How to Get the Most Out of a Farm Apprenticeship | Civil Eats

How to Get the Most Out of a Farm Apprenticeship


I had my first apprenticeship the summer before my senior year of college. I had just returned from a tumultuous year abroad in South America and was ready to get back to “the simple life.” Map in hand, I scrolled through description after description of idyllic farms that participate in the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners apprenticeship program. I dreamed of crates of blueberries, bundles of fresh cut flowers and baskets full of newly laid eggs. Needless to say, the excitement and possibility of a new adventure completely ran away with me. Although enthusiasm is a natural and wonderful part of an apprenticeship, it’s equally important to remain clear-headed and make sure you get what you need out of the experience. Behind every small farm business is a farm family, and making sure your own goals and needs act in harmony with theirs is a crucial part of a successful, happy apprenticeship.

I located a satisfactorily diverse farm in a remote coastal county and contacted the owners. After a little electronic banter, Stan and Carol decided they wanted me on board. I was to stay through the growing season and participate in everything from blueberry raking to flower arranging to taking care of their small flock of Rambouillet sheep. I had several years of landscaping under my belt at this point in my life, so I knew I wouldn’t balk at long hours or hard labor. I was also familiar with most kinds of domestic animals, having been raised in a rural setting. I had the basics of farm life covered and was ready to delve deeper into its fantastic ins and outs.

Arriving at Highfield Farm on a postcard-perfect day, I remember being taken aback by the barnside clutter. There stood the house, charming in its 19th-century world-worn look; there grew the garden, fittingly overgrown and cramped with early lupine blooms; and there sulked the barn, with a graveyard of junk and dead cars strewn before it. Scrambling in my pocket, I drew out the farm description from MOFGA: “wonderful views of the schoodic penninsula, exceptionally wild and beautiful property, farm living at its best.” Hmm. Before I had more time to inspect the premises, Carol came bursting through the front door, covered in flour, brandishing a rolling pin, “Molly!” she cried, as if I were her long-lost daughter. Grasping my hands, she led me resolutely into the warmth of the kitchen and into the wonderful convoluted-ness that would be my summer experience at Highfield Farm.

Over the course of that summer, I installed and maintained an herb and cut flower garden. I broke the blueberry raking record. I weeded rows of peas in break-neck time. I even brought a little order to that barnyard junklot. I worked, A LOT. Eager to please and eager to learn, I gave my best to each and every task. It wasn’t until midsummer, with the garden in full swing, that I began to feel the strain.

Like so many small farm families, Carol and Stan have to work off the farm to afford everything they, their sons and their animals need to live. This often meant that I was left alone with little guidance or direction to keep me moving. Some days, I couldn’t seem to make a dent in the work pile: the speed at which I worked was often mistaken for enthusiasm (rather than a need to get indoors before the midday heat hit, or to some afternoon appointment I had made) and I’d find my daily to-do list growing longer and longer as the afternoon progressed. I also found myself becoming wrapped up in the inevitable drama of farm life, which was quite possibly the most challenging aspect of my apprenticeship.

As an apprentice, you become, in many ways, part of the family with which you are living. Because many farmers cannot provide hefty stipends, you rely on them for other necessary things: shelter, warmth and non-farm produced food essentials like flour or milk. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have your own transportation, you also depend on them for social stimulation or at least to get you to somewhere where you can have some fun. I am as happy as the next person spending some of my free time reading and writing, but all of my free time? I don’t think so. All families have their idiosyncrasies, but living and working in what is often a very dynamic, fragile financial situation can make getting along all the more puzzling.

Therefore, the MOST important lesson I took away from my summer as an apprentice was the power of communication. Talk, talk, talk. I cannot stress this enough. Since that first hectic summer, I have been providing guidance to new apprentices at Highfield Farm. Once I deduced the formula to apprenticeship bliss, I went back to the farm, again and again, despite the constant state of flux within which it operated. I witnessed many new seasonal workers and apprentices go through the same ups and downs I had experienced and finally sat down with Carol to talk about rectifying some of the problems I saw repeated every year. Together, we came up with an initial application sheet for apprentices, which was more about teasing out living preferences, daily habits, and personal likes and dislikes than about agricultural experience. We made sure to begin the process of apprentice-hunting earlier in the year so Carol could have more time to interview likely candidates on the phone, or better yet, in person. Most importantly, we made sure apprentices knew exactly what was expected of them and asked what they expected of us. This included everything from daily working hours, to weekly wages, convenient times for meals and approximately how many times a week they thought they might like a ride into town. The clearer we could be in the beginning, the smoother the ride would be.

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Of course, a little self-preparation is always important, too. Making sure you think long and hard about what you want out of an apprenticeship and what you will need your hosts to provide is the first step towards a clear and sustainable relationship with your farm. Identify any presumptions you may have about farm life and think about which aspects you may be able to live without. Having flung myself into my experience with my head full of romantic pastoral images, I was nonplussed by the gritty, disorganized reality I faced upon arriving at the farm. I spent the first month of my apprenticeship coming to terms with my disappointment rather than learning and growing in the ways that were important to me.

I eventually found my feet and regained the time I had lost, but some idealistic folks feel so disheartened they don’t stick through the rough times. I hate to think of all I might have lost, had I not had the gumption to stay put: incredible springs delivering lambs; planting hundreds of bulbs, seeds and perennials in the garden; raking blueberries for my own enjoyment; relishing them through the winter. And every autumn, Carol and Stan invite me back to their family Harvest Festival. What better confirmation of a truly successful partnership than to be welcomed back into their home, with their family all around them, and then to come back again, and again. Remember: plenty of today’s small farmers began their careers as eager-to-learn, young, apprentices. I’ve found that initiating conversation, discovering common ground and nurturing a living/working agreement that works for all involved is easier than one might think. Just open up and talk.

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.

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Molly Marquand is a young farmer, writer and horticultural enthusiast. She has grand dreams of one day having her own small, organic, diversified farm in the Northeast. Read more >

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