Farming Internships: Vital or Illegal? The Answer is Both.

This is the  9th post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management Company, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read the earlier posts, click here.

By Dayna Burtness

I never knew that I had such a deep desire to break the law.

In fact, it’s my dream. Sometime in the next couple of years, I want to start the Twin Cities’ first rooftop farm.  Between rows of raised beds full of heirloom tomatoes and herbs, I want to watch my farm interns learn the joys of getting their hands dirty and planting seeds.  I want school kids to listen to the buzz of my rooftop beehives and help out by picking their own cucumbers.  I want retired engineers to collaborate with me to design a hydroponics system that makes use of all the vertical space and sunshine of a warm, south-facing wall.

Rather, I wanted to do all these things right up until I attended workshop at the EcoFarm Conference last week in California entitled “Are Internships Illegal?”  I was shocked to learn that the answer is yes, most of the time, as are volunteers on for-profit farms.  This answer blew my mind for several reasons.  First, farms offering internships are everywhere, in practically every state.  Second, internships are how all of the young farmers I know got started in the field.  Third, for better or worse, low-paid farm interns and volunteers are a huge part of why many small farms can stay in the black. As a Fellow for Bon Appetit Management Company, I’ve traveled to enough small farms in the Midwest to see these three trends repeated over and over again, all of which would be disrupted if farmers are afraid to hire interns.

But why? Why can’t a farm take on interns when big companies routinely have college students answer phones and make coffee runs? Why can’t school kids help pick potatoes to learn about their food? A panel of two small-scale farmers (both of whom had been burned badly by this issue) and a law professor explained the situation to a standing-room-only crowd.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer or an expert on these matters, so if you have questions about the specifics, contact a legal professional or federal/state authorities.

As it turns out, to qualify as a legal, unpaid internship, it has to meet six criteria laid out by the U.S. Department of Labor.  Farm internships meet a few of the criteria like “The training is for the benefit of the trainee” and “The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period.”  But then there are two that are hard to ignore. The first is that “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees.”  I’d say doing everything from driving tractors to harvesting crops to making deliveries counts as a farmer deriving immediate advantages from the intern!  The second is “The trainees do not displace regular employees.” It would be one thing if an intern hangs around the farm for a few hours a week, but it would be hard to argue an intern working every day from dawn ‘til dusk isn’t replacing an employee.

What about paid farm internships? Well, once farmers start paying an intern they need to pay minimum wage and overtime, but some farmers themselves don’t make that much!  Also, newbies who have never so much as touched a scuffle hoe haven’t yet earned this rate of pay, especially when receiving education, room and board.  With all of the equipment I broke and plants I accidentally killed and my slow pace, I know I should have been paying my farmer mentors for all the hours of patient training they provided.

Indeed, asking interns to pay instead of be paid is one solution that some non-profit farming programs have tried, but the legality of that is still hazy when the farm products are sold for a profit.  There were other ideas for solutions—always finding interns through accredited colleges (this can, in some circumstances, make the internship valid) or getting the government to start an Americorps spin-off called Farmcorps—but these were either depressingly mired in bureaucracy or still in their infancy. At present, there’s a rogue edition called, aptly, rogue farm corps filling in the gap for this much needed program.

The average age of the American farmer is in the late 50s, a number which creeps up each year. The foodservice company I work for strives to spend 20% of its food dollars with local farmers and artisans to get the best flavors, so who will we buy from when this generation of farmers retires? The bottom line is that farm internships are a crucial step in the process of cultivating new, innovative growers, so there needs to be a way for farmers to train interns without fear of thousands of dollars in fines and litigation (the consequence one of the farmers on the EcoFarm panel faced).

I guess my dreams of using my rooftop farm to teach new farmers will just have to wait.

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13 responses

    1. I'm guessing that this regulation comes from a good place- not wanting vulnerable students to be taken advantage of. There are so many companies that offer unpaid internships, and in most cases, they are technically illegal. I'm all in favor of protecting vulnerable populations- but perhaps there should be waivers for farms of a certain size.

      1. I agree about the size. Also certain situations. You definitely want to have a system that protects people from being exploited, but it seems like there should be some way to quantify the educational value of these kinds of internships. I am looking into starting a school-based gardening/business project where students sell their crops at a local farmer's market. Would I then be the “illegal intern” in my volunteer capacity at their for-profit venture?

  1. The author of this article is correct that utilizing voluntary labor in a for-profit enterprise is illegal, and for *several* good reasons. Not only is it a distinct violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and other minimum wage laws, it is also a serious violation of Workers Compensation laws. If a volunteer is injured on the job, all manner of legal mayhem may well result which the injured victim cannot prevent, even if they are your best friend. One could very easily loose the farm as a result and even end up in jail (not paying Workers Comp is a felony). And free meals and room, no matter how lavish, don't count as compensation.

    Moreover, there is a strong ethical argument against voluntary labor. It is *very* unfair competition with those who are both working and paying by the rules. It clearly has the potential to reduce the number of low-skill jobs available and it also reduces the economic viability of those who provide such jobs.

    Utilizing volunteers on the farm, like so many things in life, seems like a good idea. But it isn't; don't do it. If you can't pay at least minimum wage you must either rethink your business plan or get your enterprise registered as a legitimate nonprofit. Good luck!

  2. I'm curious – what about paying minimum wage and then having a second agreement where the intern pays for room, board and education? Many colleges have work/trade or service learning agreements.

    Of course, a clever pay idea still won't protect the farmer who hasn't paid for liability and work insurance. As a non-profit administrator who hires (and pays) interns, the insurance for a small summer job can quickly become a major, but absolutely necessary, expense.

  3. Nice post, I currently have an unpaid internship for a publication company and it certainly isn’t legal. I have mixed feelings on this issue because without unpaid interns most small business would not be able to compete, and I’m sure that’s how it is with smaller farms as well. I tried to volunteer for the Take Our Jobs campaign this summer in Colorado, but no local farms were participating because of the legality of having unpaid workers on the farm. This is an interesting subject, nice post.

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