apprentices that were accepted. The deposit would be returned at the end of their internship. If they didn't show up or left early, they would lose it. The idea was that it would weed out people who were just looking for a fun way to pass a few weeks while unemployed.

I thought about making it a paid position, hoping people would be more motivated to show up, but then I thought about how much time we put into teaching. Almost everyone who applies has absolutely zero experience, which means we spend a lot of hours covering very basic information, and simple chores wind up taking us twice as long, sometimes longer to accomplish, than if we were doing it ourselves. There is no way I could justify paying someone for making my life more complicated.

Because people do learn a ton while working out here, and we provide room and board, I had contemplated starting to actually charge for the internship. In fact, I do know of one farm that charges about $5,000 for an apprenticeship that lasts a few months. But then I started to think that if someone was paying us for the experience, there would probably be some kind of liability issues, and I didn't relish the idea of trying to explain this to our insurance company. They would probably have no idea how to deal with it. Is it tourism? Is it educational? Or is it something else?

It actually takes a lot of time to correspond with people and then go through the trial day. When someone first contacts me, I send them a list of questions about their background, what they already know, and what they hope to learn, as well as things that they don't really want to do on a farm. After the emails back and forth, they come out here for a day, which winds up being less than productive for us because we are explaining everything we do, which takes more time. We also spend a couple hours talking over lunch. And then I check references. If you've ever hired someone, you know it is a rather time consuming process, and even though these are unpaid positions, the process is the same. As much as I love the idea of teaching new people how to do everything that we do, I need to figure out a better screening process for applicants because this is far too time consuming, and the return on investment of time is terrible.

So, I'm not actively looking for interns or apprentices. I don't have ads anywhere now. It is mentioned on our website, and I have received a couple of inquiries in the last few months. Someone is supposed to come out in January for kidding season. She wants to learn about kidding first hand so that she can have her own goats at some point. She graduates from college in December and will be looking for a full-time farm internship that will start in the spring for next year's growing season. It sounds like she is serious and that kidding season will fit into her schedule well.

This post is long overdue, as I've had several people asking me what I thought of the idea of having an intern or apprentice. I've been telling them for at least a few months that I'd be posting about my impressions soon. The bottom line is, if you really need "help" on a farm, it is more helpful to hire someone who actually has a background in what you're doing -- or at least has worked outside doing physical labor in the past and has shown some sort of commitment to the idea of growing or producing food. Our most successful intern was Michael, an ag student who had done an internship at another farm the previous summer.

I may start actively looking for apprentices or interns in the future, but for now, I am happy to pay an experienced person to help out. For the summer, we have a local college student coming over three times a week to help with weeding, watering, and daily goat chores. She grew up on a farm with goats and a garden and needed a summer job. She is comfortable around livestock and knows her way around a garden, which means she is actually helpful.


Carolyn said...

Thanks for the post. I'm sure that many people think of the apprenticeship as a means of obtaining "Free" labor, and it could not be further from the truth as you have pointed out.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

I agree wholeheartedly. We have had one young man (started at age 12, now 16) who works once a week with us for about 6 hours. His parents asked us to teach him so he could learn to help on their small farmstead. It takes time and patience and money to train helpers. Which is why he is the only one we have

Michelle said...

Deborah, I just read a blog post on Cornish X chickens that was VERY interesting! Check out Laura's results using non-GE feed here:


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