By Martina Schaefer and Nicola Inglefield
Have you ever found yourself wondering what to do about climate change? Pondering how to preserve the environment? Do you want to do something you know will have a positive impact on the lives of others, but don’t know where to begin?
You’re not alone. If you’re trying to figure out how to make a living by doing this kind of work, you might want to consider becoming a farmer.
You might be asking, “what about all those chemical pesticides and GMOs? Isn’t agriculture one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions? How does this help with conservation efforts?” You’d be right if you were thinking of industrial agriculture, which typically uses pesticides, produces genetically modified crops, and according to the United Nations, is a top culprit of greenhouse gas pollution. But there’s more than one way to grow food.
Before the so-called “green revolution”, when farming became heavily industrialized in the 1960s, people used concepts like crop rotation, green manures, and pasture rotation to ensure they had healthy soil and a productive farm, whether for self-sustenance or for commercial growing. These methods are still alive and well, and are becoming popular again thanks to the organic and ecological farming movements. These movements strive to leave a lighter footprint on the earth by minimizing or eliminating the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the overuse of antibiotics on animals. Here’s another surprise: you might picture a frosty-bearded guy in his 60s when you think of the word “farmer”, but there’s another group of farmers focused on the ecological way of doing things that’s growing (so to speak), and it’s today’s youth.
Many young people, especially young women, are turning to farming as a career option – and a good chunk of them are not from farming families. Whether the goal is to be self-sufficient, to be better stewards of the land, or to feed the public healthier food, ecological and organic farming has a draw, no doubt about it.
But how does one enter this somewhat underground movement and make it into a career? After all, only a handful of post-secondary schools offer programs in anything but the feedlot-and-monoculture methodology of conventional farming. Which could be why many young farmers-to-be look to intern and apprentice opportunities with solid education programs to get their hands dirty.
Across Canada, there’s quite an array of such programs. Some are run independently, solely organized by farmers who wish to share their knowledge of this realm with others, and some are offered through regional organizations that promote more earth-friendly agriculture. SOIL (Stewards of Irreplaceable Land) and CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) are two such organizations, SOIL being coastal Canada’s go-to place to look for an apprenticeship, and CRAFT being concentrated in Ontario, with a few branches elsewhere.
Structured internship programs, such as those offered through the CRAFT network, are not just about finding cheap labour as one might assume. Monthly CRAFT days give interns the chance to visit neighbouring farms within the network, connect with other farmers and interns, and participate in workshops where they can gain skills and knowledge in areas such as soil science, compost management, and cover cropping. Some farms even go further than that, offering additional education days that are spent touring farms in the area, or completing workshops on topics of interest specific to the intern group. On-farm, interns learn the ropes quickly – from seeding in the greenhouse as early as March, to transplanting seedlings into the ground once the spring arrives, identifying and managing pests and weeds, harvest planning, and animal husbandry. Other things interns can be expected to gain include strong communication and teamwork skills, business planning and customer service experience, marketing skills, and familiarity with food safety guidelines. Some interns go on to work in related fields like community development, edible landscaping, and not-for-profit efforts to address hunger. Others, who may have initially seen their farm experience as something fun to do for a summer, find it so fulfilling that they change their plans and opt to pursue farming as a full-fledged career.
We are two such people; before completing our internships through the CRAFT network, neither of us had really considered a future in farming. Now that we each have some experience under our belts, much has changed. We get asked about this shift often by curious acquaintances, and have compiled a short list of common questions here, which we have each answered. Read on to find out how our CRAFT experiences changed our lives.
Question 1: Why did you decide to do a CRAFT internship?
Nicola: I was partway through a degree in social work and was doing a lot of mental and emotional work. I needed something physical to ground me. So, I started hunting for opportunities that would nourish me physically and spiritually, as well as mentally and emotionally. That’s when I stumbled upon farm work, in the form of a working share, [where I helped at the farm in exchange for the food I took home]. I fell in love with the work and the people – it didn’t take long for me to get hooked on the sense of satisfaction and enrichment that comes along with such meaningful work. The following season, I started my first internship on a farm.
Martina: I had finished an undergraduate degree in a field largely focused on conventional agriculture a couple of years before, and was feeling disillusioned by what I had learned. I knew I didn’t want to work in that field, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. One winter, when I was having a hard time finding employment, I decided to reconsider a farm internship. It had been something on my to-do list for a while, with the idea that it would be a fun way to pass a summer. I was accepted as a full-season novice intern at my farm of choice that spring. The work was incredibly fulfilling – being outside during most of the work day, learning new things all the time, and being in a positive and team-oriented environment were enjoyable and encouraging. I hadn’t felt so good in years, and other people were telling me they had never seen me so happy. I realized I felt whole and healthy doing this work, knowing I was doing something positive for myself, the earth, and other people. That was the point when I realized I had found something I truly wanted to do.
Question 2: What are some of the things you learned during your internship? Did you learn anything unexpected?
Martina: I learned a ton about plants, food, bugs, soil…I learned that each kind of vegetable or fruit has countless different varieties – for example, that an item like broccoli which I had previously bought at the store was not just a generic item that was the same all across the board, but rather that it existed in many unique forms. I also learned a great deal about how to nurture a successful team, how to improvise when the weather changed suddenly or the fields flooded, some carpentry skills, and much about the behind-the-scenes work of being a farmer. I also realized that being so close to the earth was very important to my emotional well-being and general satisfaction with life.
Nicola: I learnt all sorts of things. Of course, there are the things you would expect that go along with growing veggies – seeding in the greenhouse, transplanting, weeding, harvesting…and more weeding! In addition to these more obvious areas for skill development, I realized that when working on a farm you are exposed many different types of work, so I got to try my hand at myriad different tasks – everything from marketing and customer service, to small engine maintenance, to carpentry, you name it! Most of all, though, I learnt a whole heck of a lot about myself and deepened my relationship with the earth.
Question 3: Has your intern experience encouraged you to be a farmer, or otherwise changed your plans for the future?
Nicola: The internship has shown me that a life connected to the land, growing food, is possible, that given a bit (read: a lot!) more training and mentorship, I could do this work that I have grown (in a manner of speaking) to love, for the rest of my life!
Martina: Absolutely! As I mentioned, I have a University degree that I had no idea what to do with before my internship, and for a few years was at a loss over what I could do for a living that both provided for me and made me proud and happy. The time I spent as an intern really opened up more options for me, and helped me realize what skills I have and how I can put them to good use. Now it’s a little heart-wrenching to consider doing anything else as a career, actually!
Question 4: What do you think is valuable about the CRAFT network’s internship program? Would you recommend it to others?
Martina: What I loved about my CRAFT internship was that it wasn’t solely a way for farmers to find cheap labour. The farmers who mentored me truly cared about providing an interesting and educational experience, and were clearly passionate about sharing their knowledge with us interns. I was very grateful to spread my wings a bit part way through the season, and be given some more responsibility as my farm skill set developed. Even for folks who are not interested in farming as a career, I would definitely recommend an internship through CRAFT – at the very least, you will experience personal growth in a way that’s hard to do in other settings, and come away with a greater appreciation for your food and community, and maybe even a better sense of yourself and what your future might hold.
Nicola: This might sound big but it is not an overstatement – working on a farm, doing a CRAFT internship changed who I am and how I see the world. It changed what I thought was possible for my future. In short, my first internship changed my life. In fact, I’m on my way to my second one! I highly recommend it.