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 it is to have unpaid labour positions on a farm. I agree. And I will share some thoughts on the unpaid intern model 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 communicate clearly with interns about the agreements, and they consent to this model. However, we always seem to struggle with meeting our interns’ expectations.
2. 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, on purpose). In continuing to operate without a fully-waged internship model we are not making equal opportunities that include BIPOC participants. We have concluded that we do not desire to continue this model.
3. The program of internships on small farms is part of a big 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 actually 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. These were unpaid internships. We didn’t own a car, have a kid, have phones, or have any of the 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. In the economic reality we have been trying to figure out how to do this, and we haven’t yet. This feels like a failure but also information. We are certainly not along, other ecological farms grapple with the same things.
We wouldn’t have a partially-paid labour model if labour were not the crux of a precarious equation of farm economics. We have thus far found it 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. Our food prices are already higher than we want them to be for our wider community. We have been working very hard to get to a place of increased efficiency doing all the things in the books.
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. Yes, there was a failure of planning on our part. But this also goes to show that one little change in how our business is run can tip the balance quite easily.
I have been weirdly grateful for this failer. I thought, “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.” I reached out to other farmers to get a sense of their economic models and indeed learned that many have off-farm income streams. We have diversified in many ways in years’ past, but in a hap-hazard way. Diversifying (ie. renting out the barn for a couple weddings or hosting people through Airbnb) has usually just meant more scrambling. But I believe we can do it in more intentional and professional ways.
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 took a stand for after intense burn-out early in our career.
6. We are of course, incredibly wealthy in land. We have a mortgage but one day this very valuable farm will be “ours”. 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.
7. On our farm the internship program felt reciprocal to us when there were two farm managers tending to the interns needs, and enhancing the program. This year Seb managed the internship program on his own and we could just sense that it wasn’t working- for us and our interns. It has thus far been “impossible” for us to offer wages to folks as they are learning (and slow!), but as any good innovator knows- the first step to making a new reality is believing it can be so.
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. We would 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.
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, or 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 given the harsh economic realities most of us face.
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.