Working your Way on Farms

Considering farming as a career? If you’re like a great number of aspiring farmers, you’re on the look-out for ways to build hands-on skills and knowledge about running a farm enterprise. On-the-job learning — working on a farm, especially one that’s similar to the kind of operation you’re considering — can be a great way to gain experience, expertise and insight into what it takes to succeed as a farmer.

Spring is right around the corner, and farmers are hiring. A range of jobs are available starting soon. Some positions last the length of the growing season — and sometimes beyond, while others are shorter term, for key times during planting and harvesting.

Take Westminster Organics/Harlow Farm with 150 acres under cultivation in Westminster, Vermont. Currently, the farm is looking for a specialty grower to start as soon as possible and for the spring and summer, the farm is looking for employees to join their production crew, both part-time and full-time. As farm owner Paul Harlow explains, “We usually hire temporary employees starting in May or June depending on the weather. The job generally goes through October or November. We also hire college students who are only available for the summer.”

Last Resort Family & Sign

Doyle-Burrs family, Last Resort Farm

Unsurprisingly, most farms are advertising for employees with farming experience. But other experiences, skills, and approaches to work are just as important including:

  • Leadership,
  • Organization and reliability,
  • Equipment and machinery operation,
  • Website and social media marketing.
  • Team working and positive outlook.

We are looking for people who are excited to be here, are interested in farming, can take direction as well as show initiative. Students of agriculture, botany, or soil science can add a useful perspective. And people who are able to lead small groups of workers on specific tasks are useful. – Paul Harlow, Westminster Organics

Some farms explicitly acknowledge the role they have in educating the future farmers of New England. At Last Resort Farm in Monkton, farm owners, the Doyle-Burrs, hire local students to the extent possible. As Eugenie Doyle says,

We’re committed to educating young people about farming, as so few grow up on farms these days. Some of our best all-time workers have started as high school students who have stayed with us throughout college. What’s important is a strong work ethic, positive outlook, and eagerness to learn.

Drew & Brittany - Shakey Ground.png

Brittany & Drew, Shakey Ground Farm

A learning environment is what many young people new to farming are looking for. Drew Slabaugh, currently co-manager with his wife Brittany at Shakey Ground Farm, looks back on his choice to take a temporary employee route at New Leaf Organics Farm in Bristol. At the time, he and Brittany weren’t completely sure about farming as a career. As Drew puts it,

There’s less time commitment than applying to an incubator program and it’s probably better if you’re still exploring what type of farming you’d like to delve into but you’re willing to work hard. It’s a good combination of gaining education and experience while living on the farm and having access to food. While there are a range of abilities and attitudes to work among employees, you’ll be fine if you work hard and can take directions.

Employee openings can be found on most farms’ websites and on NOFA-Vermont and NOFA-MA for classifieds. For positions around the country, check out ATTRA’s Internship and Apprenticeship Directory.

In deciding which farm job could be right for you, consider your interests and skills.  If it’s customer-facing work in a retail setting, you may prefer a job where help is needed at farmers’ markets or a farm store or coordinating CSA pick-up. If you prefer using equipment, you may prefer being part of a large farm’s production crew where you’ll need some proficiency with agricultural equipment including tractors and implements.

Some questions to ask yourself and potential employers:

  • Teamwork – Will I be working solo or as part of a team? Will I be directly supervised?
  • Time demands – how many hours do employees work in a typical day? Is weekend work needed? What types of tasks will need to be completed by the end of the day?
  • Physical demands – how many pounds will I need to be able to lift?
  • Room for creativity – will there be opportunities to help with marketing e.g, farm display at farmers markets, marketing leaflets, website and social media presence?
  • Opportunities for communication-oriented work – does the farm get visitors and how many on a typical work day? Are farm tours offered?
  • Opportunities to gain management experience – will I get a chance to supervise others and lead weeding and picking teams?

For more recommendations on setting up a work/learning arrangement, consider the suggestions at NOFA-VT’s “Recommendations for Farm Workers/Apprentices” webpage.

The good news for aspiring farmers with no or limited experience, is that many of the larger farmers in New England will consider hiring you. As Paul at Westminster Organics says, “We hire people with no experience every year. As long as people are motivated and willing to learn, we will train them.”

Farm worker classification

Since the classifications of workers on farms can be confusing, it’s important for jobseekers and farm owners/managers to recognize that farm workers by default are classified as employees, that is, if someone performs work for a for-profit business, the assumption is that he or she is an employee.  This means that state and federal minimum wage laws do apply. Typically, compensation for employees is advertised as an hourly rate, but perks such as fresh vegetables are available with most farms saying, “We’ll make excess produce available to all employees.” And sometimes housing is available and the use of vehicle is permitted. Farmers are allowed to pay their employees in room and board to meet any minimum wage requirements.

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About Suzy Hodgson

Suzy works on and writes about issues at the intersections of risk, climate, economics, food, waste, and energy. She is based at UVM Extension's Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
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