On Apprenticeships

Grace’s power pole was struck by lightning earlier this week and she has been without power, so you get me (Sheri) today.

We have been blessed with an absolutely awesome team this year. Haling from all over the United States, these guys and gals are dependable, hard working and tough.

Back: Dustin, Ian, Stephen, Eric, Brian, Scott Front: Leanna, Michelle, Seth, Tarah

I have to admit though, it’s not always been so.  Our biggest headaches and largest expenses come from apprentices and summer interns who don’t pull their weight and/or make life on the farm absolutely miserable for everyone.

I always have to chuckle when new farmers come up to me and say, “Well, we finally got our first apprentice so things will get easier around here soon.”

Not so.

Why do “they” (I use this term loosely) think of apprentices as the ticket to getting days off or my personal favorite – “Free Labor”. Please! There is nothing free about it. Not only are you investing your money and time into teaching these young (or old) folks, but you are investing your life into theirs.

Privacy goes out the window. Every single part of your life is questioned and scrutinized from where you go to church, to what you wear, to what movies you watch, what books you read and where you sleep.  Notice that nothing on this list has anything to do with farming?

If you want a laborer, hire an employee. Trust me it’s easier and cheaper in the long run. Our apprenticeship program is not set up to be just a labor force. Sure, it helps, but that isn’t our focus. If it was, we’d hire an employee.

These guys and gals become a part of the Salatin family while they are here. They become one of us, get the inside scoop and invite us to their weddings. In return, we develop relationships that last a lifetime. I’ll close this post with a picture of all of the apprentices and interns that we able to come back for field day. The first one came in 1995.

We learn from them. Yep, it’s true. Every apprentice to ever come through Polyface leaves his/her mark. Tai brought in the tomatoes in the greenhouse. Ben brought in the zero-turn mower. Pete will always be known as our worst accident (at least I hope). Grady married a summer intern. Andy ate the most food and Galen was a close second. Nathan hit the telephone pole with the truck. Katrina convinced us that she could live off farm if we took girls. Okay, so some of those last things on the list weren’t necessarily a mark, but you should get the picture.

Things that have become second nature to us are questioned. What difference does it make if the feeders are put into the field shelters straight or crooked? What’s the difference between a water bucket and feed bucket and why does it matter?  These questions are good for us. It makes us separate the hard fast rules from the preferences. As farmers we can get stuck in our ways, change births new ideas and maybe a better way.

If you stop any of our apprentices and ask them what it is that they treasured the most from Polyface, the answer will rarely be their farm experience. It will be something deeper than that. A defining moment of time in which they learned how to communicate with another person. They learned a better work ethic or how to be a man (for our guys). For some, it was the first time in their life to be accepted into a family.

Can you put a dollar amount on that?

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About Sheri Salatin

Sheri is married to Daniel Salatin. She is the marketing director at Polyface Farm and stay-at-home mom of three children. Sheri is passionate about clean food and is enjoying working the land along side her husband. When not farming, Sheri can be found reading, writing, sewing, baking and serving in her church family.

13 Responses to On Apprenticeships

  1. Jamie Pike says:

    Totally agree! If a farmer needs an employee, they should pay them for the hard work they’re putting in-not disguise it as “an internship.” I’ve seen it many places and the folks don’t learn as much as they want-they’re just put to work.

    I love the new layout/page.

  2. Carol Rooker says:

    The thank you note to the “Polyface boys” who so generously entertained their “city” doppelgangers is covered with spilled juice, so I am saying it here. Thank you! Our boys loved seeing the chicks, the bunnies, throwing rocks in the creek, talking about the dog, and generally having a good time. They are welcome at our house any day. Thanks again!
    The Rookers

  3. Bryan Stever says:

    You guys do fantastic work!! If I’m ever in or near VA, I’ll come visit! One of the things that I would love to see are “franchise” Polyface Farms. I live in CA and don’t have access to your wonderful products. (I know that there MIGHT be some locals doing what you do, but we haven’t found any that truly embrace it). So if you could send your interns out into the world to start their farms, that would be a beautiful thing!!
    Continue doing what you do!

  4. Paul Berg says:

    Great commentary. For an expanded version of Joel discussing interns, selection process and his expectations, go to http://www.russianriver.tv. Scroll down to “Breakfast with Joel @ Tara Firma”

  5. Amelia says:

    Why do women have to live off farm?

    • Sheri Salatin says:

      The girls used to live off farm – actually all of the summer interns used to live off-farm because we didn’t have anything built nor anyway to build something for them (regulations). We were able to erect summer cabins for the guys and girls for this year. Legally we cannot have any more homes here on the farm. Hence the reason that housing for interns has always been a problem.

      • Amelia says:

        Glad to know you’ve been able to get at least a few cabins built!

        • Sheri Salatin says:

          Yes. 🙂 Summertime housing is not under the same regulations as full-time. Go figure. Kind of like “hunting cabins”

  6. Chris says:

    Thanks for posting! Your father-in-law have in part inspired me to start a little farm here in Northern Cali. I jumped in with both feet: we now own a Bull, Cows, chickens, turkeys and we are waiting on pigs…..all in 3 months!! A big step for being a 42 year old city boy with a wife and 4 kids under 7! But no time like the present!
    My oldest daughter Savannah wants to comes out be an apprentice when she is old enough, I told her in 9 years maybe.
    Interesting all the Govt ‘regs’ that you have run into. Things don’t make sense….here in California they are just as nutty!

    Thanks to all the you do!!
    Christ Bless you all!!

    The Gygi family!!

  7. Austin Fitzhenry says:

    Nice writeup, Sheri. It’s true that the greatest take-home is not the farm experience but the life lessons. They stick with you.

    “Our biggest headaches and largest expenses come from apprentices and summer interns who don’t pull their weight and/or make life on the farm absolutely miserable for everyone.”


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  10. I fully agree with your views. Apprenticeship is always useful for the growth of the career. Thanks for describing a great post on apprenticeship.