Article written by Olivier Labrie
I remember desperately looking to find a way to get my hands in rich organic soil during a six month search for any type of apprenticeship opportunity that involved organic farming. That was almost three years ago. At the time, I was working on my second bachelor’s degree in Ecological Agriculture, and wanted to get outside of the classroom to find hands-on work in the field. Finally, I stumbled upon an opportunity through a friend of a friend. The following week I found myself totally immersed and unprepared in an unusually hot Quebec start to May, working in the fields of an organic farm on Montreal’s West Island. So it began!
Stimulating, rewarding, and related experiences followed suit, as I had hoped, and each came with different challenges and lessons learned. My experiences complemented each other in ways that illuminated for me some of the weaknesses of the current apprenticeship paradigm. I am optimistic that it can change and improve.
If you walk through your local farmer’s market, the likelihood of encountering young adults working to find their place amongst the next generation of soil builders and organic food enthusiasts is high. Willingly, they labour long hours and do repetitive tasks to learn a few new tricks of the trade. For instance, apprentices may learn how to make a more attractive bunch of kale, or a more colourful basket of cherry tomatoes. An effort that may eventually prove fruitful if you decide to open an organic fruit and vegetable stand at one of our beloved community farmers’ markets.
When the frost hits, these passionate spirits may plough through several excuses to justify the aches in their lower backs and convince themselves that they were not used simply as cheap labour. It is important to shed positive light on such experiences since it takes time to learn a new craft, especially one as intensive as agriculture – but the question for me is – does this rationalize the viability of unpaid or underpaid labour-intensive farm ‘apprenticeships’?
Currently, society has a growing desire to move away from an industrial era of farming, towards an era that embraces and supports small and medium-scale ecological farms. To accomplish this shift, as a collective, we must first acknowledge that the fundamental skills necessary for high-quality food production are a means to provide health and wellness in our lives.
A common situation that highlights this lack of acknowledgement is when a customer expects a lower price for an item at the market. This act harms the sense of accomplishment felt by the under-paid and overlooked farm hand. The appreciation for the sustenance and the story that this organic produce holds, is lost in this moment. It also brings to question how to make farming viable for a new generation, when many consumers are still not willing to pay prices appropriate to the cost of producing those foods.
Another hurdle is that current farmer-apprentice agreements are often inconspicuous, and often ambiguous enough that it will not meet the needs of either party. These obscure farmer-apprentice relationships may also mislead those on the outside to believe that all is well and functioning harmoniously amongst farm workers in their community. These ambiguous agreements and these illusions need to be corrected in order to strengthen the integrity of organic farms and make them more resilient.
An apprentice’s level of enthusiasm and energy for the work will oscillate from pinnacle moments of inspiration through to perceived physical and psychological limitations that provoke self-induced doubt. Any defining instance during an experience of this sort, can help decide the fate of their desire to pursue this demanding profession. It may invigorate the soul and inspire creativity within this lifestyle, or it may create utter collapse of all motivation to continue along this rugged path.
The morale, on a personal and a team level, generally depends on farm circumstance and on how the leaders in the role of management choose to engage apprentices in the curriculum they offer. Every situation is different with some being more just and fulfilling than others.
If the senior farmers and knowledge-holders that utilize such sustainable practices are willing to focus on applying progressive management techniques in their unique classroom setting, they can set the stage for a universal organic-farm-apprenticeship model that is more inclusive and more widely respected. Elder farmers that are open to such change in management can in turn improve their own situation and free themselves from a stagnant paradigm (heavy workload, debt, long work hours, ‘unskilled’ or ‘unreliable’ labour) of their own, by sustaining the enthusiasm and motivation of their apprentices. This has long-term benefits of retaining trained and loyal employees and gradually relieving themselves from arduous duties that are more fit for a younger farm foreperson. It also gives them more time to focus on improving their operation and personal life. Strong farmer-employee relationships may even lead to a smoother transition to succession on a farm.
As an apprentice, it is our duty to put ourselves in the shoes of our teachers and try to understand them. In a moment of high pressure and stress, try to understand the development of the event that led to this intense experience. Learn from it, and do not shy away from personal expression. Share a potential solution or an idea to create an alternative approach. This will help improve the level of communication on the farm. Take each moment in, find essence within, step away and internalize the skills that you have worked hard to achieve, so as to create your own vision. You are in this position to help make organic agriculture viable for current farmers, to learn new skills from them, and to be a part of the gradual shift in farm succession – a very real struggle for many older farmers.
Ecological farming has the potential to be shaped by a mold that consists of ubiquitous respect for all entities (people, environment, plants, and animals), flexibility for the creative mind (openness to new ideas), constructive communication (clarity and appreciation), as well as gratitude for the work. If these principles become intrinsic, there is potential to reach out and thrust the next generation of farmers towards greater achievements.
As an organic farmer, care for the devoted personnel who are as important as the soil and plants that are cared for, nurtured, and honoured. Open doors to the next generation of farmers, embrace what they have to offer, listen to them and their ideas, and take the time to carefully explain what has been learned over the course of a lifetime of farming. There is nothing more valuable than the knowledge and traditions passed on to the next young pair of soil stained hands. Our country’s wellness, and its succession of passionate organic farmers are dependent on it.
To better prepare passionate individuals seeking farm apprenticeships, we must improve the training approach. Here are some suggestions for best practices for engaging apprentices:
- Provide full clarity and level of expectations with regards to the apprenticeship agreement, via a written document.
- Provide a detailed and written curriculum for the season.
- Being clear and concise with the potential skills and knowledge gained from the apprenticeship.
- Offer creative freedom to apprentices to work on a small individual project of choice, with the possibility for it to grow and contribute more to the farm.
- Take a few minutes at the beginning of the day to do a walkthrough of the tasks, and offer progress reports intermittently.
- Clearly explain why the task is important, and the techniques and tools required to safely complete it.
- Explain how to perform farm-tasks in a way that minimizes body injury.
- Show how to use tools properly to avoid physical injury.
- Meet regularly to share the observed progress of the apprentice.
- Taking 1-10 minutes, or more (depending on the level of difficulty), to carefully explain each step that is required to complete any given task.
- Do not assume what is logical for another person who is there precisely because they want to learn new skills.
- Teach apprentices skills other than those obtained when growing produce and raising livestock. For example:
- Small-engine maintenance and repair
- Tractor maintenance and repair
- Machine operation
- Building and carpentry
- Farm maintenance and repair
- Farm safety
- Science and biology
- Visit and spend time with neighbouring farmers to educate apprentices about different farm models within the ecological realm.
- Collaborate with other farms in your area to offer a group of farm apprentices the opportunity to connect, and learn from what is happening on other farms.
- Offer a healthy work environment, and fair living wage/accommodation that corresponds to the workload (given that the farm is well established).
- Only under certain strict conditions can an individual be called an apprentice or an intern.
- Share something you are grateful for once a day with everyone, and demonstrate how to work respectfully as a farm team.
- This is important for the farm’s intrinsic balance on every level.
- Collaborate with organizations that contribute to the sector, government officials (starting at the regional and municipal levels), other farmers, aspiring farmers, and other potential supporters to implement an official certified apprentice program.
- The more parties involved, the greater the support and acknowledgement from everyone.
I describe to you a program that is respected on a professional level, and that possesses the same public appreciation as received by doctors, nurses, nutritionists, teachers of alternative education, naturopathic doctors, chefs, amongst many others. These professions are all equal in my eyes, as all of these are affected by what we grow and how we grow it.
We have a choice, and a purpose. As a collective, the organic farmer, the apprentice, the customer, organizations, and governments can create opportunities that foster skilled and creative leaders in a new paradigm shift for a growing industry that so desperately needs it.
I want apprentices across Canada to express their ideas, and share the thoughts that raced through their minds while they tried to focus on the fruit dropping into their hands
Share your story, and let us lead the paradigm shift together!