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How to Become a Farm Apprentice

Before I ended up with my own small farm, I apprenticed at several different farms over the course of about seven years. Here’s how to become a farm apprentice and some things you should consider before doing so.

What is a Farm Apprentice?

Let’s first get clear what we are talking about. A farm apprentice is someone who works on a farm, either paid or unpaid, to learn about that type of farming operation. You might live on the farm or not, you might work full time or not. Farms can range from You-Pick berry operations to dairy farms to CSAs. Farm apprentices can be any age and come from any background. Some might call it a farm “intern” rather than apprentice, but they are pretty much the same thing. Apprentice just sounds better and more serious to me.

Why be a Farm Apprentice?

Gain Experience

Farm apprenticeships are an excellent way to learn farming skills. I had zero farming experience when I went to my first apprenticeship at a small sheep and vegetable farm.

By the time I left two months later I knew how to spot an ewe in labor and the basics of how to assist. I helped with shearing and began to learn how to use a spinning wheel. I became very familiar with quack grass and how to best remove it from a raspberry patch.

For weeks I put up what felt like MILES of high tensile fencing and learned what a miracle an auger on a tractor is after having drilled fence holes with a hand auger.

There I learned about sourdough starter and how to make sourdough bread. I also learned how to split wood and became pretty darn good at it.

That’s the beauty of apprenticeships. You can learn about different types of farming without making a huge commitment, and gain tons of knowledge from those who have a better idea of what they are doing.

Explore Different Types of Farms with No Invesetment

Rather than invest in a herd of goats to determine goats are a total pain in the ass and you don’t want to deal with them, you could spend a month or more working on a small goat dairy. It costs you nothing but time and effort, and in the end you’ve learned a lot and will be a much better goat owner (or not!).

Maybe you want to keep bees. Rather than buy a bunch of hives and take a stab at it with YouTube as your guide, find a beekeeper or apiary. Offer free help in exchange for the experience. You’ll save money by simply learning firsthand what mistakes NOT to make later.

shepherdess rough and tumble farmhouse
My first apprenticeship over a decade ago!

Live New Places

Each farm I worked at ended up being in the middle to northern part of Minnesota. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t up for traveling to new places, and I certainly could have! I’ll share resources below where people post internship opportunities all over the country and world.

Many farm apprenticeships come with room and board. If you have low living expenses beyond that, you can move to a completely new place and see what it is like without the costs of moving somewhere new.

Before You Become a Farm Apprentice

After working at several farms for various amounts of time, I learned a lot of lessons in terms of what I’d do differently if I were to start fresh as a farm apprentice.

Know Thyself

Before you become a farm apprentice you need to know yourself well and be honest. Can you really share a 10×10 cabin with a complete stranger for four months? Are you comfortable living in a place with no running water or electricity? These are just some of the situations you might come across as you look at potential apprenticeships. Some things you won’t find out about yourself until you get there. Other things you know already, just be honest with yourself. It’s hard on everyone if the apprenticeship isn’t the right fit, so be scrupulous with your decision in this area.

What is the Living Situation?

Find out what type of accommodations are going to be available to you at this farm. Is it a separate private cabin? Do you have roommates? Does the bathroom function properly? Do you have your own shower or is it shared? Are you in your own bedroom in the same house as the farmers themselves?

I’ve experienced pretty much all of the above. For or anything longer than about one week I need my own space away from the main house. Could just be the size of a garden shed, that’s fine. I find that by being in a room within the main house I always feel like a house guest and can never fully relax.

farm apprentice cabin rough and tumble farmhouse
My beloved cabin/home for four years.

What is the time commitment?

Prior to beginning the apprenticeship set solid dates for starting and ending.

You should also get straight right away what the time commitment is each day. Are you full time 8:00am-4:00pm, then you’re off the clock? Do you get weekends off? Is it a time card situation and if yes how do you keep track of your time?

Be crystal clear about this and if you are comfortable asking I would recommend getting it in writing.

What are the work duties and expectations?

This is another good one to get in writing. What exactly will you be responsible for? Let’s say an internship has you shoveling out horse stalls for eight hours a day, but you get no experience working with horses or being taught by a mentor. Yeah, no thanks. Sure mucking stalls should be part of the responsibilities but not the whole job.

Any internship where the farmer/mentor isn’t out there working as hard as you is not a person you want to work for. You are an apprentice, there to learn a skill. You aren’t a slave there to do all the grunt work.

At one apprenticeship we split a lot of wood. One of my tasks for the day was to split a huge stack of wood, then pile some of the larger logs into a pickup for transporting elsewhere.

I split the wood, filled the pickup with the larger logs I was told not to split, and was left with three or four humongous chunks of wood that I couldn’t split and certainly couldn’t lift. We’re talking full on stumps here that my arms wouldn’t reach around. They easily weighed well over 100 pounds each. When the farmer got home they were annoyed. “Why didn’t you put all the wood in the pickup like I asked?” I was dumbfounded. I’m just one woman and there was no way I could heave a giant stump into the back of the pickup by myself. Yet that was the farmer’s expectation. Not a word of thanks for the heavy labor of splitting and loading a massive pile of wood.

As time went on this particular farmer continued to have some wild expectations for what I should be able to achieve in a day. Ultimately that was part of why that apprenticeship wasn’t the right fit.

keeping a greenhouse warm rough and tumble farmhouse
We spent HOURS burying candles covered with pots to keep a greenhouse warm during a late freeze.

Do you need off-farm income while an apprentice?

My longest apprenticeship lasted four years. I lived and worked on this farm year round. During that time I was employed 40 hours per week in a nearby town. After I got home from work I changed into my other work clothes and headed out to the fields for a few hours. Most weekends I worked in the fields the whole time with maybe an afternoon off here and there. I was paid with room and board during the growing season.

My working off farm was a necessity as I have student loans, car payment, etc. This worked well for me and well for the farmers who also had off-farm jobs.

The point is, if you need off-farm income, is there a good opportunity in that area? I had another apprenticeship that I enjoyed but there were no good opportunities for me to advance my off-farm job skills. Most farmers today have an off-farm job to boot, so insure you have access to job opportunities if this apprenticeship is long term.

Can you still have a social life?

This is again for any farm apprenticeships longer than a month or so. Is this farm in the middle of absolute no where? How far away is there a community that you can be a part of?

That doesn’t necessarily mean a big booming town full of arts and culture. For me, my longest apprenticeship was close-ish to many different small towns. There were festivals, community education classes, restaurants, etc. that I could take part in.

More than that, the area had a nice community of other small farmers with similar mindsets. We’d have bonfires or people over for dinner, some I knew before and others I just met.

Going back to another apprenticeship I had, it was very isolated. I worked an off-farm job there too, would come home, do farm work, go to bed. We didn’t have much for visitors and it was an area with few other farms like ours. I’m not exactly a social butterfly but it felt very isolating and was ultimately part of why I didn’t stick around after my commitment was over.

What is the Food Situation?

Food is the “board” part of the “room and board” offering most apprenticeships provide. You might want to know what this means. Is it food from the farm? Who is doing the cooking? Are they willing to be flexible with your dietary needs?

Part of this, which is also a throwback to the living situation, is that having a shared kitchen can be challenging. Especially if you plan to preserve any food, make cheese, etc. Trying to operate in another woman’s kitchen (or man’s, let’s not be sexist here) can be a challenge and make you feel intrusive.

As I write this I sit at the island counter in my own kitchen and am taking a moment to appreciate every single cupboard and drawer is how I want it and use it. Ahhhh what a feeling.

What are the people like?

This unfortunately you won’t really figure out until you spend time with whoever your new farm mentors are.

I truly loved and am still friends with all the people I apprenticed with to this day.

Yet, my four year apprenticeship family truly became that, my family. We were able to work 12+ hard days on a vegetable farm, come in and make dinner together and gab over the meal. Then we’d all get cleaned up and most nights the adults would hang out together in the kitchen drinking a beer or watching something on Netflix.

I’m not saying you need to jive perfectly with your mentors, but finding people who share mutual respect and friendship is something to hope and work for.

farm wedding rough and tumble farmhouse
My farm family. Ryan, my mentor, was one of my “bridesmen”.

What is the compensation?

Room and board is pretty standard for most apprenticeships. If it is paid, what and how are you getting paid? Do you need to claim it on your taxes? How are your hours being kept track of?

This is another one I’d get in writing. How much are you getting paid, how are hours recorded, and what day each month will you receive your payment?

Insurance

When working on another person’s farm it is good to find out if they have insurance for injuries. I had great health insurance through my off-farm job when when working at my four year apprenticeship.

When I tripped in the chicken yard and sliced my hand open on some sheet metal, I had to get five stitches in my hand and go to urgent care. My insurance covered all of it, but if it hadn’t the farm had insurance for situations like that and they wouldn have covered my expenses.

If you do not have your own health insurance, make sure the farm has some kind of coverage in case you get hurt on the job.

How do I find farm apprenticeships?

A great place to start is the ATTRA website. They have a great database for farm internships available.

WWOOF is another option especially if you are looking to work globally.

Another way is to attend farming conferences and other local farm events to meet farmers.

Finally, start googling the type of farms you think you might want to work at. Check out their websites and see if they offer an intern program. Even if they don’t, reach out and see if they are looking for help. Most farmers appreciate good, free labor.

Final Thoughts How to Become a Farm Apprentice

Farming is hard work. Period. If you have this idealic view of sitting in an open meadow with your well behaved flock of free-range sheep whilst you strum a lute, followed by an evening of making mead and sleeping under the stars, you are up for a real shock.

Sure, there are moments of rest and time for fun activities. When it gets right down to it, you need to find joy in the labor itself, joy in the work. If you show up at a farm not willing to absolutely work your tail off, or you show up with out a humble heart ready to listen and learn, you are going to have a hard time. Just because you read a couple Joel Salatin books doesn’t make you an expert in anything. What sounds good on the page doesn’t always work as slick in real life.

Come ready to work, ready to learn, and ready for a potentially life changing experience.

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