2014 24.4 Farm Internship Project

Pilot Program for Small Farms Now Accepting Applications

Farm internships have become a mainstay of the sustainable agriculture community, both for training new farmers and for bolstering the work forces of established farms.
There’s only one problem: most are illegal.

When I decided, near the end of my senior year of college, that I wanted to learn how to farm, I had three options: volunteer on a farm, pay to enroll in a farmer training program, or participate in a stipended farm internship. I could work for free, pay to learn, or work, learn, and get paid. The choice to seek out a farm internship was simple for me, and I received a solid foundation in organic farming practices that season, as well as room, board, and a $500/month stipend.

Getting paid under the table, as I did, puts both farm and intern at risk. Farms can be fined for violating minimum-wage laws, and the potential to be reported—by anyone from a meddling neighbor to a disgruntled intern—is high. Farming can be dangerous, and an intern’s insurance company could refuse to pay for the medical treatment of an injury it views as received “on the job,” leaving the farmer liable.

To address this, the Washington state legislature authorized the Small Farm Internship Pilot Project in 2010. This initial pilot project, which ran from 2010 to 2011, allowed farms in San Juan and Skagit counties with annual gross sales under $250,000 to hire interns paid less than minimum wage, as long as the farm provided workers’ compensation insurance and a “bona fide educational or vocational curriculum.” The program was developed after a farm in San Juan County reached out to state Senator Kevin Ranker following an audit which resulted in being fined for a lack of workers’ compensation coverage.

Six farms enrolled in the initial pilot project, all of whom—according to a report presented to the legislature by the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) at the project’s close—“said that they would recommend the program to other farmers.” Tilth board member Anne Schwartz, one of the participants in the project, reflected that with internships, “there is more time to explain details, teach new skills, and interrupt work to take advantage of learning opportunities that I, as an employer, cannot afford to do when I’m paying employees $10 to 12 an hour and the clock is ticking.”

The report attributed the “lower than anticipated” level of participation in the project to several factors identified by farmers in the area. Some of these issues seem intrinsic to any L&I program: lack of trust in L&I, record-keeping paperwork burden, and an interest in exemption from all labor regulations.

Others were specific to the 2010-2011 pilot project: the particular nature of farms in San Juan and Skagit counties (San Juan county farms feel themselves at low risk of getting caught for labor violations due to geographic remoteness, and Skagit farms mostly gross above the $250,000 annual maximum for the program), the short time frame of the project, and the lack of continuity of the program (concern that after the pilot program ended farms could face consequences for continuing to have unpaid interns).

The latter concerns are addressed by the new Farm Internship Project (FIP), authorized by the state legislature in 2014, following two unsuccessful attempts to pass a bill authorizing the program in 2012 and 2013. FIP expands enrollment to sixteen counties: Chelan, Grant, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Kittitas, Lincoln, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, Whatcom, and Yakima.

The project is authorized through 2017.

Ariana Taylor-Stanley is Policy Coordinator for Tilth Producers of Washington as well as Coordinator for the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group . [email protected]

Tags: Farm Intern, Farm Policy, Internship Pilot Program, Labor and Industries, Labor Laws