Thinking of Hosting an Apprenticeship – Are You a Good Fit?

Posted by Dana Penrice on August 24, 2020

Mentoring the next generation of ranchers and farmers can be extremely rewarding. As an expert in your field with many years of experience running a business, you are in an excellent position to introduce a novice to the many and nuanced aspects of running an agricultural business, from building fence or caring for a sick animal to fixing the farm truck, developing a marketing strategy, designing a label for your products, or making important financial decisions. No one is better qualified to grow a new agrarian than an experienced mentor with many years on the land, yet not every rancher or farmer is cut out for the job. Being a mentor is not the same as being an employer—although the employer hat is one of many you will wear as a mentor.

As a mentor for a new agrarian, you not only teach skills or series of tasks and supervise an employee’s work and performance; you work with a whole human, every day, and take them into every aspect of your life in agriculture. You are your apprentice’s professional trainer, teacher, employer, direct supervisor, and at times their personal life coach. Your apprentice will work alongside you through long and short days, winter storms and heat waves. You’ll get to experience their full spectrum of expression and varying moods, and they get to know you just as well. You’ll share meals during the workday and more than likely you’ll sit down to dinner together every now and then, as well.

This is clearly not a nine-to-five-Monday-through-Friday-job kind of relationship. Your apprentice will become a core part of your ranch or farm team and may start to feel a little like family.

If you’re ready to consider these implications of becoming a mentor, then also consider that apprentices will have high expectations of you. They will have tons of questions. They will challenge you when you least want to be challenged. They will also bring a fresh perspective and new ideas into your business. They may have special skills or knowledge that will enrich your marketing plan or improve your website design. They will bring youthful energy, spunk, and enthusiasm. They might make you cry, but they’ll also make you laugh.

There is no specific set of rules for how to be a good mentor. The important thing to remember is that by committing to an apprentice, you are committing to a whole human—both the positive and the challenging. This is a brave undertaking.

As a mentor, you not only have to consider the needs of your business and what tasks need to be accomplished on a daily basis in order to meet your bottom line, you also have to consider your apprentice’s educational goals and how these can be incorporated into your operation. The education you provide is part of the compensation that an apprentice receives in exchange for her work. Again, your apprentice is not your employee. Your commitment to her learning is the greatest gift you can provide and an essential part of the apprenticeship experience.

This brings us back to the original question. You may be an excellent land manager and an astute business person. But will you be a good mentor?

We organized the following questions into three separate sections, starting with the big picture and working toward the nitty gritty. Taking the time to work through these questions will help you understand the extent to which you are ready to take on the challenges of mentorship.

Start with Why

  • Why do you want to start an apprenticeship on your ranch or farm? o Why do you want to personally mentor a beginning rancher or farmer?
  •  Why might you prefer not to create an apprenticeship
  • What are the long term goals for your ranch or farm? (Think “mission statement”)
  • How might an apprenticeship assist you in reaching those goals?
  • Why is now the appropriate time? Why here?

Skills and Experience

  • What makes you a good rancher or farmer?
  • Who were the mentors who helped you throughout your life? How and why were they mentors to you?
  • What prior experience do you have as an educator or mentor?
  • What skills and personal qualities will best serve you as a mentor?
  • What aspects of your personality will be challenged by the role of mentor?
  • Mentor/apprentice relationships provide mutual learning opportunities. What are you excited to learn from an apprentice?
  • Realistically, how much time, energy, and patience do you have to share with an apprentice? Are you prepared to be a trainer, employer, counselor, teacher, mediator, and life coach as circumstances require?
  • What experiences and expertise will provide a valuable education to an apprentice?
  • How will you check in with the apprentice to assess her learning?
  • How flexible are you? How easily will you adapt your daily routine, work schedule, and operation to include an apprentice?
  • How comfortable will you be accepting critiques, criticism, or suggestions from an apprentice?

Nuts and Bolts

  • Do you have adequate apprentice housing on your property? Is it separate from your own? Does it provide private space for each apprentice, adequate heating and cooling, and easy access to a bathroom, clean running water, and cooking and bathing facilities?
  • Has your operation supported employees in the past? Are the appropriate systems in place (payroll, workers’ comp, etc.)?
  • While an apprentice’s primary compensation is the education and professional development you will provide in order to help them pursue the next steps in their career, they will also need to support themselves financially while they are learning. Are you prepared to offer fair compensation in exchange for their labor?
  • What additional compensation are you able to offer beyond education, housing, and a monthly stipend? Examples might include: regular meals; food from the ranch or farm; additional educational opportunities, such as workshops and conferences; tools and equipment, etc.
  • Are you prepared to develop a structure around your apprenticeship? Examples might include: a seasonal operation calendar and work schedule accessible to all; regularly scheduled planning meetings; monthly or bimonthly check-ins and evaluations; clearly stated expectations; a skills checklist or other tool to track progress; a reading list and written curriculum; etc.

Do you want to be a Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program Mentor Farm?  Read more about this AB, SK and MB program here and become a mentor.

Republished from Agrarian Apprenticeship: Growing the Next Generation of Ranchers and Farmers  under the Creative Commons License. Written by Virginie Pointeau, Julie Sullivan and Sarah Wentzel-Fisher of the Quivira Coalition, New Mexico. The Young Agrarians Apprenticeship program curriculum and materials have been adapted from the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Apprenticeship program. 


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