Labor Series: Pt 3 ~ Are there Legitimate Farm Apprenticeship Programs?

Apprentices-Harvesting-2012-Crop-1

Apprentices harvest Swiss chard. Photo credit: Marta Abel

Many family farms with interns, also known as apprentices, have incurred heavy fines in the last few years for non-compliance with employment and workers’ compensation laws. Whether you call it an “internship”, “apprenticeship”, or “volunteer”, they are all considered the same under the federal labor law, and therefore fit in the legal definition of an employer-employee relationship. (There are a few rare, specific exemptions, but not applicable to most situations.)

While it is not recommended, many farmers choose to “fly under the radar” by hiring part-time or full-time help with customized payment plans. Examples of these payment plans could be paying a fixed price for a period of time, paying in-kind partially or fully, or establishing interns/apprentices as 1099 contractors (no, this is not legal!). Many have gotten away with these scenarios, but be warned that there are risks associated with loose arrangements.

So what are the parameters of a legal apprenticeship program? Read on as we share some legal ways, outlined in the CA Guide to Labor Laws for Small Farmers, published by ATTRA/NCAT and CA FarmLink, to hire part-time or full-time help.


1. Hire Apprentices as Employees

The easiest way to be sure that you are in compliance with labor laws is to hire apprentices or interns as employees. This eliminates any issues or potential issues regarding violations of the minimum wage law. Remember that the CA minimum wage is currently $8.00 per hour and will increase to $9.00 per hour beginning July 1, 2014. Some farms incorrectly classify their employees as independent contractors, which can result in heavy fines.

While it may seem daunting to manage the paperwork for an “official employee”, the relief that may come with knowing a potential risk of heavy fines has been lifted may be worth it. Below are resources that can help you estimate what it can cost to go this route.

Some tools and resources:

Planting heirloom tomato seedlings at Full Belly Farm

Planting heirloom tomato seedlings at Full Belly Farm

NCAT’s Hiring an employee – Estimating Out of Pocket Costs is a rough template for estimating the out-of-pocket costs of hiring a new employee. The Excel sheet makes a number of assumptions, including how workers’ comp is calculated, and is not meant to be an accurate assessment. So, use this tool as a guide to understand what costs to expect, and work with your CPA to generate the numbers that are accurate for your farm.

The Employment Development Dept.’s (EDD) California Employer’s Guide provides a rubric for the amount that can be subtracted per meal, and a formula to determine the amount that can be subtracted for housing, based on a percent of market value.

Example: Full Belly Farm

Full Belly Farm, located in the Capay Valley, is a 350-acre organic farm. Since 1985, when the farm was started, Full Belly has had an apprenticeship program. Up until a few years ago, Full Belly was covering room and board and paying a stipend. They since have transitioned to making apprentices full employees to avoid any legal issues.

Full Belly provides housing and food for interns during their employment tenure (which can be deducted from an hourly wage), as well as workers’ comp insurance. Refer to the CA Guide to Labor for more information on deducting meals and lodging, and please note that the rules are different depending on whether you’re deducting from federal or CA payroll taxes.

2. Partner with a Local Educational Institution and create a Registered Apprenticeship Program through the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR)

Another way to ensure that your apprenticeship program is legal, though a bit more time-consuming, is to collaborate with a local educational institution and register it with the Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) through the CA Department of Industrial Relations (DIR).

This arrangement means that the educational institution provides classroom learning and the farm provides hands-on training. Keep in mind, the time apprentices spend working on the farm needs to be for a paid position working alongside the farm operator.

daswebBy creating a DAS apprenticeship, you’re ensuring that your program is legal. The DAS plays a key role in this program; they work with the farmer-employer to set up standards for the program and monitor that those standards are being met.

Under this program, an apprentice can technically start below minimum wage but gets scheduled raises every six months. Eventually, the apprentice is paid a journeyman’s wage. The wage structure is set through negotiations between the farmer and the DAS, and can be different on different farms.

Additionally, apprentices in this program are on probation for the first three weeks of the program to ensure the individual is able to meet the commitment. All apprentices sign an Apprenticeship Agreement with the farm that details their responsibilities, and which is then filed with the California Apprenticeship Council. During the probation period, the farmer can cancel that agreement at any time. After the three-week probation period, only the DAS can cancel the apprenticeship agreement with the individual.

Example: Fresh Run Farm, Bolinas, CA

The only model for a registered apprenticeship in the country is Fresh Run Farm in Marin County. In this model, the journeyman’s wage was set at $12.00 per hour.

If you’d like more information about the DAS apprenticeship program or designing one on your farm, contact Don Merrill, a senior consultant with the DAS.

3. Partner with a Nonprofit Organization

Another collaborative apprenticeship program would be partnering with a nonprofit that provides the educational structure and administrative support, while the farm provides the hands-on training. However, there has yet to be a model like this that’s been tested through the CA Department of Labor. Working with a non-profit is still a murky area in terms of the legal boundaries. However, Rogue Farm Corps in Oregon has created quite a successful model in collaboration with Oregon State University (OSU). Although it has not yet been tried in CA, it holds promise as a model for training new farmers and working with for-profit farms in CA and across the country.

Example: Rogue Farm Corps’ (RFC) farm school

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Apprentices at RFC

Rogue Farm Corps (RFC) in Ashland, Oregon, is a nonprofit that has developed a successful multi-farm educational program in collaboration with Oregon Cooperative Extension, called Farms Next. RFC provides the educational structure and administrative support, and the participating farmers provide the hands-on learning experience and mentoring for the apprentices.

Apprentices take weekly classes at the beginning of the season, and two to three times per month later in the season. Students in the program join other students in the OSU Extension Growing Agriprenuers program, attending classes and lectures taught by agricultural professionals, expert farmers and scientists. Some classes are held in a traditional classroom setting, while others are held in the field.

Students are then provided with a skill-based training curriculum specific to their host farm site. Host farmers offer close supervision and consistent mentoring to promote mastery of the basic skills needed to operate their farm. Other program elements include farm tours, independent studies and informal discussion/potluck nights.


Many thanks to ATTRA/NCAT for their help in preparing this article. It’s a tricky issue, with many rules and regulations still being tested and approved.

If you have further questions or would like more information on legal apprenticeship programs, refer to the CA Guide to Labor Laws for Small Farmers

If you happened to miss them, check out our other articles in the Labor & Worker Safety series:

If you’ve had to deal with labor or worker safety issues, wages, interns or apprentices, let us know! We’d love to share your tips about what’s worked well for you in upcoming articles. Or, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment.

Check out our Labor & Worker Safety ToolkitIf you have other great resources to share, get in touch!

5 Thoughts on “Labor Series: Pt 3 ~ Are there Legitimate Farm Apprenticeship Programs?

  1. the “CA Guide to Labor Laws for Small Farmers” was a joint project with ATTRA and California FarmLink.

    • Eva Antczak on May 1, 2014 at 9:52 am said:

      Thanks, Linda! Our oversight. Yes, we worked with NCAT/ATTRA on the article, but the great Labor Law Guide was a joint effort between NCAT/ATTRA and CA FarmLink.

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