On-farm internships and land-link programs are two important models for increasing the number of farmers in the sustainable-agriculture movement. That's the bottom line of research studies by Penn State College of Ag Sciences Sociologists Kathleen Wood and Leslie Pillen.
That’s also the bottom line for bringing new newcomers into any aspect of farming, according to decades of Pennsylvania Farm Link experience. Novice producers – and even next-gen in-family producers – must gain experience and prove themselves on the land before given opportunities to own it.
Most newcomers to sustainable agriculture don't enter farming through a family enterprise, confirm Wood and Pillen. They often lack essential knowledge and access to land, both critical for supporting new farmers growing food for local markets.
Mentoring may be a missing link
Wood found that internships impart practical skills to interns. But there are knowledge gaps if their work isn't supplemented with instruction by a farm mentor.
"Farmers are expected to offer a broader picture of farming by including interns in labor tasks and providing instruction on a range of farming topics, so the interns gradually gain experience," says Wood.
"But in many cases, interns feel they're laborers more than learners. Farm interns receive limited instruction apart from labor activities."
Most farm interns were paid for their labors. But they were more motivated by skills learned and the value of their work, notes Wood. Many wished their employers had spent more time training them in areas of management or farm planning in addition to labor.
What landowners want first
Landowners mainly look for credibility among potential lessees when deciding to lease their land, says Pillen. "Owners may look for prior farm management experience before they trust land seekers. In my research, over a third of the seekers didn't have experience in farm management."
Land-link programs manage databases of farmland to help beginning farmers locate properties to cultivate. However, it's less common that they support farmers and landowners in establishing clear expectations of the partnership in a lease agreement, she points out.
Leasee inexperience and owner 'farming fantasies' are two barriers land-link programs face when facilitating a lease," she adds. "Some landowners may be excited about supporting local agriculture. But they might not know exactly what it entails in cases if they themselves have never farmed or experienced a farm." Goals of both must be clearly communicated and compatible.
"Without addressing the challenges present in internships and land-link programs within current sustainable agriculture systems, future sustainability of these efforts to support beginning farmers will remain in question," Wood concludes.