I want to share with you my ponderings about the ethics of unpaid internships. I have been reflecting on this a lot lately as 2 BIPOC farmers have recently brought to my attention how exclusive and even unethical it is to have unpaid labour positions on a farm. I agree. And I will share my ponderings (not my defense) below:
1. We have a stipend-based internship program, and have for the last 4 years. We are part of the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training. We are a group of Ecological farms holding each other accountable for offering adequate housing and training on our farms. At our farm our 3 interns are housed, offered a CSA share, and chance to learn about the operations of our farm by working on the farm each day, and $500 to cover monthly expenses. They have a monthly education day specifically to sit down and learn about the different farms in the CRAFT network as well as extensive early season orientation. We know that not paying at least minimum wage is unideal. We communicate clearly with interns about the agreements, and they consent to this model.
2. Upon reflection, in addition to being unideal because we are not paying a minimum wage to our interns, I have come to accept that our internship program is a racist model. We have only had 1 BIPOC intern out of about 15 interns (our staff ratios are better- 1/3). We are failing those who want access to farm education without a model that unfortunately resembles every oppressive farming model through-out history (Slavery!). In continuing to operate in this way our program would not be making equal opportunities that include BIPOC participants. We cannot continue this model.
3. The program, while unethical and unideal, is also part of a bigger picture of injustice in the food industry and in education. You cannot properly learn farming in a college, and there are no government supports for farmers to teach their craft unlike in other professions. Seb and I spent thousands of dollars on Sustainable Agriculture degrees at a college. I don’t recommend this. While this was helpful, the most learning we ever did was the during the 2 (3 for Seb) full season internship programs we took part in before starting our farm. I truly wish we had paid these farmers instead of the college. They would have put the money straight into the things we believe in- healing the earth and our communities. These were unpaid internships, and in our implicitly racist minds we never even considered how great of a privilege it was to be on those farms. We didn’t own a car, have a kid, have phones, or have any expenses we have now. There was no net loss for us financially, simply the time we offered those positions.
4. Here’s the most important thing I want to say. In the current economic system where food is not valued for what it ACTUALLY COSTS TO PRODUCE WITHOUT DESTROYING THE EARTH a new farm worker actually can very rarely produce minimum wage in an hour with their efficiency of work. Most certainly they can not in the economic reality of our small no-till tractor-free farm at the cost of the land we farm. Other ecological farms grapple with the same things. We wouldn’t have an unpaid labour model if labour were not the crux of the precarious equation. In our model it is impossible to turn a dime when paying full wages to people as they are learning. We are competing in the free market with producers who do not account for the value of keeping water clean, wildlife preservation, carbon sequestration, and other ecological services we provide for free. We have been working very hard to get to a place of increased efficiency doing all the things in the books, but also we have been unwilling to sacrifice every ounce of ourselves to put in the hours most farmers put in (5 day work weeks with 8-9 hours for most staff). Labour, for us and most farmers, is the crux of the farm economic equation and does not always add up.
5. Seb and I had our worst farming year last year. We did not budget well related to the fact that we were sleep deprived new parents. We hired an extra staff to make our farm function. I decided to stay at part-time hours. After paying all our staff, we collectively made less than the wage of one staff person. Partly this was a failure of planning on our part that should never have happened. But this also goes to show that a little change in how our business is run (for us, me deciding to parent my kid instead of work full-time and therefore hiring extra labour) can tip the balance quite easily so that we are barely making income in our efforts. This was not enough to pay the mortgage let alone our family’s expenses.
We are no longer the young frugal farmers who can live in a tent on rice and beans. We have a kid, an ancient farm house in need of upgrades, health-care needs, and desires for things that cost money. Upon finding out this number, at first I was shocked. And then, I was weirdly grateful- I was like, “Well, that’s it. We can’t keep going on the way we have. We absolutely have to diversify our incomes because the farm and our family deserve more. We already have diversified in many ways, but some of those income streams are now inaccessible because of the Pandemic (ie. renting out our barn, a yurt on Airbnb, etc.) And diversifying has usually just meant more scrambling because we are already working really hard on the farm.
It is, in some ways, embarrassing to share this number. Yet sharing our failure to pay ourselves more than $4/hour is key in the discussion of paying those who work here. We are a farm that does not compromise on offering holidays, 5 days work-weeks (rather than 6 or 7), and reasonable hours. These are things that most farmers find themselves compromising on to make it all work that we are unwilling to do.
6. We are of course, incredibly wealthy in land. We have a mortgage but one day this very valuable farm will be “ours”. Yet as the land was stolen from indigenous communities in unjust ways, we aren’t so sure we want to retain ownership of it, or all of it at least. But for now we hold the wealth of owning the land combined with the wealth of living in a beautiful place with an abundance of food. We’ve learned how to meet many of our own health care needs through self-care (damn the dentist bills I had last winter), we have incredible safety, and abundant community on the farm. So we are wealthy in ways that are not necessarily financial.
7. So I am left pondering- is there a middle ground to be found? Should we abolish the internship program? If a fully consenting individual who is willing and able to help us accomplish our tasks of ecological stewardship while producing some output through the season, who feels the exchange of housing, a stipend ($500/month), education, and food is adequate- is it ethical to hire them? And to acknowledge that this excludes people for whom unpaid labour is oppressive, if we were to offer an equal number of fully waged positions for new BIPOC farmers- would this make us more aligned with the needs of new farmers? Or should we accept that we have completely failed in making our economic model work? Should we put a dollar value on the education we offer, and charge for it the way some farms and institutions do? Should we go back to just growing what we can ourselves without any hired labour and hope that the equation works out in our favour? (And this doesn’t even address our under-compensated employees trying to pay their bills on a farm wage.)
We don’t know what we are going to do. I feel a desire to end the internship program because I just don’t want to debate this internally or externally ever again. I don’t want anyone in the whole wide world not to make a wage while growing food (even if they are really slow at their job when they are learning). If I had the power I would create a system whereby farmers would have Salaried positions similar to teachers. We’d pay taxes that would go towards ecological food production for everyone. And I would most certainly pay farmers for ecological goods and services such as increasing the carbon in soils, protecting wildlife and birds, re-balancing insect populations, protecting wetlands, planting trees, etc.
From the day I set out to be involved in Ecological Farming I have not stopped soul searching. Covid-19 is going to reduce our income significantly and as you can see from my number above- there isn’t income to reduce. We have given a lot of ourselves to this farm, and also we have enjoyed ourselves in the process. We have been committed to farmer health. We have offered our communities countless services besides the food we offer. We have stewarded and kept this land clean, planted trees, and started no-till farming to enliven the soils. We have shared our land, knowledge and hearts with many. We have chosen balanced lives over a balanced bank account. We have provided employment for various marginalized humans, supported new farmers in learning small scale intensive ways to grow, and more. We have had the privilege of being taken care of by so many- even been able to afford some winter vacations because of money gifted to us by family members. We have failed in many ways this being a big one, and we have succeeded in many ways.
What this pandemic has taught me is that everything can change overnight, and in some cases this isn’t a bad thing. Next season we will try a new model- perhaps simplifying back to one staff and one intern, perhaps doing some gardening and farming education to make some other income, perhaps opening the retreat centre we have dreamed of for additional income, and maybe simply working off farm jobs. Most farmers have side-hustles and I think this is a brilliant way to sustain a small ecological farm. I’m curious to hear your reflections.
ps. (A few thoughts added a week later…)
Thank you to everyone who responded to my write-up about internships and the financial challenges related to labour on small ecological farms.
What I’ve come to realize is that right here, right now, what we do does not feel in full alignment with who we’ve become in our 10 years of farming. What a beautiful realization this is!
It doesn’t mean we can’t be present and imperfectly work with what we have in place this year, or that we should quit our endeavours all together… it just means that for the future we can envision for ourselves new ways to be involved in farmer education, and new ways to face the financial challenges of farming. One of my teachers says that when you align with what is true for you, money flows. That’s where we are going.
We need to listen for creative solutions that reflect our truths and what the hurting world is asking of us, and take responsibility for the pieces that are racist, sexist, etc. Basically we need to mature.
I feel that in working on this puzzle for 10 years Seb and I have found something incredible to offer the world, to ourselves, and to those who arrive here. We are highly committed to farmer wellness, personal fulfillment, healthy soils, healthy societies, and thriving relationships. We have had such immense struggle and huge wins in our private and public lives. These posts were raw- me grappling with something I’ve thought about many times over the years. And I’m glad I felt safe enough to share because the discussions that have come out of it (on social media and irl) have brought me now to a place of creativity and openness in finding new paths.
Thank you for sharing in this journey my friends, and of course thanks to all those who work with us and witness us in our process. Stay tuned for the next version of our farm.