May 31, 2015


A goal for WNC CRAFT is to support farmers in building quality on-farm training through apprenticeships as a part of a commitment to training the next generation of organic farmers in the region. So each year we host a “farmer only” roundtable centered on hiring and managing apprentices & farm workers. Farmer Round Tables are open-discussion group conversations. It’s a place to share ideas and experiences on a deeper level than we can get into at the WNC CRAFT farm tours.

Hosted at Thatchmore Farm this year, our prompt was on strengthening the training component of our farm operations to both improve the appeal of our farms to workers and to strengthen CRAFT generally.  We started out listing some potential themes to cover, voted on the top 5 and got going with discussion.  Throughout this discussion we used the words intern, apprentice, and farm worker more or less interchangeable. Here are the discussion highlights:

Finding Farm Workers: Most of the folks here use ATTRA or OGS’s Apprentice Link to find apprentices

Pay Scales: finding a balance between paying a rate you and afford based on your farm income, providing a viable income to farm workers, and being able to attract quality workers.

  • One farmer increased their pay rate this year after seeing that theirs was lower than the other farms.  “It wasn’t because we were ready to financially, but we felt we had to to be competitive”
  • Another haired their first paid per hour employee this year. Paying $5/hr plus $5 in farm credit for produce to try to meet $10/hr pay rate they earned in working Maine that was in addition to housing and produce. “How do they afford that in Maine?”
  • It is important to emphasize during the hiring process that if education is not the main reason you’re here then it’s not best situation for you.
  • One farmer suggested using the MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to test your pay rate. You can see the living wage for every county in the country, and can add in the value of room and board and other expenses not incurred living on the farm like utility bills.
  • some people come with financial issues, tend  to be less happy, see that as a red flag now – during interview process, look for comments about the pay rate
  • Examples of the diversity of pay scales:
    • $400/month for one person if a couple $640/month assuming they’ll be sharing expenses, plus housing and produce from the farm
    • $125/week for 5 days/week, crew leader gets $250/week plus housing & farm produce
    • $525/month, crew leader $800/month
    • Pay $5-$6/hr for every hour worked plus lunch, but no housing

Work Schedules

  • Clear time expectations on work hours are really helpful. I worked on farms with no schedule & know what that’s like easy to burn out your employees, and we set a schedule now
  • One farm also has two volunteer work crews that come to the farm for 3hrs twice a week. These volunteers are trading their time working for produce. Having this additional workers has help us save the interns from some of the worst repetitive tasks, and lets them take more time for teaching moments with the apprentices. “We’re able to step back and see them as learners and not just labor.”
  • Examples of work schedules
    • Apprentices work 8am-5pm with 1 hr lunch on your own 5 days a week.
    • Apprentices work 45 hrs/week, including market time 7:45am-5:45pm, 2 hr crew lunch break, crew leader starts at 7:30 w/ farmer
    • 8-4pm work days 2 days a week with 1hr lunch. Bring their own lunch, and do get produce from the farm

Crew Leaders

  • To have a crew leader or not to have a crew leader? Depends on the farm, scale and the role the farmer wants to play in production. Do you still want to keep your hands in production on a daily basis?
  • A crew leader can free farmer up to do other tasks like tractor work. They take over basic chores, leaving you to work on planning or other tasks only the farmer can do. But, they have higher expectations on them and that is reflected in pay.
  • One farmer talked about their goal of being able to hire a farmer manager. “We’re trying to get to a place where we can pay people enough, where our farm can not only support our family, but an employee and their family also.
  • There needs to be a middle ground between working on a farm for one year and then owning a farm, or working on a farm eight years and still not having enough money to make a down payment.

Crew Productivity

  • Seems to be that if there is more than one person on a job, then productivity goes down.  Some people can’t talk and work at the same time.
  • One farmer says we address it by saying “You’re doing a great job, but at the rate you’re going not going to get anywhere. Let me show you how you can speed up,” trying to be kind but make your point
  • Another tells the crew they should be picking $100/hr from a bed. And, people will report back if it’s not worth it to continue harvesting that crop
  • Can also give a rough estimate of how long the task should take, if it is taking longer let the farmer know and we’ll re-evaluate.
  • Another says they look for people who think. We say if you have something valuable to say, then say it. We appreciate that.

Training Apprentices on High Risk Tools or Equipment

  • Liability can be scary on high value/high risk equipment if you are considering letting your employees use that equipment
  • Does would worker’s compensation care about not having a roll bar and or seat belt on an old tractor?
  • if you’ve got good insurance you don’t want to lose it so be sure your agent and policy are spelled out clearly
  • Different crops can cost different things: For example, for apples they charge a much higher rate, so documenting the hours you actually spend in the orchard, can end up saving money since it may not be much.
  • In addition to having worker’s compensation coverage you have to do proper safety training and document it in order to be able to claim it.
  • The other side is to never let workers use tools like a chainsaw or tiller, tractor, etc. And, just do a basic demo in a safe place with supervision.
  • But, this type of training is part of what they want to learn in a farm apprenticeship. They want to learn these skills & how to do these things, that’s why the come!
  • One farmer says they do let people drive the tractor. They train them on it if they’re interested and usually start them on the transplanter because it’s slow and you just need to go straight.
  • You can also always be on site when expensive high-risk equipment is being use – then you can hear/see if something is going wrong and get them to step immediately.
  • Over the years you learn to let go of certain things. Everything doesn’t have to be exactly the way you think it has to be.
  • How do you keep your hat on when things go wrong? One piece of advice mentioned was that your employees are going to make $100 mistakes, but the farmer makes $1000 mistakes
  • Mistakes are going to be made, somehow you  have to plan for that & less than perfect is ok.
  • If you’re working with older equipment it is inherently high risk anyway – more likely to break, and usually more ornery.
  • It can come down to the way we teach, try to teach to minimize mistakes
  • We can also look at how interns make mistakes. There is a difference between someone just not paying attention and messing up versus someone who is trying and then just made a bad call.

Maintaining Morale

  • Donuts and Beer
  • Cocktail hour every Friday at 4pm
  • Time off early on Fridays sometimes
  • Celebrate birthdays and departures
  • Have them teach you about something they know, for example let them help you set up facebook page for the farm if they are good with social media

Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2015! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Coordinator at 828.338.9465 or

Author: Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a dancer, baker and avid adventurer.