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by Mary Alice Johnson


Exchange is the essence of farm apprenticeships: the apprentice’s assistance over a period of time in exchange for the farmer’s know-how, often with room & board, a small stipend or other perks thrown in. Apprentices have been at the heart of my farm since shortly after I began farming in 1990. Over forty of them, most young and thoughtful, have spent sometimes a day, sometimes a year, but more often a few months at my farm, bringing with them new ideas, skills and energy.;


Setting Up an Apprenticeship:

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Stewards of Irreplaceable Land (S.O.I.L.) and the Mentor Apprentice Exchange are all apprenticeship programs operating in Canada. For a fee, they match up apprentices with farmers.


WWOOF-Canada tends to attract people who are travelling, staying a week or two, and whose main objectives are to meet local folks, see the country, learn different organic practices, and work with different people; about half of them come from outside Canada. Over 200 host farms have paid the $25. fee to be listed in the WWOOF-Canada booklet (available for $20.); they will exchange room and board for 4 to 6 hours of work per day. Almost half of the farms listed are in B.C., with a good number in Ontario and a few in the Maritimes; WWOOF hosts are being sought in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland. Coordinator John Vanden Heuvel asks farmer hosts to donate between $30 and $40 if they have had volunteers during the past year. Contact: WWOOF-Canada. R.R.#2, S.18, C.9, Nelson, BC V1L 5P5, phone (250) 354-4417.


S.O.I.L. apprentices can learn the skills needed to grow food organically and perhaps set up a farm of their own; in exchange for this training, they make a substantial commitment to one farmer. S.O.I.L. was started in B.C. by Morris Lamrock about seven years ago and is now run by Brenda Wenstob. Both apprentices and farmers submit a two-page application with a $10 processing fee. Possible matches are encouraged to set up a trial work period before making a commitment for the season. Most S.O.I.L. apprentices stay for 2 to 6 months, usually receiving room and board or produce and a small stipend. Contact: Stewards of Irreplaceable Land (S.O.l.L.), Brenda Wenstob, 3680 Otter Point Road, Sooke, BC V0S 1N0, (604) 642-2161.


The Mentor Apprentice Exchange, founded by Heidi Priesnitz in 1994, includes apprenticeships in housing construction, publishing, sustainable technology and other areas as well as farming. Participants receive a regular newsletter and an expanding quarterly directory which currently lists between 75 and 100 contacts, balanced between potential mentors and apprentices; about 25% are farm-related, from all over Canada. Some mentors offer room and board, and some a small stipend. A one-year listing in the directory with subscription to the newsletter is $22. Subscribers can place as many listings as they wish for the fee. Contact: The Mentor Apprentice Exchange, Box 479, Wolfville, NS BOP 1X0, (902) 542-0867.

It is also possible for you to set up your own apprenticeship experience. Apprentices can contact farmers in their area; farmers can seek apprentices through the media or the grapevine.



Advice to Apprentices:

Look for a farm with a richness of activity, plenty of varied work, and a farm family that welcomes you into a busy, active life. There are many different philosophies and approaches to farming and many different styles and temperaments among farmers; not all will be right for you. Don’t be afraid to interview a farmer before making a commitment; apprenticeship is a two-way street.

A farmer will put a lot more time into training a long-term apprentice than someone staying a week or two, and the tasks you are given may reflect this. Those who have made a significant commitment to a farmer may eventually be given the challenging opportunity of running the farming operation in the farmer’s absence.

Whether you’re a short- or long-term apprentice, don’t expect each work day to be full of new and interesting tasks. Much of farm work is repetitive. However, if you find yourself planting potatoes for a week solid or doing a boring task alone for hours on end, it is fair to ask the farmer for a change or possibly create a change for yourself. Similarly, if you find yourself consistently being given tasks that don’t match your skills or interests, let the farmer know what your interests and skills are without exaggerating them.

Work out with the farmer beforehand which tasks, if any, you can work on as your own rhythms guide you. Be forewarned though: the farmer cannot always accommodate your needs or interests. Sometimes the needs of the farm, such as the harvesting of a crop before a suspected heavy freeze, supersede those of any one person, including the farmer!

It is crucial that you and the farmer have an open and honest dialogue about what the terms of the apprenticeship will entail, what you each expect to give and receive in return. In addition to learning about farming, you may also get room, board, transportation, recreational activities, a stipend, laundry facilities, or a share in the harvest. In return, you may offer the farmer a commitment for a certain length of time, a set amount of work hours per week, involvement in various farm organizations, your skills as a researcher to determine the implications of a future farm project, or a specialized skill that may or may not be directly related to farming. There is no one way to make the exchange feel fair; each situation is unique.

A farmer can do much more than offer you technical advice about farming. S/he can also be a living example of what it means to have an emotional and spiritual connection with the land and a passionate respect for all life forms. This is something that you cannot learn from a textbook; it needs to be lived!



Advice to farmers:

The amount of energy and enthusiasm the apprentice commits to you will depend upon the amount of time you put into developing the apprenticeship program. I have had apprentices working with me since 1990, and my agreements with them and expectations of them are still evolving. It is definitely a learning process, one which is constantly having to balance the needs of the farm with the needs of the people working the farm.

I have found a number of strategies that help to integrate the apprentices into life on my farm and provide me with an informed and engaged work force.

I always ask for references. Before making a commitment, I find an initial farm visit and a trial day’s work help me, the apprentices who are already there and would-be apprentices decide whether we can work well on my farm. I give potential apprentices a sense of the work to be done in each season of the year and tell them how many hours of work I expect from them in a week, breaking the work week down into hours for: producing income for the farm; maintaining and improving living quarters, including cooking and cleaning; farm meetings; and more formal training, including visits to other farms and meetings or lectures on sustainable agriculture. I tell them which days are market days, and which are rest and relaxation days, which days they can ask off and which not.

I have developed a list of all the skills and knowledge an apprentice can learn on my farm, and I ask the apprentices which of these learning experiences appeal to them most. I go back to the list occasionally to make sure the apprentice is getting what s/he hopes to get from the experience. But while I allow apprentices time to explore personal interests on the farm, I make it clear which activities are essential for the farm to support itself.

We have a weekly farm meeting to schedule visits to other farms, market and recreational events; to discuss personal schedules; and to do the walk-about. For this, we divide the farm into sections, with each person walking one section and noting what planting, irrigating, weeding, pest control and harvesting is needed; then we report back and priorize tasks for the week. I try to bring apprentices into our larger farming community by including in their schedule the Saturday farmers’ market, deliveries to restaurants, work parties at other farms, farmers’ meetings and writing articles for our COG chapter newsletter.

Daily dialogue with my apprentices is important. I start the day talking over the tasks to be done and end by checking in on what the apprentice learned and saw that day. This is a good time to let an apprentice know that the work done is appreciated.

You may need to purchase increased liability coverage in case of injury. I have not been able to get my apprentices covered under Worker’s Compensation because they do not receive a salary, but I have added coverage to my insurance at no extra cost against liability if they are hurt.

Accommodations are often tight when apprentices board. I set out which areas are common and which they may call their own. People’s habits and sense of personal property differ. Settle matters such as visitors, pets, smoking, bedtime, laundry, transportation, bathing facilities and telephone up front before these things can become issues. Decide what farm equipment and vehicles apprentices may use and under what circumstances.

Determine how much of your life you would like to share with your apprentices. You need alone time with your family as well.

Opening yourself up to the opportunity to work with apprentices can be a very rewarding and enriching experience, as the exchange of knowledge and skills goes both ways. I thoroughly enjoy having apprentices come to my farm at the beginning of the season, infusing it and me with new energy and new ideas.


Mary Alice Johnson has a 10-acre organic farm in Sooke, B.C. She wrote this article with the help of a number of apprentices and WWOOFers but would particularly like to thank Susan Shanks for her help.



Copyright 1996. Mary Alice Johnson.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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