Labor & Worker Safety Series: Pt 1 ~ Cultivating the Future: Joel Salatin’s Tips to Turn Interns Into Full-time Farmers


Joel Salatin with the chickens of Polyface Farm

With the popularity of our Water & Drought Management series, we’re excited to announce our next two-month series of blog features about Labor & Worker Safety. The series will be a mix of practical toolkits created by our partners and stories and new tips from Cooperative Extension advisors, labor specialists and attorneys, experienced vegetable and livestock farmers, and newer farmers developing a labor force.

To kick off the series, we’re starting with tips from Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farm in Virginia, about turning interns into successful farmers. Joel works hard to cultivate a sense of excitement and leadership in his interns, not to mention provide a supportive and fair work relationship.

Read on about Joel’s intern program, which he shared at the recent first annual Permaculture Voices Conference in Southern California, and why he thinks a more nurturing introduction to the farming world will help beginning farmers stay the course and eventually succeed in their own operations.

In the wider world of agriculture, Joel Salatin is known as the self-proclaimed “lunatic farmer” and loudly defies industrial food production by preaching and enacting his gospel of holistic land management, animal welfare, and small-scale innovation. However, to the audience at this year’s Permaculture Voices Conference, Salatin’s otherwise radical approach to ecological farming seemed commonplace. What did stand out among this four-day convergence of rainwater harvesters, permaculturalists, and agro-foresters was his practical model for turning idealistic interns into the next generation of successful farmers.


Joel Salatin

Very few of those attending the conference came from large scale agricultural backgrounds. Instead, this gathering drew a wide variety of homesteaders, community gardeners, and environmentalists, all of whom are concerned about the threats facing our generation, like desertification, topsoil loss, and overdevelopment. In many ways, the conference attendees epitomized the type of eager applicant that Joel Salatin receives—over 500 each year for his internship program, where they vie to help rotationally graze cattle, mimic natural migrations, and pull chickens in mobile coops.

Nationwide there is an increasing awareness in agricultural production and an effort to understand where food comes from. From that growing interest, internship opportunities now exist all over the country. In theory, these internships provide valuable learning opportunities, but the disparity among different internships is wide.

Some farms provide in depth training, bringing together valuable on-farm experiences with robust educational opportunities. Other farms may view interns as free or cheap labor (despite this often being technically illegal), overworking their team with repetitive tasks and not offering learning experiences or compensation. Joel Salatin, on the other hand, relates to these young agrarians who arrive at his farm each season as extended members of his family: “Don’t forget,” he told the crowded conference room, “you are cultivating a potential partner.”

Salatin has no interest in the term “employee”. After an intensive six-month introduction, interns at Polyface Farm are given the opportunity to enter what Salatin calls his “fiefdom”. Much of his success comes from a perspective of working on improving land instead of expanding into a larger operation. “All land is sorely underutilized,” he claimed, “so before you go chasing more acreage, look around at what you have and ask ‘What else can I do here?’”

A prime example of Salatin’s perspective relates back to his internship program. Instead of sending interns out to start from scratch and invest in their own property, he encourages them to first look around the farm and find untapped opportunities: a mobile duck operation in a resting pasture, a vegetable garden for the farm team, marketing a new buying club in the city. “Make me an offer,” he tells them, attempting to incubate entrepreneurs who get work within a successful structure and gain experience and confidence.

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2012 Summer Interns at Polyface Farm

While the popularity of small farms, sustainable practices, and local food is obvious in the emergence of such gatherings as the Permaculture Voices Conference (where in its first year, hundreds flocked to see Salatin, Allan Savory, Michael Pollan, and Elaine Ingham), the new generation of farmers still face challenges.

Salatin began his keynote by emphasizing “We aren’t farming in our grandfather’s world. Land prices no longer have any relationship to their productive value.” The newest crop of farmers must take the wisdom of their elders and apply it in new ways, and Salatin’s internship model offers this balance.

While Salatin’s words seem aimed at these young agrarians, in truth it is farmers of all ages and experience levels who can learn something. Below is some of his advice about how experienced farmers can nurture their own internships programs.

Joel’s tips on how to nurture interns and cultivate new farmers:

1. Teach and be grateful. Show your passion for farming and be grateful you have students who want to learn from you.

2. Use task-based instruction, rather than time-based instruction. For example, “weed ten rows” rather than “spend two hours weeding”.

3. Praise good work and be supportive. Remember, you are cultivating a future partner.

4. Give the freedom to fail. Learning experiences come from mistakes. Allow them to create their own enterprise and exercise decision-making.

5. Use language to create community. Avoid terms like “employees” and “wages” and consider using words like “student” and “commissions”.

6. Create leadership roles. Consider every operation on your farm as a separate business and delegate management.

7. Explore internalization of goods and services. Tap into the skills of your team and promote from within instead of outsourcing. Does one intern seem to be mechanically minded? Turn him into your part-time mechanic!

8. Keep relations on a human level and set boundaries. Draw up a fair contract to set clear expectations and assure that no one gets sued.

If you have questions for Joel or about his internship program, visit the Polyface Farm website and get in touch.

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!

One Thought on “Labor & Worker Safety Series: Pt 1 ~ Cultivating the Future: Joel Salatin’s Tips to Turn Interns Into Full-time Farmers

  1. Pingback: Are there legal farm apprenticeship programs? - Veteran-to-Farmer Documentary GROUND OPERATIONS

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