Fields of Farmers: Interning, Mentoring, Partnering, Germinating
By Joel Salatin
Polyface Farms, Inc.
All of us admire Joel Salatin for his pioneering work in pasture-based, multi-species agriculture. As a prophet of regenerative farming and author of many practical how-to books, Salatin has inspired thousands of farmers, investors and consumers. All over the country, indeed throughout the world, new land stewards are getting up in the morning to pull chicken tractors, collect eggs from eggmobiles, check pigerators and move cows to new pasture. These activities create beautiful farms, build topsoil, heal the land and provide an abundance of healthy food. This is the model for the future, and no one has done more to create and refine that model than Salatin.
Less well recognized is Salatin’s innovative work in training interns and apprentices—creating not just fields of grazing chickens and cows, but fields of farmers. Lest you think that Salatin has merely figured out a way to get cheap labor, this book will set the record straight. Salatin’s intern program is the result of much careful thinking, hard work, time commitment and patient teaching skills. It’s harder to get into Salatin’s intern program than it is to gain acceptance to Harvard University—and the interns probably learn a lot more. Not only that, they receive a stipend instead of taking on crushing student debt.
As Salatin points out, internships exist in nearly all fields and all over the world; they allow a person real-life access to an intended vocation without the full responsibilities of actual employment. By the same token, internships allow employers (in this case farmers) to observe the working habits, common sense and creativity of many bright-eyed young people, with an eye to future permanent employees, managers—even spouses for their sons and daughters! Internships do not exploit but help transfer “information embedded in our agrarian subculture to our best and brightest young people.”
Running an internship program is a huge commitment—Salatin’s farm Polyface was in business for thirty years before it began having interns. The work begins in the fall as the Salatin family sits around the kitchen table mulling over some two hundred applicants for eight places. After winnowing down the list, the Salatins invite about forty candidates to Polyface for a two-day working “interview” of “gut-wrenching, sweaty, hard work” and family interaction. Then comes the difficult final selection process. When the accepted interns show up on June 1, they go through a careful training program. The Salatins provide a list of detailed rules and expectations—from filling chicken feeders to the right height to changing bed linens at least once a month.
Even with this careful selection process, things do not always go smoothly—lost tools, escaped cows, wrecked equipment, personality conflicts and resentments can make the farmer’s life difficult. Anyone who has taken on interns often asks himself or herself whether such a program is worth it. Wouldn’t it be less hassle just to do the work oneself?
But dedication to an intern program creates farmers for the future—something we clearly need when the average age of farmers today is almost fifty-six. “Folks just really weren’t getting into farming that much,” says Bob Young, chief economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. But thanks to Salatin, they are today.
Perhaps the most inspiring parts of Fields of Farmers are Salatin’s stories of how his former interns have acquired farms and become professional farmers, often through leases—farm land is dirt cheap to rent these days—but sometimes as a result of a retiring farmer’s largesse. Many farmers contact Salatin wanting to keep their land in farming but whose children have no interest—and no training—for returning to the land. Thanks to his intern program, Salatin is always able to suggest a likely candidate, a candidate who often ends up inheriting the farm. We need many more intern programs and Fields of Farmers is a great source for farmers following in his footsteps.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2016