When Brynn Grumstrup was 32 and living in northern Virginia, where she’d managed vegetable production for a rural nonprofit and cultivated community and rooftop gardens in the D.C. area, she decided to apprentice with a Colorado biodynamic farmer who also ran a multi-farm CSA.
After Skype meetings, Grumstrup signed a contract specifying what she’d learn. But six weeks in, the farmer couldn’t see plans through and didn’t respond to basic issues of weed control, fencing, predation or refrigeration.
“I’d wanted to work alongside an experienced farmer in order to enhance my understanding of good practices,” she said. “I ended up learning so much from his negative example, though. It was emotionally challenging because what I produced and contributed to the multi-farm CSA was, I think, the only income the farm was taking in, and I felt so much pressure to keep it together because the family was on shaky ground with whether they’d be able to stay on the farm or not.”
A farmer’s ability to communicate can make or break an operation.
Such an exhausting experience could have soured Grumstrup on farming. But she moved to Pucon, Chile, south of Santiago, where she ran her own veggie farm. Then she worked a season with North Valley Organics outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, before returning to Pucon, where she now runs a farm along with a business partner.
FARMER, KNOW THYSELF
Farmers’ general makeup as “hermit curmudgeons” can make it hard to hire well, said farmer Joel Salatin, who spoke about hiring at the 2018 Eco-Ag and 2019 Virginia Association for Biological Farming conferences.
Hiring means means knowing what you know, what you’re good at and what you love, and finding where those three intersect, he said. That tells you who is in your “tribe,” who you can trust and who you should hire.
The wider your base of trust, said Salatin, the less you have to exert control because expectations communicated well means those working with you will know what needs to be done.
Among apprentices who have negative experiences, expectations often aren’t communicated well. Well-articulated mission statements can help farmers weed out people who may not be a good fit, and likewise, can help interest those who would be.
WORKERS, NOT APPRENTICES
For many farms, “apprentice” may not be the most appropriate term. Retired farmers Chip and Susan Planck only ever had “workers” at Wheatland Vegetable Farms near Leesburg, Virginia. They paid them and made no promises to teach them. Yet teach they did, through modeling and sharing information about how they managed the farm, and about 10 percent of the 250 or so farm workers who passed through their fields and farm markets today run their own farms, including one who grows flowers commercially, another who provides an “all-diet” CSA, and still two others, a couple, who run a CSA and attend farmers markets in the D.C. area.
The Plancks, who started farming in 1973 and in retirement have shifted to farm-incubator work and the creation of a farm-based hamlet, refined their hiring process over the years. This included an eight-page description of Wheatland that potential workers had to read before applying. Prospective workers also had to interview former workers. “It really cut down on turnover when we instituted that after a few years,” says Chip. “People heard the good and the bad.”
The Plancks paid people as employees, including deducting FICA and income tax. They also provided housing, laundry facilities and some money toward weekly food expenses, plus an abundance of vegetables. Workers shared in cooking and cleaning. In exchange, workers cultivated, harvested, prepared for markets and served at two markets per week. They all learned to drive a tractor.
For farmers who are truly non-people people, the way the Plancks worked might feel challenging. “The most valuable place for us to be was alongside the workers,” said Chip. That meant telling and showing them what to do — how to pick beans, how to weigh and measure a bunch of chard so that it became a rote and scale-less process, how to tell when a flat of transplants needed watering and how much to give them, and how to make everything for sale at farmers’ markets attractive.
Two farmers who came through the Plancks’ operation — Rachel Bynum and Eric Plaksin of Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia — are in their twentieth season. In their seven-page overview of Waterpenny, they disabuse potential intern-workers of romantic notions of farming and alert them to the fact that there will be constructive criticism, similar to the Plancks’, to emphasize the farmers’ responsibility for the quality and quantities of vegetables for the CSA, markets and restaurants.
“Everyone will be given constructive criticism until we are all working to a standard,” the description says. “Interns should know that criticism is not personal, and that we have no expectations of maximum efficiency as you learn tasks. We do, however, expect interns to pay attention to how well they are working, and to try to improve their work over the course of the season.”
The Plancks structured their days to include morning and afternoon meetings. The afternoon’s was part of a mid-day, two-hour break when the Plancks reviewed issues that were arising.
They also reviewed the farm’s finances with workers, including what they themselves made. Although he admits he could have been naive, Chip said that sharing such information seemed to limit temptations for workers at markets to stick a $20 bill in their back pocket. “We knew the value of a truck load,” he said. “If something was dramatically off, we would have known right away.”
Plus, sharing about finances taught workers about cash flow and profitability.
NO BUCOLIC GOGGLES
A couple hours south of the Plancks, Joel Slezak and Erica Hellen run a grass-based livestock farm on about 300 acres in Free Union, raising beef, pork, chicken, duck and eggs and selling primarily to restaurants and at farmers’ markets.
Like the Plancks and others, Slezak and Hellen have a thorough application and rely on ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas), not Craigslist, to advertise positions. They describe the challenges, how criticism needs to be taken and “put some fear into it” to weed out people who probably would not be a good fit.
They send a three-to-four-page resume of the farm and lots of questions, including some that are “ridiculous” but intended to get a “sense of the person,” including what foods they hate. “If you don’t like tomatoes, we’re not going to hire you,” Slezak said. They want to gauge how adventurous a person is, what they think is “icky” and whether they might be “whiny.” A phone or Skype interview follows and often lasts two hours. They require applicants to visit and, if applicants aren’t local, to spend the night, have supper with them and kill chickens the next day. The lengthy process is intended to discourage the non-serious.
“I would feel so bad if someone moved here and they thought we were A and we were actually B,” Slezak said.
They try to avoid people who have “the bucolic goggles on,” but welcome those who have a romance with Earth — in the sense of understanding why the farm is grass-based.
They try to impress people with decent pay, on-site housing, a community culture of fun and proximity to Charlottesville.
“We get a lot of people who’ve worked on a veggie farm and are burned out — tired of bending over. It’s attractive — everyone loves working with cows,” Slezak said.
New employees spend the first 30 days in incredibly detailed, intensive training so that they understand what’s at stake and what can go wrong. After this one-on-one time, Slezak said, they back off so as not to become overbearing.
“People learn more by doing it themselves, learn to pay attention and learn what works for them,” he said.
They also do bi-monthly reviews and always stop to ask whether the employee understands what they’re doing.
Slezak dislikes yelling, but sees the need for firm corrections, such as when someone forgets to turn the water on or off or leaves a gate open. Such mistakes need to be remembered and avoided in the future.
Where most farmers fail, said Slezak, is in not giving workers the scope of the day, which includes helping them understand how long a task should take. “The number-one complaint I’ve heard is employees show up thinking they’re doing one thing and end up doing a different thing,” he said.
To counter this, Free Union has morning meetings with tasks written on a whiteboard, but also emailed to employees. They update employees on start times as they go through the season, including the days when they’ll be butchering. They use the Slack app to message one another and can have different channels, including a general one, one for the markets and so on.
APPRENTICE, KNOW THYSELF
What Salatin recommends for farmers also holds true for apprentices and employees. One young farmer from the Midwest, who asked to remain anonymous, has apprenticed on a variety of farms and, through a rocky process, narrowed her interest to livestock.
One farm had a great description of what was involved, but didn’t follow it in practice. She expected that she would gradually be given more responsibility as she learned more. But that responsibility never came. She was promoted to animal manager for the second season but without decision-making authority. About two weeks before that season, her misgivings about returning prompted her to offer to stay a month for them to find a replacement.
“What I wanted was some ownership and some trust,” she said. “I don’t think they were in a position to give me that. Maybe when seasons were better and not so stressful it could have been a different experience. In hindsight, I should not have gone back for a second season.”
Her best experience came from working with a farm family with two children under four years old. It was their fourth season with small ruminants and they had gone through the Holistic Management process, just as she had.
“We were starting from a solid base. ‘You know what you want, I know what I want.’ They were very pragmatic. They had priorities,” she said.
She describes herself as someone willing to work to get things done, but believes the situation was great was because the couple quit work at 5 p.m., because at 6:30 p.m. it was time for supper and getting the kids ready for bed. They also checked in with her to see how she was and sometimes to request her help on particular projects. She did not have to work Sundays, but still checked lambs with them.
Here are further suggestions from apprentices and farmers:
• Know your land and its capacities; it may be more suitable for certain farming activities. The young Midwestern farmer discovered this the hard way when she and her sister worked on a half-acre “incubator” plot the owners intended for veg production with harvests sold at a farmers’ market. She was not aware a previous owner said not to rent that space to anyone. The upside of that downside was learning how important soil health is. The land “should have just had animals on it,” she said, because it needed to have more nutrients cycling through it.
• Know and understand the scope of work you plan and beware off-season optimism. The young Midwestern farmer wonders whether it’s realistic to plan the season ahead to incorporate many new systems, only to find the work can’t be done because it’s too much.
• Write farm operation descriptions mid-season when you can best see the connections among all operations and where employees or apprentices can best serve in each, the young Midwestern farmer said.
• Start your search early and field inquiries year round. This helps you avoid being lured by the possibility of a good fit when the pressure is on to find someone and you haven’t had time to vet people thoroughly.
• Check the farmer’s references even if he or she does not require you to do so. “I don’t go anywhere unless they’ve got references, because I’ve been burned,” the young Midwestern farmer said.
• If you provide on-site housing, ensure a clear delineation between work hours and off hours. Stick with set hours and if work is completed sooner than expected, have an ongoing task list.
• Hold daily meetings to outline work and who’s responsible for what. “If you’re unable to give employees one-half hour in the morning and explain the day to them, you should not advertise for interns/apprentices,” the young Midwestern farmer said.
• Keep apprentices and employees informed. “Even when you think something might be overkill or obvious, say it,” said Grumstrup.
• Recognize that things are always changing. If farmers are taking steps to grow their business, apprentices and employees can anticipate that they may not know everything that growth will entail. And if they’ve worked other places where the work involved more predictability — i.e., didn’t rely on living organisms and weren’t too affected by weather — know that there’s plenty farmers cannot control and cut them some slack.