Farming Internships: Illegal or Not?

As a student interested in food systems, current food movements, and overall food culture (apparently she likes food…), I decided this past year that it was really important for me to have an experience where I personally engage in food production, from planting to harvesting. I’m curious and extremely compelled by the struggles and joys of cultivating food, the seemingly timeless wisdom and knowledge that comes from producing what you consume while working within a natural system of soil, water, and weather, and a type of production that challenges me both physically and emotionally. Basically, I envisioned a summer of sweat, dirt, backbreaking work, but unforgettable people and experiences. So, I started making plans to intern on a sustainable farm for a summer somewhere on the West Coast where the “foodie” and organic movements have taken hold.  Once I started up the invaluable online search engine, however, my ideal summer plans were soon put into question as I encountered web pages named “Farm Internships: Vital or Illegal?” and “Outlawing Farm Internships”.

Recently along the West coast, officials from the Department of Labor have been hitting farms with fines from hundreds to thousands of dollars for employing interns illegally. The DOL claims that the internships violate the six stipulations outlined by the DOL that define a legal intern-employer relationship. The stipulations include:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees.
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion his operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period.
  6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

DOL agents claim that farm internships specifically violate regular employee displacement- because interns typically have the same responsibilities as regular employees- and provide employers “immediate advantages” as far as increasing farm production and profitability. Farm internships also typically lack formal training that would constitute defined “benefits” for the interns. As a result, interns should be legally paid minimum wage and receive benefits just like any other regular employee if farmers wish to avoid fines.

Many farmers responded by cutting their internship programs completely, turning away applicants while trying to figure out how they would replace this form of invaluable, affordable labor. Others revamped their internship programs individually or with the help of local non-profits, developing more comprehensive training programs that would offset the work performed by the intern for the employer’s/farm’s benefit. Some even asked interns to pay to participate in their internship programs. However, many find these alternatives unnecessary and costly in terms of both time and money.

The state of Washington responded by ratifying a senate bill this past June, creating a new worker category of “farm intern” that can be paid less than minimum wage on farms grossing $250,000 or less each year. Through a certification process, farmers can hire interns after specifying 1) the nature of the intern’s work and 2) the vocational knowledge and skills the intern will gain through the experience. This represents a huge step forward in maintaining the economic viability of small, organic and sustainable farms in the state of Washington. Farmers in other states are hoping to pass similar legislation so that they can continue to utilize the help of eager and willing interns while potentially training young people to become the next generation of food producers for the nation.

In the time being, I guess I’ll just have to look for an internship in Washington but I hope that both individual farmers and states will find a way to continue offering viable and mutually beneficial internships to aspiring, young “foodies”.

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