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Farm internships in Oregon

July 1, 2010
link to article from Ag Weekly online

Oregon Department of Agriculture - Farming is an art as much as a science or business. It involves unique characteristics of each field with its soils and slopes and climatic conditions and management practices; the varieties, qualities, and adaptability of the plants/crops involved; the health and care of animals; equipment operation and repair; irrigation fundamentals and plant water needs; and a myriad of other special skills and details that one learns best in a real-world application.

One can study some of these things in a text book, but working on a farm is the only way to really learn farming. With growing interest in farming, locally-derived food and food systems, hands-on learning, and the increasing age of growers nearing retirement, questions around the opportunities for on-farm internships are plentiful.

There are state and federal laws and limitations that define what constitutes an intern. Ensuring that both growers and potential interns understand the basics of these "boundaries" will help minimize disputes, complaints, and compliance issues so those who do enter into an internship relationship have a good experience.

The standards required for an "internship" can be difficult to meet - for unpaid, work-based learning program to qualify as an internship, any productive work that the student/intern performs for a for-profit business must be offset by the employer through an adequate training/education program and sufficient supervision. The business may not derive any "immediate advantage" from the intern's work. These are difficult measures to quantify.

Further, the placement of the student at a worksite during the learning experience cannot result in the displacement of any regular employee. Whether a small farm would have employed someone otherwise is also difficult to quantify.

Many farmers want to teach farming to a new generation willing to learn, but they feel that taking on the role of "instructor," AND having the requirement to pay wages to interns/students is equivalent to expecting college professors to pay students to study under them, rather than the student paying tuition. Furthermore, many farmers provide free room & board and curriculum.

But without modifications to existing laws, growers and interns need to understand current requirements and comply with these obligations.

As a final word in this introductory section, keep in mind there is a distinction between apprenticeships and internships. They are not the same thing. Apprenticeships are accredited training programs that have specific standards, hours of learning, and other requirements for an apprenticeship "degree" in a particular trade. There is no official agricultural/farming apprenticeship program in Oregon. (See BOLI page for definition of apprenticeship program:
http://www.oregon.gov/BOLI/ATD/A_Aptrng.shtml Hence, the information found here is specific to the term "internship."

A very important approach to any intern situation it to put it in writing! Document what the intern will do, what the intern will learn, what training/supervision will be provided, if there will be room/board, stipend or pay, etc. Make sure the experience meets the criteria for an intern, not an employee!

More information can be found at: http://www.oregon.gov/ODA/farm_internships.shtml

Interns are typically housed at the farm, and in exchange for room, board and a small stipend, gain valuable farm skills and the chance to experience the farming lifestyle. This exchange has been a valuable source of affordable labor for small producers and an important "training ground" for the next generation of farmers.

Despite the success of these programs, they are rarely in compliance with state wage law. Recently, in the Willamette Valley, a former intern filed a wage claim against a farmer and won payment of back wages.

Wage law states that if an intern works independently and contributes to the profitability of the farm, that an intern is an employee entitled to minimum wage compensation.

One solution is to pay interns minimum wage for work performed and then charge the intern market rates for rent, contributions toward groceries, and fees for educational programs. In order to comply with the law, all appropriate tax and employment forms must be filed, as well as a written work agreement between intern and farmer.

Successfully and legally managing employees, whether interns or farm workers, represents a difficult and complicated aspect of running a business. Through the two courses on labor management, the OSU Extension Small Farms Program will provide producers with knowledge and information to more successfully manage their workers.

For any further information contact:

Melissa Matthewson & Maud Powell

Small Farms
Southern Oregon Reseach & Extension Center
569 Hanley Road
Central Point , OR 97502
(541) 776-7371 x208