I must admit, as with many seminal choices in my life, I came to farming as much by chance as by design. I was surfing through the Georgia Organics website for a grower who might supply me with the trappings for a haggis; I stumbled across the posting for full season apprentices at Serenbe Farms; I thought to myself, “now THAT could be a great way to spend next year;” and life somehow fell into place. I do not think that most haggis quests end quite so fortuitously.
Having concluded a season at Serenbe (where farming enchanted my soul as it calloused my fingers), I set out this winter to find the next season’s apprenticeship with slightly more research and forethought. To begin with, I considered my goals for the season: did I want to farm on a bigger farm or more of a homestead? Did I want another year of straight veggies, or should I expand into animal husbandry? If animals, should I raise meat, dairy, or eggs? And for that matter, where did I want to be? To all you aspiring farmers: I cannot overstress the importance of this initial brainstorming session. Even if you’ve never set foot on a farm, take a gander at what your likes and dislikes will be and farm-shop accordingly. There’s a wide world of agriculture within our border and beyond, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll soon be overwhelmed.
For myself, I envisioned an apprenticeship where I would grow an abundance of vegetables (with animals on the side), preferably gain experience in orchard work, and join an established community with an awareness of food justice issues and a demonstrated commitment to apprentice education. Drawn by the Northeast’s excellent CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) Program, I narrowed my search to New England, sat down at my computer with a pencil and paper, and turned to my fantasy farming go-to website: ATTRA, The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, which hosts the single best directory of farming apprenticeships that I have yet found. Postings are searchable by city, state, farm name or keyword and include both contact information and a brief description of the farm, the apprenticeship and compensation.
Having “narrowed” my search to a master list of about 25 potential farms, I began emailing my farming resume and a brief inquiry missive to farmers. I inquired whether they were hiring for the season, expressed interest in their operations, and asked them to email me if they had a formal application process. Their replies ranged from the utterly informal (several email exchanges and an invitation to come visit) to the vaguely collegiate (“please tell us, in less than 100 words, what it is that interests you about farming”) to the professional (“please include a cover letter and the contact information for three references”). By now, my list was shrinking. Visiting nine farms wasn’t overly ambitious for one madcap farm-touring extravaganza, was it? I planned a route, confirmed that several strategically placed farms could put me up for the night, and coerced a fellow farmer with a car into joining me.
I arrived in New York City in early December. Most farmers begin the hiring process in November or December, once the growing season winds to an end. Full season apprenticeships can start as early as February in the South, or as late as May in rainy places like Oregon or Washington State. Additionally, many farms take on supplemental summer workers, which can be an ideal introduction if you can’t commit to a spring start or a full year.
I had been hesitant about buying a plane ticket and planning a whole trip around farm tours and interviews, but the more I considered it, the more I realized that I could neither represent myself adequately nor make an educated decision about the coming season if I had not visited these farms and spoken with their farmers in person. Whereas Serenbe had been a slightly off-the-cuff decision (albeit a fantastically perfect one), I knew that I needed my next farm to build on what I had already learned. I couldn’t risk a poor fit.
Unsurprisingly, really, all of the farms that we visited were wonderful, inspiring operations. Though our four days of touring were ultimately exhausting (imagine interviewing for four days straight), they were also genuinely fun. And it should come as no surprise that we ate well! Walking the ground of each farm, I tried to ask the farmers about the practicalities of their farm as well as their agricultural philosophy. Having already farmed for a year, I had no problem thinking of farmer questions to ask: how do you irrigate? What sorts of tractors and tractor implements do you use? What sorts of pests are endemic and how do you manage accordingly? To someone new to agriculture, such questions might not come so easily. Still, you should ask about what interests you; show yourself to be an inquisitive and engaged person. Try to discern whether a farmer merely wants extra hands, or if he or she views this apprenticeship as a significant step towards farm management. Look for a place that matches your goals and accepts your level of experience. For many apprenticeships, no previous knowledge is required.
Of course, as with all jobs, there is always the lingering question of compensation. From In my experience, apprenticeships can run the gamut from room and board only to more than $1000 per month. Before accepting an offer, consider your expenses and consider what the apprenticeship includes. With housing and food often provided, you may be making off better than the monetary value suggests. Don’t forget health insurance and car payments and all of the other accoutrements of adulthood—if you find yourself straining to pay for these, you’ll only stress yourself out mid-season. You will not get rich off farming apprenticeships, but when you consider that you are being paid to learn for a change, they begin to look a lot more appealing.
Generally, as I left the farms, each farmer would ask me to let him or her know if I still wanted to be considered. I promised to get back to them once I had concluded my trip. Once back in the big city, I pared down my list yet again, formally asking three farms to consider me as an apprentice for 2009. I thanked the other six for their time and attention and informed them that I would be accepting a position elsewhere. Not long after I had returned to the sunny South, I received a call offering me a position at Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I accepted, made several excited phone calls, and immediately began shopping for wool sweaters. Now if only I could inherit some land…
This post is part of Gordon Jenkins’s Young Farmers Unite series, where he writes and invites others to write on the challenges young farmers face, and how we can support new farmers at their profession.