Young woman riding tractor in field of hay

How does a farmer learn to farm? A scan of practical farmer training programs

By Laura Schreiner
February 2018

Doctors attend medical school, electricians go through apprenticeships—but how do farmers learn the practical skills of their trade? There are many different pathways into farming, but they aren’t nearly as structured—nor as well understood—as those of other occupations. In an era of aging and retiring farmers, understanding how the next generation is being trained is important, but there is very little research into it as yet.

To this end, in the summer of 2017, under the supervision of Theresa Schumilas and Charles Levkoe and with the guidance of our partner organizations, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) and the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training in SW Ontario (CRAFT-SW), I conducted a scan of practical farmer training programs. Practical farmer training refers to farmer-to-farmer education that has a significant on-farm (hands-on) component. The goal was to document and then categorize the various types of practical farmer training programs across North America, to help broaden our understanding of and contextualize the variety of training program models.

Through our research, we identified five types of programs:

  • programs run through an informal association where internships are managed at the individual farm level;
  • centralized internship programs where a formal organization sets standards and coordinates on-farm internships;
  • hands on courses/workshops offered by private or not-for-profit organizations;
  • formal academic programs with practical components;
  • independent and self-directed learning programs.

We describe and discuss these five categories as a tool to assist those with an interest in farmer training (farmers, trainees, researchers, policymakers, advocates) to understand and contextualize farmer training options in Ontario.

three people walking through farm field

We also looked more closely into the on-farm internship model (in category 1), as it is of particular interest to our partner organizations and is probably the most common of the categories in Ontario. In an on-farm internship, workers—usually with little to no prior experience in farming—trade labour on the farm for a combination of benefits such as room and board, small stipend, and training. While the number of these internships has been growing, there is very little organization or regulation to these programs. Our report includes our findings on the ways the structure of on-farm internships can vary significantly, for example, in terms of logistics (e.g. the living arrangements offered, formality of the arrangement, etc.), how the learning is structured (e.g. ad hoc or scheduled, balance between theory and practice), and communications (e.g. engagement of interns in work planning). We present our description of these elements as a tool to assist farmers who are planning internships, as well as new farmers seeking internships.

Read the full report here: Options for New Farmer Training: A Scan of Farmer Training Programs in North America

For questions or media enquiries, please email the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at adibattista@wlu.ca