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Closing the circle

Farmers need help. A new generation is interested in farming but need tutoring. Is there a viable model for bringing the two groups together?

By CHARLES Z. LEVKOE & MICHAEL EKERS

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From the fruit trees of B.C. to the root vegetables of the Atlantic coast, local and ecologically produced food has become increasingly popular among Canadian consumers. As a result, many small farms are enjoying a renaissance and growing numbers of socially and ecologically conscious activists and entrepreneurs now see farming as an attractive career path.

In response to the renewed vitality, thousands of internship and volunteer positions are advertised across Canada each year inviting aspiring farmers to spend a season learning about the inner workings of farm life. These positions typically offer room and board and a small stipend to individuals who want to join the growing ecological agriculture movement. While there is no doubt many farmers have extensive knowledge and skills to share, these positions have also become a way to meet the increased labour demands of their operations.

This new and potentially defining trend within the ecological farming sector has considerable significance for farm operators, interns and volunteers and the agricultural sector more broadly.

Historically, family members have been a central feature of most small-scale farming operations, however, they are increasingly leaving the farm to search for work and the additional income it brings. In their place, interns and volunteers have become a cheap source of labour for farmers seeking to meet the intensive work demands necessary for operating an ecological farm. Despite many anecdotal accounts of this increasing trend, there is little information available. Further, the practice of having non-waged workers playing a growing role in farm activities raises important ethical and legal questions for the ecological farming sector.

The scale of agricultural internships and volunteers

Over the past two years we have led a team of researchers conducting a survey and a series of interviews with over 200 farmers, interns and non-profit organizations supporting farm placements across Ontario. Overall, we have found that the farms taking on interns and volunteers tend to be relatively small and medium sized with an average of 69 acres under cultivation. Moreover, these farms were primarily using forms of ecological-oriented practices including, agroecological, biodynamic, permaculture and organic growing methods. Additionally, most of these farms are marketing their produce and livestock directly to consumers through Community Shared Agriculture programs or farmer’s markets. Of the farms, we have been studying, there was an average of about four interns or volunteers per farm each year. We visited one farm that had over twenty volunteer workers, while others had a mix of hired farmhands and interns. While it is difficult to gauge exactly how many farms are hosting interns and volunteers, our research suggests that there are at least several hundred farmers in Ontario offering opportunities, and this number would grow considerably if nation-wide statistics were available.

Training new farmers

Many of the interns and volunteers that we spoke with described their non-waged work as an essential piece of an experiential learning unavailable through the existing educational system. Ecologically oriented farming approaches demand a combination of technical and traditional knowledge that cannot be learned solely through formal training or institutional educational programs. “I’m totally grateful for the education,” one intern told us, “internships are important for hands-on knowledge . . . and I get to pick the farmers brains every day!” Most interns and volunteers agreed that without these types of opportunities where workers “learn-by-doing,” there would be no way of getting the necessary experiences to run an ecological farm. While some formal educational programs offer training in the technical aspects of running a farm business, few focus on ecological practices and even fewer offer opportunities to practice skills such as working with draft horses, homesteading, and direct-to-consumer marketing. Many of these experiences also offer a broader range of training including planning crop rotations, managing farm finances and day-to-day troubleshooting. Further, while the high tuition associated with more formalized education programs can be a barrier, agricultural internship and volunteer experiences can be far more accessible to those willing to live in a rural community. At the same time, to forgo paid work in the pursuit of a farm internship generally requires that workers bring a considerable amount of privilege to the position, which means the experience is not open to all.

Meeting farm labour needs

Finding and maintaining dependable farm labour presents a major challenge for most farm operators due to the intensive labour required for ecological farming (e.g., limited mechanization) and the nature of farm work (e.g., seasonal fluctuation, long hours, physical labour, specific skills and knowledge needs, and negative cultural attitudes). Moreover, despite the growing consumer interest and extensive social and environmental benefits of ecological agricultural approaches, the vast majority of farm owners in Canada struggle to remain economically viable. Farms that responded to an Ontario-wide survey we conducted reported average annual gross revenues of $94,786, but 54 per cent of farms reported bringing in less than $50,000.

To compensate for low revenues, many farmers have adopted low-wage labour strategies in order to survive. Most farmers we spoke with identified the top reasons for bringing interns and volunteers onto their farms as an imperative to lower labour costs. We often heard sentiments like: “As the farmer I do not make minimum wage for my work and I could not possibly provide enough veggies to pay all the workers a full wage.” The challenging financial situation faced by small to medium scale ecological farms has resulted in a dependency on interns and volunteers to meet labour demands.

Ethical and legal challenges

Dependency on interns and volunteers to fulfill labour needs is a significant issue for the ecologically oriented farming sector given the increasing public and legal scrutiny on internship programs across North America.

In 2013, two farm apprentices in BC submitted a formal complaint to the Ministry of Labour claiming that their work arrangement did not meet provincial employment standards, and were awarded several months worth of back-wages. Ontario farmers are deeply concerned that the use of non-wage workers may soon be judged to be in contravention of the provincial Employment Standards Act.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, if someone performs work that is of net-benefit to another person, company or organization they are considered an employee and entitled to?specific rights that include minimum wage. However, farmers and labour lawyers feel that Ontario’s laws are very unclear about the legality of unpaid agricultural internships and volunteer placements and this is compounded by various agricultural exemptions to employment law.

This also raises an important issue around the ethics of internship and volunteer positions being adopted as an educational model for new farmer training. This is particularly poignant considering Canada is facing an aging agricultural sector that saw the average age of farmers increase from 48 to 54 between 1991 and 2011. While there are some excellent internship and volunteer programs in Ontario like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (see sidebar below), there are also many that take advantage of young people and exploit their youthful energy and enthusiasm. For example, we heard from some interns and volunteers that spent well over 65 hours per week weeding, planting and harvesting with little actual training or broader insights into the farm’s operations. Furthermore, since many lived on the farm and felt isolated without access to transportation, they had little recourse to report any concerns or challenges they encountered.

This raises a major ethical concern around relying on this unregulated and informal model of training for new farmers. As the only way to gain the necessary ecological farming experience coupled with the risk of committing to a detrimental placement, the model may actually be a disincentive to some who might see farming as a valid career path. Additionally, “if they’re serious about farming,” a non-profit director told us, “farmers are realizing that they can’t actually build a business model based on volunteers or interns.” As a result, some have suggested that all interns and volunteers should be paid if they are engaged in farm work. Others have called for educational programs to be formalized or accredited like other trades in Canada. While there are no simple solutions, there needs to be a real conversation about the opportunities and limitations of the growing popularity of internships and volunteer placements on ecological farms. The vitality of the renaissance in ecological farming will in part be determined by how various actors in the farm sector negotiate the intern question.

For more information on the project, to comment on these issues or contact us please visit ?www.foodandlabour.ca.

Charles Z. Levkoe is Canadian Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems, Department of Health Sciences, Lakehead University. Michael Ekers is Assistant Professor, Department of Human Geography, University of Toronto, Scarborough.

About Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT)

CRAFT is a member-driven network that aims to enhance the internships offered by its member farms. The CRAFT network in Ontario began in the early 2000′s and was based on the original CRAFT network in Massachusetts and New York states. CRAFT aims to support the pursuit of practical skills and career development in ecological agriculture. Each CRAFT farm offers a full-season farming internship and teaches and mentors their interns in ecological farming methods. CRAFT plans education field days for all the interns, which typically include a workshop on a specific element of ecological farming (e.g. farm equipment, soil fertility, livestock care, business planning.), a farm tour, a work project or group activity and networking opportunities. For more information see http://www.craftontario.ca.