If the idea of using interns as part of the labor force sounds appealing to you, now is the time to plan.
Is an intern right for your orchard?
Selecting the right person (or people) to suit your operation is the key to creating a positive experience for both you and the intern. Prior to searching for interns, review your overall business plan and determine whether an intern is a good fit. Is there ample work to justify having an intern? Are you willing to work with and provide instruction to someone who has little or no farming background? Can you provide housing or make sure that the intern has access to suitable housing nearby?
Prior to interviewing interns, prepare a list of responsibilities and areas of the orchard where an intern will work. Duties might include assisting with new plantings, tying/training young trees, participating at farmers markets, picking, hand-weeding and general property maintenance. Determine what your “season” for interns will be so that applicants can plan accordingly.
How to find interns
Your farm website and Facebook page are ideal places to announce internship opportunities. Viewing a farm website allows potential interns to see what the farm looks like, and there’s ample space for describing what you’re seeking in an intern.
Include basics about your orchard, such as acreage, what you grow, how fruit is marketed and production methods. Include a list of tasks that will be part of the internship, and what you will provide as far as wages, housing and education.
Visit other operations that have successful internship programs and find out what they like and dislike about hosting interns. Offer to cooperate in a program to share interns so that you, the intern and other farms benefit.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service provides a service through which farms can list available internships. Another linking source for farmers and interns is World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
The selection and interview process
Once you decide on some potential interns, arrange a personal visit. Ideally, visits should take place when there is some kind of activity at the orchard, even if it’s year-end cleanup or pruning. Inform potential interns that you expect them to be forthcoming with all information you request, and offer to answer all questions thoroughly.
Important interview topics include the applicant’s interest in agriculture, whether they have worked at a farm or orchard in the past, and if there are any health issues (including past injuries) that would limit their ability to work at full capacity.
Ask about prior job experiences, including agriculture, retail, service industry and volunteer work.
Present your operation accurately and clearly state what will be expected of the intern. Have a written contract that outlines your expectations, as well as what you plan to provide for the intern.
Be clear about what you expect regarding orchard or farm duties as well as other responsibilities, such as your expectations about how living space should be maintained, time off, guests and pets. Include information about meals, wages, housing and education. Some internships include cooperative agreements with other farms, so consider whether that’s a viable option for an internship.
For internships with an educational component, be specific about how much time will be spent on production and education, which can often be done simultaneously. Potential interns should be willing to do whatever work is required, with the understanding that tasks are always subject to change.
Make sure they understand that many orchard tasks don’t follow a schedule, and that hours could extend late into the day during certain times of the year. This is especially important for interns who have no previous agriculture-related work experience. Now is the time for the potential intern to find out that work often goes on in foul weather, and that there will likely be some unpleasant working conditions.
Ask interns about any allergies, including allergies to medications, plants, animals and insect stings. Determine what your policy will be in regard to working while sick; most agricultural workers are fully aware that they are expected to work while they have minor issues, such as a headache or allergy symptoms.
Make sure the candidates understand that orchard work is highly physical and requires a commitment to duty regardless of influences such as weather or personal circumstances. Be fair and clear about time off.
Ask the candidate what skills they can bring to your operation. Does the applicant have experience with farm machinery, working at farmers markets, cooking or pruning? Do they have a valid driver’s license? Do they speak or understand Spanish? Have they worked cooperatively with others in the past in any capacity? Many orchards prefer a true novice who has no prior experience so they can teach the intern from the ground up.
You have an intern … now what?
Once an intern is in place at your orchard, provide safety training for all new tasks as needed. Supply the appropriate safety equipment for interns, and teach them about its proper use. Be sure to provide training for any certification programs such as GAP (Good Agricultural Practices).
Determine a work plan for the day, week or month, and inform the intern as to when you will review the work. Since orchard tasks can vary according to the weather, the work plan might be for one day at a time.
Sally Colby is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.