• Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
permaculture forums growies critters building homesteading energy monies kitchen purity ungarbage community wilderness fiber arts art permaculture artisans regional education skip experiences global resources cider press projects digital market permies.com private forums all forums
this forum made possible by our volunteer staff, including ...
master stewards:
  • Nicole Alderman
  • Anne Miller
  • Pearl Sutton
  • Joylynn Hardesty
  • James Freyr
  • paul wheaton
  • Mike Haasl
  • r ranson
  • Jocelyn Campbell
master gardeners:
  • Steve Thorn
  • Greg Martin
  • Jay Angler
  • thomas rubino
  • Kate Downham

Best Intern Advice - Being One, Hosting Them

Posts: 1285
Location: Okanogan Highlands, Washington
hugelkultur cat dog books food preservation
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I've had the pleasure of watching a lot of different people and homesteads host interns. Since people call it different things, what do I mean by an intern?

1) The internship does not pay well, if at all. Some programs charge interns an up-front cost for tuition, room, and board. Some hosts provide some or all of the above on a work-trade basis. Interns are almost always responsible for their own phone service, clothing, medications, travel, and any other extras they may need. Because interns tend to travel and live off their savings, the majority of interns come from a more affluent background even if they are not personally wealthy. There are a few paid internships such as AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, or corporate internships, but these are the exception and may still share some of the qualities below.

2) The internship is intended as a learning or recreational experience. The interns are rarely expected to bring any particular skills or expertise; and people of all ages can do it.

3) Some interest in the work or topic is expected, but it varies. Some interns are passionate about the setting or work; others are just looking to try something different.

4) The internships are usually for a limited time, such as a summer, or a few weeks of a traveller's vacation.

5) Expectations usually are low on both sides, with success a bonus. Most experienced hosts plan have permanent staff who are responsible for the bread-and-butter work, with intern or volunteer contributions a welcome but non-essential extra.

6) Many internships feature a "good cause." Most would count as community service. The hosts might emphasize virtuous practices such as organic farming, wildlife stewardship, education, appropriate technology, religious principles, ethical community organizing, heritage craftsmanship, or other values. The specifics vary widely: a patriarchal Christian homestead, a consensus-based Wiccan education center, or a secular pet shelter might all attract interns.

The intern relationship might also be called WWOOFing, farm interns, volunteers, "apprentices", etc.

An introductory-level paid position at a nursery would probably not be an internship - it's a job.
A volunteer who comes every Friday for years to a particular non-profit might not be an intern either - though their experience might be very similar for the first year or so.
A farmer's kid who is not interested in the family farm but has to help anyway is probably not an intern - their relationship is different, based on family obligations rather than interest or learning.

I'm working on an article (intended for publication through PRI's website at permaculturenews.org) about how to have a great experience with the internship process, either as an intern, or as a host.

I have some quotes from respected locals who are doing a great job with farm or building-apprentice interns. I'd love more ideas from others about what makes a good intern experience.
I'd like permission to use quotes from this thread, so please let me know if what you say should NOT be quoted for any reason. Quotes will remain anonymous unless you give explicit permission otherwise.

Thanks in advance,
Erica W

-edited to make the description more complete
Erica Wisner
Posts: 1285
Location: Okanogan Highlands, Washington
hugelkultur cat dog books food preservation
  • Likes 2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Some of the quotes so far:

- Communication is key. The longer we do this, the better I get at being clear about what to expect, and what is expected. I started out with a sort of "All Are Welcome" attitude and little notes here and there; I figured we'd just work things out as we went along. Now every intern gets a copy of my 11-page introduction to how we do things around here. It's still friendly, but we've learned a lot about what does NOT work. And it's important that everyone hear it once, because otherwise we are repeating past mistakes and I sometimes forget that the new person hasn't been told yet.

- I talk to people in person or on the phone beforehand. If I get that "bad feeling" talking to someone, I don't take things any further.

- Personal responsibility is huge. I had one intern who was just absolutely frightening with power tools - willing to pick up any tool whether he'd been trained or not, and terrifying to watch. And he would not accept limits about what he was or was not allowed to do, including staying clean and sober while using power tools. I had to ask him to leave before he hurt himself or someone else.

- Cleaning up after yourself. As someone who's interned in a lot of places, you notice when people don't pick up after themselves in the kitchen, or leave things lying around. By the end of the summer the intern quarters can be really disgusting, and you are embarrassed for everyone involved.

- Accountability. If someone says they will do something, is it done? If someone realizes they don't have the skills or information to do a task, do they come back and ask for help? If someone is always like, "Yes, yes," but then it never gets done, you can't afford to count on them. (It's really bad if someone is unreliable AND touchy - if they get offended when you make back-up plans around their flakiness, lateness, or whatever. Just be accountable. Either do it, or tell us it's not happening.)

- I had to ask someone to leave after he got drunk and went into my family's house, and I got a text from my kids that they were scared. I usually don't mind if people bring home some beer or whatever, but this guy was out of control, and he didn't understand why it was a problem.

- Participatory decision making. If you are given a project, and you get to decide how you want to do it, or you are able to suggest new projects to try in your spare time. Of all the places I've been on, the ones that let me take on some of my own projects are my favorites.

- Intern projects tend to proliferate, and they are often not well thought-out and hard to maintain. Unless future interns take an interest and maintain and improve things, they will likely need to be torn down and that's another chore for somebody.

- The intern quarters here were a workshop project (student-designed), and they're kinda moldy. I think if you're going to teach people how to build things, you should be teaching them how to do it right, and that includes maintaining them. Instead of each class having a new project, how about putting the interns to work on making their own living quarters be up to standard?

- We say if it's an internship, about half their time should be spent on a personal project that they've helped define as a learning experience, and the other half can be spent on regular work that is helpful to our daily routine. If you are just having them do regular work the whole time, you should be paying minimum wage. An educational internship is different from work-study, is different from a starting-level job.

- A big part of any educational experience, and any workplace with a lot of turn-over, is that you are repeating the basics to each new face that comes in. This might be the single biggest factor in whether you can work well with interns or apprentices: Can you repeat yourself cheerfully? If you get frustrated by the 17th time you've said something, even though this particular person may only have heard it once or twice, then hosting interns is going to be miserable for you. If you can turn it into a sort of game, where each time you repeat yourself you are trying to be clearer, or have more fun, or write a better sign so it's easier for people to find their way, then you may be able to enjoy hosting strangers for years on end.

- Privacy is important. Do you have a place you can go to unwind, can spread out a little, or have things how you like them? A lot of hosts have separate kitchens for interns and the permanent residents, or a private retreat (like an office or sleep-out). Winter quarters may be everyone together, because it's a smaller group and by then it's usually only the most dedicated and easiest-to-get-along-with people. But for the busy summer season, a separate intern hangout space that is not right under the hosts' bedroom window makes live easier for everybody.

- A farm can be pretty isolated for people who come from the city. We try to make sure the interns get at least one day in town, usually the farmer's market day, and give them some free time to do errands or meet up with folks. We also did a pot-luck "intern dinner" with some other farmers at least once a month, once a week in the busy season, so the interns could hang out with other like-minded people.

- A lot of people have no idea how monotonous the work can be. If interns are given a simple chore and left to work alone, morale goes in the toilet. It's better to assign people in pairs or in groups, or have them shadow an experienced person.

- Internships may be free, but if you are going to travel around and do this for a while, it takes money. You need enough in savings to cover travel costs, phone and other personal bills, and any emergencies where you might need to bail out of somewhere and get a hotel for a few nights.

- Work may take longer with a lot of novice "help" than with a few experienced people. For workshops, we estimate that a class of 12 to 20 people will take about 3 times as long as a crew of 4 experienced workers. There's a knack to identifying tasks that can be delegated effectively to a specific person, so that the work goes faster instead of slower. If you are good at evaluating people's capacity, you can often find jobs they can usefully do, but don't be surprised if sometimes they make serious mistakes, or do more damage than they can fix. Delicate tasks are not good intern tasks, at least not until you know they have the experience, skill, or personal aptitude for that specific thing.

- Consideration is the biggest thing. Do you respect quiet hours? Do you clean up after yourself in the kitchen, and when you do personal projects? Do you follow instructions that affect everybody's quality of life, like rotating the potable water, or putting perishables back in the fridge promptly, so people don't get sick?

- People are generally pretty awesome. Even if you don't get along with a particular host, they will usually know some other people locally who also take interns, sometimes they will even help you find a better fit. A lot of folks I know will "share" interns, arranging for them to split their week, or join big work-parties in different places for variety.

- If you are interning, especially if you are hoping to find a permanent place on a permaculture farm, it may take several tries to find a place that's the right fit. Some of that is finding people who share your values not just in the big things, but in little toothpaste-cap type stuff. Some people love consensus and want to practice doing it right; some people can't stand endless meetings and are much happier in a place that is more hierarchical and delegates a lot of tasks autonomously. Some of it is your own maturation: becoming more responsible, self-knowledge, learning your own skills and aptitudes and tolerances, so you can be more accurate when you make agreements. That applies to both interns and hosts. For a host or organization, it takes time to establish successful patterns, and to clarify what you need and expect from new people, what the place can and can't tolerate. Some people love the chaos and freedom of starting out, despite the miserable living conditions while you're building infrastructure. Some people are happiest when things are settled down and you can plug into an established daily routine. The best internships can turn into life-long relationships, but those are something special. It's not easy to live with other people. It takes work to get along together.


Attributes that are necessary:
- Honesty: Secrets don't last long in the intimacy of a live-in working relationship, but they can do a lot of damage.
- Accountability: Honor your word. Do tasks as shown, to the best of your ability. Complete or report back on all tasks before leaving. As host, be accurate, and deliver what you promise (instruction, work conditions, rewards).
- Persistence: Don't give up on the first try (or the second). If you don't know how to do it, research it or get help. As host, be prepared to repeat instructions or rotate through several different tasks to find a good fit for each intern.
- Self Knowledge: Delusions about yourself, your skills, or your tolerances can lead to terrible intern experiences. If you have a persistant complaint about everyone else's faults, the fault may lie in you.
- Communication: Be clear about what's working and what's not. If something is unclear, ask.
- Consideration: 50/50 is not a recipe for a good marriage - it's how you split things up in a divorce. For a successful partnership where people live together, everyone needs to give 100%. Think about how your choices affect others.
- Humor: Do you enjoy laughing at yourself, and take delight in amusing others? Caution before mocking others, however: some love snide, angry, or sarcastic wit, or humorous reprimands, but others find them hurtful.
- Do you like people? This is a people project. Hosts who prefer to work alone may not make good intern mentors. People who can't stand being bossed around and want to make their own mistakes may not make good interns.
- No Free Lunch: Internships take work on both sides. This is not an easy way to get cheap labor, or a no-work ticket to free meals and squatting rights. It is just a different flavor of work, with its own costs and benefits.

Attributes that are optional, but you'll want to find them out accurately for a good fit:
Noise/quiet hours;
Substance use (Drink, Drugs, Smoke)
Religious tolerance and intolerances
Farming practices, business or organizational ideas
Housing and privacy (camping, private rooms, dorms, intern suite with kitchen, B&B?)
Pets, kids, on-site sweeties
Work hours & pay: 8- to 16-hour workday like a real farmer (wages optional) / 4 to 6 hour WWOOF day with room, board, & 1 day off each week / 2 to 4 hours at your convenience / Drop by anytime / B&B vacation or class (visitor pays host)
Living standard: ADA accessible? Up to code? Alternative lifestyle? Rough-and-ready primitive facilities? Illegal squatting or roaming the wilderness? Washer/dryer, toilets, bathing? Access to medical care? Transportation or fitness required?
Posts: 4665
Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
hugelkultur forest garden fungi books bee greening the desert
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Erica, I have just finished reading this book by Joel Salatin. It has all sorts of good information on how they do it at Polyface Farm.

gardener & author
Posts: 1906
Location: Ladakh, Indian Himalayas at 10,500 feet, zone 5
trees food preservation solar greening the desert
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I'm the volunteer coordinator for our school, and both of Erica's posts have accurate descriptions of our experience and lots of good advice that I think I will try, and a few things that are not applicable to our situation.

Some things I've seen from about 20 years of having volunteers here. They may well not be applicable to other places.

Charging volunteers for their room and board improved the quality of volunteers dramatically. Before we charged, every year we'd get some kid who had come to India for a 6 month visa but had run out of money or energy and found our school to be a cheap or free place to hang around, usually just listening to his Walkman and writing in his journal. As soon as we charged a little for room and board, that category of annoying "volunteer" vanished.

Over the years we've raised the room and board so that now it actually subsidises the food and housing for the local kids in our school, who are the actual target beneficiaries, right? Every time we raised it, there seemed to be a spike in volunteer enquiries, though I think that's just an accidental correlation as the number of volunteers is just skyrocketing anyway. The past three years we've had to say no to many inquiries, and this year I blocked off four whole months of the calendar on the website saying "No additional volunteers needed at that time," but I still get about 6 inquiries per week wanting to come in that time.

People often say that our room and board is expensive for their personal situation, and ask for a concession. It is, frankly, more expensive than if you travel in India on the cheap. But we get so many volunteer inquiries, and I can't really see how to sort them for quality on the basis of their emails, so being unyielding on the room and board is easy. Occasionally someone seem really interesting and useful, or a deserving category, so we do agree to a concession -- and then they usually turn out to be irritating in one way or another. For example, the Indian college student several years ago -- there used to be so few domestic volunteers we thought that Indian students should get a concession -- but all I remember about that girl being drunk in the most expensive restaurant in town (It sticks in my memory because I've never seen anybody else fall right off their chair for no reason). Now we get heaps of domestic students wanting to volunteer, so that concession is out.

A current website, and updating it, seems to attract huge numbers of would-be volunteers. I know there are many other places in Ladakh that would love to have volunteers, but they don't have websites, or in 2015 their websites still say "In 2011 we hope to finish the...". Or they don't reply to email. Or if they do, they don't have an American volunteer coordinator answering all their questions about travel, visas, weather, packing, etc.

We write that we want the volunteers for sort of educational stuff, but I think our solar-heated and -powered campus with organic gardens attracts a lot of them. We are in a region that burst onto the domestic tourist map 4 years ago, and the number of domestic volunteer inquiries has skyrocketed.

So, perhaps the reasons we attract so many volunteers are:
1) up to date-ish website and talkative email replies.
2) being located in the tourist destination of the decade.
3) appearing to be (and I think we are) cool and groovy in other ways than just what the volunteer will be involved with.

Often when I try to foist extra would-be volunteers off on some village school that has asked me for volunteers, the volunteer deluges me with questions and I have to say "Look, that opportunity is only for a person who is willing to take a leap into the unknown. I have no idea what your living situation or daily schedule will be there. Most volunteers I've sent to that village have loved it." And then most of them don't end up coming, so I guess the majority of would-be volunteers really need a person they can ask lots of questions. The rare independent volunteer who is ready to go for it anyway is a gem.

We have pretty low standards of what we expect our volunteers to provide at our school. We use them for English conversation class daily (good fun and learning for all concerned), activities like art or dance workshops, and they can join work hour but we don't force them to. We try not to let them teach unless they are already teachers, but somehow that often happens. Sometimes we've asked a volunteer to get something written -- and all our hard disks are littered with the unfinished detritus. It's more work to tell someone everything they need to know in order to write something, than to write it ourselves, and we couldn't get around to it in the first place.

But a lot of those generally friendly volunteers are great, good people to get to know, have all kinds of interesting knowledge and experiences to share, and that's fine. And some of them definitely jump in and help with lots of stuff. Some initiate things and complete them, some help really well with what they're asked to do, and some are just nice to have around for a while and do some fun stuff.
Posts: 18
Location: Bc most of the time
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Working as an Intern on and off for four years now i've come to realize that having a goal makes all the difference. Having done a handful of internships i have a very good basic knowledge of the works of a farm, so as the growing season slowly creeps up and i start think about my next intern position i try to think what it is i would really like to learn for that year. For example this year my interests really lie in the business side of things. Trying to see the side of farming that isn't often shared with interns narrows my jobs search down , because now i need to find someone who is looking for help with book keeping and paperwork ( not everyone will be willing to share personal information with interns ). Working a specific list of what you want as an intern and what you want to offer as a hosts narrows the possibilities , which may seems scary but in the end i believe will offer you the best opportunities. It's very easy for a farm to sound perfect, and there are a lot of them out there. So narrowing your searches will help you find what you are truly looking for.

Im not the best writer but you can quote this if you like
- dakota varen
Erica Wisner
Posts: 1285
Location: Okanogan Highlands, Washington
hugelkultur cat dog books food preservation
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Thanks Dakota, Rebecca, and Miles. All good points.

I like Dakota's point about narrowing what you want. The idea of learning the business side is a great example. I think my quote about wanting participatory decision-making is another example - that's really important for some folks, but others are perfectly content to be "helpers" with an authoritarian boss.

Some of my limiting goals were an interest in natural building - the first place I WWOOFed stood out because they lived in a passive-solar home - or by a region that I really wanted to visit. In going abroad, I wanted a place with a similar climate to home, so that any ecologically-based lessons might apply better when I came back. Since I grew up in Oregon, New Zealand was a lovely sort of option: we called it "Oregon upside-down," a similar latitude and marine-influenced climate, but the opposite hemisphere. In a way it doesn't matter what you pick first, as long as it genuinely motivates you.

Rebecca - I appreciated the insights into how to make a program attractive enough that you can turn down volunteers, or have their fees subsidize the work of the school. Your point about having more "cool" things going on than just the assigned volunteer work is right on.

It reminds me of the City Repair Project's community sites. The sites with more variety of things going on would often be swamped by volunteers, while a nearby site with a single, focused project might be just the locals workig together. Most of the volunteers who would come into town for the week were interested in more than one type of project (community gardens, public art, permaculture food-forest plantings, greywater, seed-saving and seed-ball guerilla gardening, cob and timber-frame and straw-bale building, living roofs) so if a site already had one or two of these things in place and was building two more, it would get gobs of people.
The description of the site might affect people's perception of how much was going on - if they didn't mention last year's projects, they might not get as many sight-seeing volunteers.
Portland, like your area from the sounds of it, is a hub for people with relevant interests anyway, so it's easy to find people interested in any free event or workshop, and to fill reasonably-priced ones too.

Then there's the famous-character element: Toby Hemenway has quite a following from his university classes, permaculture courses, and the book Gaia's Garden, so when he turned his small urban backyard into a demonstration site one year for a rocket-powered pajareque (woven straw and mud) sauna, greywater demonstration, and of course his existing micro-food-forestry and ongoing projects, the pressure was intense. The sign-in sheet showed over 500 volunteers per day for several of the 10 days, one day was over 600. Of course at that crazy pressure your crowd is almost boiling away faster than you can do anything with them, and there was a lot of damage done by well-intentioned "help" standing on delicate things and so on.
So I would imagine that if you want your project to be REALLY swamped with interest, write a book. Or put your story out there with a blog or podcast that people can follow, and they start fantasizing about being there.

Miles - I love the premise, that this may not just be a fun way to have a vacation or some companionship, but to actually recruit replacements for the farm kids that are leaving for the cities, and get some of the knowledge passed on from aging expert farmers to a new generation that cares.

I feel the same way about getting people connected with Ernie about boatbuilding and sailing. He is such a dedicated mariner and fisherman, and he's pretty disgusted with the way our country is selling out its fisheries to overseas monster trawlers. And yes, we may get a chance this year to help build a rocket mass heater on a boat. Thank you.
(The deeper connection is that a lot of what's affecting the ocean, especially his beloved Arctic, has to do with energy use on land, and the extraction and exploration for more fossil fuels. So if we can help people do a little less damage, while earning the funds and materials for the next boat, it seems like the ocean might last a little longer for us to get back out on it.)

Permaculture is such a broad category - a lot of people do the landscaping part as originally described, but I see so many connections to the structures of livelihoods, transport and trade, and the rest of 'civilization' as well.


We must storm this mad man's lab and destroy his villanous bomb! Are you with me tiny ad?
Dairy Farming: The Beautiful Way by Adam Klaus
    Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic