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Help daughter find a good farm internship opportunity & educational plan  RSS feed

 
Heather A. Downs
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I'm a concerned mother looking for advice and/or good opportunity leads for my young daughter. She is graduating high school at the end of this month and has set her heart on finding a farm internship to gain hands-on experience. Her ultimate dream is to live self-sustainably on land and teach wilderness/ primitive survival classes.

I would like to help her develop a long-range plan of education, experience and funding that she will need, but am not sure where to begin.

As for her short term farm internship goal... a lot of these sound less like learning opportunities to me and more like dirt cheap manual labor gigs, with many not even providing basic shelter or income of any kind. Is this the norm, and/or where do you find better opportunities? Do you need some experience for paid internships?

She doesn't have direct experience, but she does have a stable work history (worked part-time for the same bookstore for 3 years while attending high school), has team and leadership skills as a squad leader for 3 years in Navy Junior ROTC, has done various volunteer work, and won various academic and character awards. I know her reliability, loyalty and hard work ethic will be assets wherever she goes. Will her personal qualities and transferable skills be enough to get her a paid internship?

Also, what are some questions you ask prospective farms? Some I've thought of are: how many interns stay the full length of internship, how many accidents have there been in the last year, what do interns do after their internship, do you have a formal training program or is it informal, day-to-day learning? Do you work with colleges or universities to provide course credit?

Thank you so much for reading this. Any suggestions, information or personal experience would be greatly appreciated.
 
Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 176
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Hi Heather, welcome to Permies!

Most of my experience in the matter of internships, WWOOFers, etc. is indirect, as we have never had interns or similar on our ranch. So others may be able to give you more pertinent information, but I'll start things off.

Most of your formal internships or opportunities to formally spend time and learn on farm (or maybe even paid internships, which to my knowledge are extremely rare, if they exist at all) are going to be on larger, more well-known farms--what I think of as sort of "celebrity farms." Salatin's, Paul Wheaton's, geoff lawton's etc. Keep in mind that most of these are not paid, to my knowledge. If your daughter wants to get paid, she'll probably need to get hired for a specific position (perhaps animal care, cooking, cleaning, etc.). Or she may possibly be able to arrange payment for specific tasks that the farmer/host wants done above and beyond what is done by most interns, if she proves to be a particularly adept and/or hard worker, although I wouldn't count on this at all.

WOOFing and many farming "internships" are indeed "dirt cheap manual labor gigs" of a sort (although I don't wholly agree with the negative tone of that statement). The idea is that the intern exchanges their labor for the opportunity to learn, and possibly for some basic sustenance, not for money. And yeah, often this involves a degree of sleeping rough, etc. (many people who participate in this sort of thing are into backpacking, etc. and are comfortable with this; if your daughter is not, she should look for something that provides shelter and/or meals, or maybe view it as a chance to try out less luxurious living, especially if she is eventually planning to live off grid or in similar arrangments--many of us find that we like it!)

Here's the thing--most farms do not have an excess of money. If they are going to spend that money to hire someone, they're not going to spend it on someone young and inexperienced who's going to need a lot of guidance and supervision. They're going to hire a professional to complete a task that is specialized or difficult and needs doing. Honestly, the labor provided by many (most?) interns does not allow the farmer/rancher to even break even in terms of time spent supervising them, dealing with interpersonal conflicts and complaints (if there is more than one intern), arranging food/housing/transportation, not to mention teaching them...most interns are inefficient (which is natural and to be expected--no beginner is efficient). And often, if not given a lot of guidance, they will just sort of drift and shuffle about and become a liability in terms of time, work, and efficiency.

What I would be looking at in your/your daughter's shoes is whether or not she will *actually learn* some valuable skills, not whether she will get paid. If all she does the whole time is dig holes or move rocks or pull weeds or something, then yeah, she's not going to get much value out of that experience (although some of that is par for the course). If she is not very experienced in specific farm skills and is not proactive about it, she may very well end up as the general gopher around the farm because the owners are busy and it is easier to assign someone a manual task that they can't screw up and take care of the more delicate things oneself.

It would probably be best if she had some specific goals--does she want to learn how to operate heavy equipment? Set up PV systems? Run a CSA? Plant a forest garden? Restore a watershed? Grow vegetables organically? Manage a holistic orchard? Learn about medicinal herbs, timber framing, wildcrafting, primitive hunting skills? Compost with worms, breed chickens or plants, save seeds, milk goats, build fences, advertise and market effectively, etc? And then try to find opportunities that will allow her to fulfill those goals in particular, and discuss this with the hosts beforehand and judge their general enthusiasm for passing on these skills (and how much they actually seem to know about what they're teaching).

I would ask if the teacher/farmer is still in contact with previous interns and what those relationships are like, what those students are doing now, and if they would be willing to pass along my contact info (or vice versa) so that I could speak with the former interns about their experiences on the farm.

I would also ask how long they have been farming, and their goals for the farm in the future.

I would also try to get a general idea of their general approach--are they more oriented toward developing a market and making a profit in an ethical way, or are they more interested in self-sufficiency and only interested in profit insofar as it keeps their land from being repossessed; are they particularly interested in advancing knowledge about and sharing a particular skill or approach, but don't do much else, or are they generalists with a multitude of skills but no special area of expertise; are they "plant people," "animal people," or "infrastructure people," etc.

Just have a conversation with them and see if they feel like a good fit for your daughter's goals and general comfort levels and life philosophy. If they rub her the wrong way (or vice versa), flee.

If you/she are really dead set on a paid internship, my gut feeling is that you will be disappointed, but there are opportunities out there to hire on for a specific position, as I mentioned. Problem is, she'll be busy doing that and won't have as much time to learn. Depends on her priorities.

Honestly, a lot of farm experience is more about building confidence than it is learning specific skills. You can pick up the skills. Interning on a farm will give her access to things that would otherwise be difficult or prohibitively expensive to access (heavy equipment, large animals, woodlands to manage, etc.) Getting a sense of how/when to apply the skills that she learns to best effect comes with experience and can be greatly accelerated (and a lot of pain avoided) with good mentorship. If she can make connections with people who will support her into the future, that will be way more valuable than any technical knowledge she picks up. Frankly anyone can figure out how to grow vegetables or raise goats or install a solar array or whatever with a little self-directed learning and trial and error; she doesn't even need an internship for that.

If she wants to do primitive survival stuff involving plant identification, tracking, etc. (uncommon skill sets with the potential to be very dangerous if messed up--somebody eats the wrong mushroom, etc.) finding a good mentor would really be to her advantage, and most run of the mill farm internships will probably not advance her very far towards her goals.

It sounds to me like her biggest obstacles in the future are going to be saving enough money to buy sufficient land and developing enough of a skill set, reputation, and network to find enough students to make payments on that land and cover her expenses (especially in the beginning, before the land can provide most of her needs). I would give serious thought to how each and every move she makes gets her closer to overcoming those obstacles. What I would hate to see is if she just ends up as a serial intern/WWOOFer and it never really gets her any closer to getting her own place.








 
Becky Proske
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Location: Wisconsin, USA (zone 4b)
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Hi Heather, try searching for folk schools in your region. Most have some sort of work/study program where credits can be earned for classes. An internship at a folk school could present an opportunity to meet lots of people, make connections and build useful relationships while learning material pertinent to your daughter's interests. Here are two examples that I know of...

http://driftlessfolkschool.org/driftless-folk-school-and-bear-creek-farm-internship/

http://www.northhouse.org/programs/internships/index.htm
 
Heather A. Downs
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Wow Jennifer! Thank you so much for your and Becky's responses!

The "dirt cheap manual labor gig" was my initial impression of my daughter going off to another state shortly after graduating high school to work on a farm in exchange for 'staple' foods, no money, and, as my daughter excitedly told me... "She even said I could sleep in the van or the bus!" (like it was a good thing). I just wanted you to know that my daughter's initial reaction and mine were not the same. Knowing nothing about wwoofers or permie farm internships, all my red flag alarms were going off high blast... who are these people? what do you mean you found them on a website? what website? how do you know they're good people? how do you know you'll learn something? why don't they offer money? why don't they have a place for you to stay? why couldn't you find something in Texas? what about college? Oh I put her through the ringer with a gazillion questions... end result: She's determined. I know she's been wanting hands-on experience for years that my income level and our city apartment living couldn't provide, and it would be better for me to help her make better choices than to let her eagerly, over-enthusiastically charge off to yonder farm that talked to her first. So I've spent the past few days crash coursing through permies, aatra and helpx feeling like I've had to save her from her own enthusiasm. LOL Leaving the nest lessons in motherhood. She really had it goin' on all along.

The awesome news is that she had already advertised herself on one of the sites, was actively inquiring specific farms, and started to receive queries and resume requests from several farms that matched her interests. Two of them even offered small stipends (not a lot, but the principle of it made me feel better). She's had phone interviews with a few of the more promising ones this past weekend and finally made arrangements with the owner of the farm she likes best to go out there next month, two weeks after her graduation, for a 3-month internship.

It's a small 8-acre organic vegetable farm in Arizona with heirloom and hybrid crops. They sell to restaurants, in 3 farmer's markets and have a CSA. The farm is off-grid, uses solar panels, and has berms and earthworks. They will be working on some infrastructure projects this Summer which Kristen is really excited about. Also, the owner will teach her about all aspects of operating and maintaining a sustainable farming operation, including crop selection, marketing, as well as some farm and business planning. She'll work full-time. Bed preparation, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and getting ready for market. She'll stay in a small camper trailer that doesn't have hot water with another female intern who just graduated college. Food will be provided, but she has to cook it herself. And she'll receive a $75 week stipend. Her basic necessities are taken care of, and I've spoken with the owner (and google researched and verified him, even his past employment), so I'm cool and she, of course, is in seventh heaven!

Jennifer, what you wrote was on target, and I really appreciate it. Kristen did, too - she even copy/pasted some of your "goal" descriptions and took your last comment about being a "serial wwoofer/ intern" to heart. She saw so many farms she liked that she had been thinking "and then I could go there, then there", which is fine... if it truly fits into a larger game plan. I know she has really lucked out with the arrangements she has with this farm, and I hope it continues to pan out for her. There's no doubt in my mind it will be a learning experience for her. She's spent a couple years looking into wilderness survival schools around the country, and that's what I really had expected her to tackle first, but I think the immediate availability of getting hands-on experience through farm internships is a golden opportunity and top priority for her right now.

I'm thinking the trick will be for her to continue to have hands-on, immersion opportunities while working, getting a formal education and saving money. I've found a couple local resources where she can volunteer for urban farming, and a survival school that accepts wwoofers/ interns, and I'll continue to look for more ways she can develop relationships within the community that match her interests. Any ideas/ suggestions are definitely welcome! I'm not sure there are any sample business/ marketing plans online for a wilderness survival business, but I'll look for them. I'm sure there's some for farming!

Anyhow, I've really appreciated your feedback and will keep you guys posted, thank you so much!




 
Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 176
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Hi Heather!

I'm so glad that your daughter found what sounds like a wonderful opportunity, and that your mind is a little more at ease! I just wanted to say that it sounds like you and your daughter are really lucky to have each other--my own mother's support has been absolutely invaluable to me--even when she worried or put me through a concerned "interrogation" about what I was planning, it was always to help me and never to try to stand in my way or bring me down, and she was always my most enthusiastic supporter once she was reassured that I was serious about something and had thought it through, even if it was far from what she expected me to do in life. I really can't express how important that has been for me, and I imagine your daughter feels the same.

And my mom still worries (I'm 27 now, but I'm her only child)--I'm in the process of designing and building a house from scratch on our ranch, and I'm attending a timber framing workshop later this year because it's not an area in which I have a lot of experience...and when I told my mom about it on the phone, I said, "And I can camp in the neighbor's field, so I don't even have to worry about paying for lodgings, and some of the teachers/participants may be camping there, too! And the guy hosting the course can pick me up at the bus station, so I don't have to try to get my poor truck to Utah," and her Mom alarms went off, too! "And who is this man again? How old is he? Is he married? Who are these other people you'll be camping with? Are any of them women? Are you sure these people actually know how to build things? How much are they charging for this? Okay, I've got my pen, give me his website..." Now that she's convinced no one is trying to rip me off or harvest my organs, she's 100% behind me and is going to help out with logistical support while I'm away from the ranch so things don't fall apart when I'm gone. And actually, making sure I can answer the "Mom questions" before I decide on a course of action has saved me from more than one dubious decision in my life!

I hope you stick around Permies, and maybe invite your daughter to join if she hasn't! People here are very friendly and helpful, in my experience, and willing to offer advice and ideas on a vast array of topics. I would also suggest that your daughter check out the Worldwide Permaculture Network at permacultureglobal.org where she can create a profile, document the projects she is involved with (which will help with resume building), make connections (you can follow people whom you know or whose projects are interesting, and you can list people as your instructors or students, etc), maybe find more WWOOFing/internship opportunities--and later on the network that she builds there may be helpful when she reaches the point where she wants to offer her own services as a teacher or consultant or guide.

Do let us know how she gets on with her internship and other plans!
 
Heather A. Downs
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I loved the story about your mom, Jennifer ~ it was just like my conversation/ interrogation with Kristen. ; )

She's been interning at the farm for over two weeks now and most of my conversations with her have centered around food: her telling me how to make an easy and healthy Italian dressing that's awesome for salad mixes, how to make a "just add peanut butter" vegetable smoothie, how delicious the red potatoes and petite carrots are when roasted, and so on. She's sent me a couple pictures of the farm, but mostly pictures of her meals. LOL Kristen has always primarily been a meat eater and the other female intern is a vegetarian, so I guess she's been impressing Kristen with the flavor and taste of her favorite recipes. She's sold on fresh organics now and told me she will never go back. I told her I was glad I didn't have to worry about her going hungry, but that I really wanted to know more about what she was doing on the farm besides eating. She laughed and said, "Well, we always talk on the phone when I'm making dinner or after I eat."

She's been doing the usual stuff: harvesting crops, washing them to prepare them for market, planting new seedlings. Picking blackberries. Chasing bull snakes out of the cabbage. She skinned three of them, explaining to me that if she had (something?) she'd be able to get the skins soft and supple. She's learned how to work and trouble-shoot the generator that powers different areas of the farm. And last weekend was the first time she got to help set up and work the booth at the farmers market, weighing produce to calculate sales price, etc. The farmer sent me an email saying she was a great help at the market and was excellent at working with the customers. He has an off-farm job so Kristen has mostly been working under another farm manager intern, but after the end of this month the farmer will be on the property more ~ so Kristen will get to learn directly from him. Since she's been working at least 10 hours a day (by choice), I've felt like she was doing more than she was telling me (or maybe it's just repetitive) so I asked if she was writing everything down, and she told me yes, she'd brought a journal with her for just that reason. So, she's a happy camper on the farm front.

How is your project coming along?
 
Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 176
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Haha, I tend to be the same--always focused on the food! My parents complain that all my travel letters/emails read like the notes of an itinerant food critic. And there really is nothing like growing your own to make you appreciate it!

I also tend to be less of a meat eater now that I grow/raise all my own (ironic, I know, since I make my living from cattle ranching)--it's a lot more trouble & mess to process an animal than to pick a vegetable or piece of fruit, plus to be truthful I am not thrilled about killing tame animals that I've raised myself, so I mostly hunt/fish for my meat now.

It sounds like Kristen is learning a lot and making a great contribution, which is wonderful!

Alas, my project has stalled out a bit--I'm a caretaker for my dad (partially paralyzed) and increasingly for my uncle (Alzheimer's), and my aunt & grandmother have both had major surgeries recently so I've been doing a lot of visiting/running errands for them as well; having four people who can't drive or get around the house on their own relying on me has more or less put a stop to any grander ambitions for the moment. So I will unfortunately not be able to attend the workshop I was hoping to in August. On the bright side, one of my old school friends has moved in next door to me and is interested in homesteading skills (I'm trying to steer her toward permaculture!) and so I have been getting to teach her various preserving methods (canning/fermenting/dehydrating) for her excess garden produce, and soon we will be making wine & vinegar & jelly from our wild grapes that are currently ripening, and as it gets colder later in the year she'd like me to teach her how to make sausage and smoke meat as well as crochet & knit and do some needlework, too, so I'm pretty excited to have her coming around and visiting since I mostly don't have time to visit anyone myself right now, plus I enjoy it when someone actually cares about the skills I enjoy (since mostly no one does, heh.) Hopefully my relatives will get better, or at least learn to coordinate their health crises so they don't all fall apart at once (joking!) and I will get to work on building my house again soon-ish.

Really glad to hear that your daughter is enjoying life on the farm! I am trying to find a way of saying, "Enjoy it while it lasts," that doesn't sound too morbid--I guess my family situation is making me really appreciate the time I had in the past to travel & learn and do my own thing--looking back on it, even when I was working hard, it seems like it was so carefree. I love where I am now, but those years of not being tied down do take on a certain extra shine in retrospect, so I hope she really makes the most of it!
 
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