Lately there has been quite a lot of discussion on the ASCFG Bulletin Board on the subject of on-farm internships. Based on discussions at recent ASCFG Board meetings and following the written threads, I thought I might take this opportunity to summarize some of the thoughts expressed by members, highlight legal issues growers should be aware of, and detail some of the resources available so that people wishing to host interns can do so in a legal and mutually beneficial manner.

With the average age of farmers in the United States hovering in the mid fifties and with so many financial and technical barriers to becoming a new farmer, there is certainly a need to help grow the next generation of farmers by providing real world experience and training opportunities. However, is this right for you and for your farm operation? Are you able to make the commitment to training and education that is inherent to hosting interns? Some growers have expressed the very valid concern that reliance on cheap intern labor creates an unfair market advantage, and penalizes growers who pay fair wages for all of their labor. While there is certainly a lot of truth in this assertion, especially in the more egregious arrangements, growers who take on interns typically sacrifice some level of production efficiency via their time commitment to education and the short-term personnel turnover that necessitates constant recruitment and retraining.

Education and Evaluation

The commitment to education is a first level requirement for on-farm internships, along with a willingness to involve interns in all aspects of production. Commonly, growers also provide at least partial room and board, or at a minimum, help in finding housing. In many cases the mentor grower will also provide some level of feedback and evaluation to the mentee. Unfortunately, federal labor laws, designed to protect employees from unscrupulous employers, do not provide a precise definition of internships, nor do they attribute tangible value to the learning process that interns typically seek. What is clear is that federal labor laws require that all employees be paid minimum wage for all hours worked. Distinguishing interns from employees can be a difficult issue and may require specific legal counsel.

To meet the legal definition of an intern and thus be partially exempt from federal wage and overtime requirements, internships must satisfy the following six conditions: 1) training should be similar to that provided by vocational schools, 2) training should primarily be for the benefit of the trainee, 3) the presence of trainees should not displace other paid workers performing the same tasks, 4) employers should derive no immediate advantage from the presence of interns, in fact interns may actually impede production efficiency, 5) trainees are not necessarily entitled to employment at the end of the internship period, and 6) employer and trainees understand in advance that trainees will not receive wages for all of their work. See the website: http://definitions.uslegal.com/i/internship/ for a more complete explanation of these six qualifiers.

The only way to be in complete legal compliance is to pay your interns for all of their labor.

Anything that you would normally pay an employee to accomplish, you must also pay interns to do. The grower has the legal right not to pay interns for time explicitly spent in education and training, but that is all. I encourage all employers and potential mentors to look closely at the U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet on Labor Laws: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs12.htm. This document contains a wealth of critical information about the labor laws designed to protect employees and provides good guidance on compliance so that you never find yourself the subject of a labor board complaint.

In January, there was a good, if not a bit discouraging session on this topic at the Ecofarm Conference in Asilomar. Follow this link http://www.eco-farm.org/programs/efc/ and then click on the “Download Ecofarm CD and MP3 order form” and go to Session D where you will find a session called “Are Internships Illegal?” Folks may be interested in purchasing this CD. It contains lots of valuable insights and there were some good handouts available providing practical, though not necessarily legal, advice for growers wishing to have internships.

Get it in Writing

Establishing clear expectations, in writing, of what your mentor and mentee relationship will look like is critical. How many hours per week and when will interns be expected to work.? Delineate starting and ending dates that clarify the temporary/seasonal duration of the arrangement. Clearly state what is the rate of pay, and whether or not room and board are included or if there is an additional cost to the intern for these provisions. Always check with federal, state and local laws concerning labor standards, room and board allowances, overtime compensation and your obligations regarding payroll taxes, workers’ compensation coverage and un-employment insurance coverage. While compliance may seem costly and cumbersome, the fines associated with non-compliance are far more burdensome.

Growers considering hosting internships might want to look how others have set up their relationships with interns A great place to start would be the CRAFT program at http://www.craftfarmapprentice.com The Cooperative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training is a network of New England farms that work together to provide a more comprehensive learning experience that could easily be achieved on any one farm. A similar program exists in Oregon through the Rogue Valley Farm Corps: http://www.roguefarmcorps.org/Home. A quick look at the descriptions of participating farms will give you a sense of the gamut of ways in which internships are organized, some completely legal, others perhaps not so.

Bob Wollam, ASCFG luminary, has a detailed and clearly articulated internship arrangement laid out on his website: http://www.wollamgardens.com/Internships.html. This is another great example to peruse when developing your internship agreement.

Finally, I would like to point you in the direction of three useful books. First, Richard Wiswall’s The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook provides valuable tools for growers to accurately assess their labor and production costs. Two other titles, both available through the New England Small Farm Institute, are excellent resources for growers considering incorporating internships into their farming operations. The On Farm Mentor’s Guide provides excellent references on the subjects of teaching, training, housing arrangements, OSHA compliance and the recruitment and selection of interns. Cultivating a New Crop of Farmers clearly defines the nature of mentoring, and provides tools to assess the compatibility of oneself and farm as an internship site.

So many young growers have gotten the start from internships, finding incredible inspiration and invaluable experience while working under the guidance of more experienced mentors. As long as you treat interns as wage employees, potential legal challenges can be minimized and you too can play a vital part in cultivating the next generation of flower, fruit and vegetable farmers.

Christof is the ASCFG West Regional Director and Garden Manager at UCSC Center for Agroecology Contact him at [email protected]