Welcoming interns to the farm brings potential benefits, responsibility to teach
Young people ready to work and learn bring energy, new questions and a mix of expectations.

By Jeff Moyer, The Rodale Institute farm manager

Jeff Moyer is the farm manager at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm, and has been here for over 26 years, refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems. The farm has over 1,000 organic apple trees, a 3-acre CSA, 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market, and 25 acres of experimental research plots that have been used to test and compare the yield, soil health and environmental impact of organic and conventional systems for the last 22 years.

"It's been extremely rewarding to work at The Rodale Institute," says Jeff. "Working on projects and with people who are having a positive impact on family farm practices, economics, and environmental stewardship is very fulfilling. The positive changes I've seen on our own farm over the years—and farms around the world— convinces me that we're on the right road."

How to contact Jeff

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611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

July 13, 2007: Is it really July already—where did spring go?

It seems like I was just getting the corn planter out yesterday, and now the corn plants are waist high and we’re harvesting wheat. There still aren’t enough hours in the day to get all the work done, and I’m sure it will be fall before you know it.

I hope you’ve taken me up on my challenge from last month and are finding some time to “invest” in your operation by attending a field day or two. If you didn’t catch last month’s article go back and read over it now. I hope to see you at one of the many field days I’ll be attending. Stop me and say “Hey, Jeff!”

Along with field-day learning experiences, many other learning opportunities exist on your own farm. Many of us take advantage of these, and they are not where we learn but rather where we teach. We are all potential teachers, and our on-farm students are the very labor we depend on.

Often extra labor for family farms comes in the form of young folks. It might be a neighbor boy or girl with a desire to earn some spending money, or it could be through a formal internship program. Farms are great places for learning: learning about farming and food production, about life, and learning about one’s self.

Here at The Rodale Institute, like at many of your farms, we have an established internship program. If you don’t have one yet, read on with an open mind as to how your farm could benefit from a similar arrangement.

There are many young people looking for a chance to work hard on the land, get involved with agriculture, spend time outside, learn more about “where their food comes from,” and participate in growing crops or caring for livestock. And every farm could be improved by the energy these students bring. We’ve had students from many different states and different countries. We’ve had interns from urban, suburban and rural areas. We’ve had interns who knew a lot about farms and we’ve had interns who knew nothing about farms. But they all brought something to our operation, and I learned something from every one of them.

There are as many types of these programs as there are farms. Some interns work for room and board plus a stipend, some just for an hourly wage, and some even get college credit. Our program is based on an hourly wage, but the benefits to the farm and to the intern go far beyond work and wages, respectively. We all gain from the experience. I get labor, sure enough, and the intern gets money, that’s true—but we both grow in the process. I learn from the life experiences of the students, they learn what I know about farming, and we both learn from the magic of nature.

Don’t underestimate your possible enduring impact on interns and student labor. These young minds will carry the message you instill for a lifetime. Some of these folks will become future customers, bank presidents, corporate leaders, doctors—you name it. But they’ll always carry the knowledge that the food you grow has an impact on people’s lives. Who couldn’t benefit from a summer on a farm?

We need to be fair to our laborers, in making arrangements and in managing them day to day. Different people have different expectations of what they hope to take away from their farm experience. Some may just want a few dollars for spending, some are saving for college, and others want to learn more about how you make the decisions you do. Take the time to teach, especially with the interns who show they care about agriculture. This isn’t always easy with a schedule packed as tightly as yours or mine. But a true internship program goes beyond just the labor and into building relationships and exploring questions.

Keep in mind this labor is often the visible personality of your farm. They are the faces your customers see at the roadside market, they talk about your farm to friends and family, and they carry your farm’s story to a broader audience as they move on to other ventures.

Where can you find this under-utilized labor source? Start with your local high school, especially if they have a vo-ag department, an FFA chapter or even an ecology club. The best interns we have generally come from a college program. These can be ag students, biology majors or business students.

Since we have opted for a nine-month internship program for most of our projects, we solicit interns who already have a college degree and are looking for direction for their future. Many are open to further education or finding a job that fits their interests. Design your program to fit your operation, treat your interns well, and work to create a meaningful experience for both of you. If you start with these basic steps, you’ll be on your way to a successful program.

Let me know how things work out.

From One Farm to Another.