FRAMING FARM INTERNSHIPS

The following is an excerpt from Charles Z. Levkoe and Michael Ekers’ “Framing Farm Internships” an introduction to Ecological Farm Internships: Models, Experiences and Justice. To read the full report, visit www.foodandlabour.ca

Over the past decade, growing numbers of interns have been working on small-scale ecological farms across North America and Europe. Farmers are looking to young people seeking hands-on farm experiences as a way to train the next generation of ecological producers and to meet the labour demands of their operations. Interns typically exchange their labour for room and board, a stipend and importantly, training in ecological production methods. While many farms pay workers a minimum wage, or more, and provide benefits, interns as a relatively new type of non-waged worker have become a source of outside labour on many farms. At the core of the farm internship issue are a number of pressing questions about the financial challenges of ecological farming, the training of new farmers and the rise of precarious work. It should be stressed that labour issues exist across the agricultural sector and the reliance of some producers on migrant workers is emblematic of this issues. Nevertheless, as a relatively new and potentially defining trend within the ecological farming sector, the issues discussed in this report bear considerable significance for farm operators, interns and the broader food movement. This report draws on the knowledge, experience and voices of farmers, past interns, non-profit organizations and lawyers to assess the implications and trajectories of the non-monetary exchanges of labour and education, among other things, taking place on ecological farms. This report is therefore largely driven by the perspectives and experiences of those with practical knowledge of the farm internship issue. The report is based on a workshop held on October 13, 2016, in Toronto that brought together a range of speakers that have contributed to this report and a dynamic audience comprised of farm owners, workers, past interns, students and academics. The goal was to assess the opportunities, limitations and possible trajectories of the farm intern phenomenon while examining what just food labour might mean for interns, farm workers, farmers and for those advocating for socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems. In this introduction, we offer some brief context and framing of the issues explored in the workshop and compiled in this report.The issue of farm internships raises a number of practical questions regarding how such work/education arrangements have emerged and how they have been facilitated and managed. However, the issue also points to deeper questions around farm viability, 7 agricultural labour law, possibilities for exploitation, but also the potential to build a viable farm sector that can offer an alternative to the corporate, industrial food system. Given the intersection of new forms of farm work with these broader issues, it becomes clear that internships exist as a pivot point for the sector moving forward and raise difficult questions regarding how to build just and sustainable food and farming futures.

In Canada, but also throughout the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, internship positions have been facilitated by farmer-led organizations. For example, the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), which operates across parts of North America, the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) in Eastern Canada, and the Soil Association in the United Kingdom have developed distinct internship programs to address the lack of formal education available to aspiring ecological farmers. Other innovative education models exist where aspiring farmers pay for training and mentorship (e.g. Everdale and Farms at Work). In the contributions that follow, Heather Lekx, Lucia Stephens and Rachel Harries reflect on their experiences with these organizations and both the opportunities and dilemmas associated with various farmer-training initiatives. Farmers and staff at the organizations noted above are increasingly establishing connections between their own programs and the public debates on the fairness and viability of internships, which raise a series of important questions further examined in this report. Recently, public attention has been focused on the ethics and legalities of internships across the economy, throughout political offices and in the non-profit sector, but little attention has focused on agriculture. The contributions of Natalie Childs, Jordan Marr and Abena Offeh-Gyimah (with Tinashe Kanengoni and Stephanie Henry) build on the broader conversations on internships and question the fairness and ethics of non-waged farm work. Collectively, they ask who really benefits in such arrangements and question who exactly is being trained to farm when the principal method of education is through unpaid work and thus restricted to those that can forego paid employment. Issues of fairness, equity and justice are very much structured by the regulatory and legal frameworks regarding internships and agricultural work. Farmers are deeply concerned with whether or not their internships are legal and many interns are unclear of their own rights as workers/volunteers. Several legal cases around ecological farm internships have transpired in the US and in British Columbia as interns have received back-pay for their ‘unpaid’ or ‘underpaid’ work. This heightened public and legal attention has thrown into question the viability, legality, and potentially the fairness of the exchanges taking place between farm hosts and aspiring farmers. Although there are no simple answers on the legality of farm internships, Joshua Mandryk offers a perspective on internships and the Ontario Employment Standards Act and Nadia Lambek explains some of the agricultural exceptions to this Act. Whether because of exceptions to labour law or the lack of enforcement of relevant laws, both authors discuss how labour legislation structures the precarity of workers. Underlying these organizational, social and legal considerations is a tension between farms being small businesses but also incubators of social and environmental change. In our own research on the issue of farm internships we have found that many farms and farmers face dire financial circumstances and struggle to keep their businesses afloat. From this perspective internships might be viewed as a source of cheap labour that helps farms survive from year-to-year. However, in his contribution, New Farm co-owner Brent Preston questions how cheap intern labour really is given the costs of training, housing and managing new groups of interns every year, not to mention lost opportunity costs. However, on the other side of this issue, farm internships can’t be completely reduced to economic considerations. As a number of contributors to this report suggest, the training received through internships can be deeply formative both in terms of forging pathways to becoming farmers but also in building a broader understanding of food and agriculture systems.

Ecological Farm Internships: Models, Experiences and Justice is organized in three sections. Part 1: Models of Farmer Training and Farm Internships offers organizational insights and perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of developing farm internship programs. Part 2: Perspectives and Experiences of Farm Internships reflects on the experiences of a past intern, a farmer who hosts interns and a farmer who has moved away from internships, instead choosing to hire paid migrant workers. Part 3: Justice, Law and Social Movements explores questions of justice through considering both the legality of internships and matters of social inclusion and exclusion. We invite you to read the thoughtful and grounded contributions to this report that examine these issues from a series of different vantage points, cutting across different sectors, geographical spaces and perspectives in the food system.

 

To access the full report and other food and labour resources, please visit http://www.foodandlabour.ca