7 Ways Farmers Justify Crappy Compensation for their Apprentices

by Jordan Marr

A former apprentice and soon-to-be apprenticeship host suggests that farm apprentices, on average, aren't compensated enough, and shares his ideas for improving their lot


This season, for the first time, my partner and I are going to join the ranks of dozens of small-scale farms across Canada that offer apprenticeships to eager, would-be farmers.  We’re now really excited at this prospect, despite long feeling conflicted about it. For quite a while we were uncertain about whether we would be able to stay on the right side of a line separating a mutually beneficial trade of labour for education on one side, and exploitation on the other.

Because here’s the thing: Vanessa and I have each completed two farming apprenticeships. And since then we’ve volunteered in a couple of different contexts with SOIL, one of Canada’s foremost apprenticeship facilitators, and have come to know dozens of apprentices and apprenticeship-hosts. And it has been my general, anecdotally-based observation that farmers as a group currently overvalue their contribution to the exchange while undervaluing what they receive. Such valuations are generally measured by the terms of the apprenticeship; that is, the hours and responsibilities to which an apprentice commits in exchange for room and board, the opportunity to learn how to farm, and hopefully, a cash stipend and/or bonus. And those terms, on average, aren’t that great.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting there are a whole bunch of farmers who are consciously exploiting their apprentices for their labour; rather that what hosts consider as a norm for compensation in Canada—financial, educational, and otherwise—doesn’t sufficiently reward apprentices for their work.

And I think these norms are reinforced by a few self-serving axioms, subscribed-to by many hosts, that justify unfair arrangements. I’d like to list and address those axioms now. But first I had better suggest a typical arrangement between a farm-host and apprentice in Canada.

My sense is that a typical apprenticeship in Canada lasts six months. It expects six days and between 40 and 50 hours of work per week from an apprentice. In exchange, the apprentice is offered basic room and board, between $25 and $50 dollars a week, and some sort of education, though many of the apprenticeships described to me are limited to ‘learning by doing’.  Often there is a bonus in the range of $100-$500 for sticking around for the season.  Sometimes, access to a vehicle is provided.

Now then. Seven of the axioms commonly cited whenever the idea of better compensation for apprentices is proposed:

Axiom #1 (regarding stipend and bonues):I would like to offer more, but my margins can’t justify it. I can personally relate to this conundrum. But it's a pretty weak argument for under-compensating your apprentice. Actually, many eaters use a similar argument in explaining why they're not willing to pay more for their food, and we all know what farmers think about that. I have a colleague, incidentally, who believes that if your business plan is absolutely dependent on having an apprentice, you probably shouldn't have one, because it almost ensures an exploitive situation. I agree with her. If your margins can’t justify an apprentice, figure out why, fix the problem, then take one on. And by the way: if you can’t offer more to your apprentice, you can always demand less from them instead. More on that later.

#2 (regarding the expected work load):I work 6 days/80 hours a week. Why shouldn’t my apprentice? Yes, you do work long, long hours. You also own your land and have a much bigger stake in working that hard. And at the end of the season, you’ve got a root cellar stuffed to the tits with food. And a season’s worth of improved soil, if you’re an organic farmer. And better farm infrastructure. And lifestyle expenses you can write-off. And other long-term benefits that stay on the farm when your apprentice leaves. But look, while we’re on the topic of keeping things equal, shouldn’t your apprentice get to live in a real house rather than in that old trailer out in the pasture?

#3 (regarding work load):They need to work a heavy schedule so they know what it’s like to be a farmer. That’s just not true. Which is why most farmers’ kids know they don’t want to farm by the time they’re twelve. Apprentices spend a great deal of time working and living with their hosts; they don’t need to work full time to notice that your hair has grayed sufficiently in the six short months they’ve been there.

#4 (regarding the overall compensation package):If my terms were unfair I wouldn’t be able to get apprentices to work for me. Replace the word ‘apprentices’ with ‘”Mexican Illegals’ and you’ve got the same argument being made by many large-scale veggie growers in Florida right now. The reality is that most apprentices are approaching their selection process with a very idealistic view of farming that precludes the possibility that a farmer, especially an organic one, would take advantage of them, knowingly or otherwise. Next they arrive with an enormous desire to please their hosts. And if the average compensation package is unfair, they’re not likely to see examples of a better deal before committing. So it’s kind of on us hosts to strive to offer the fairest possible arrangement.

#5:  Learning by doing is the best way to learn. Maybe, but you can learn by doing as a farm-labourer getting paid 12 bucks an hour at those farms that hire, which will net you 800 or 900 bucks at the end of the month after taxes and living expenses. Some sort of extra effort at educating your protégé, be it designated classroom time or offering regular workshops, can really improve the deal they’re getting.

#6: If they went to an agricultural college they would be paying thousands to learn how to farm. Yep, and they would come out with an accredited degree that would allow them to get further degrees and then jobs in which they’re well-paid to ‘help’ us farmers. There would also be much more time devoted to pedagogy, and college students have more recourse when they're dissatisfied with their education. The two options involve greatly different outcomes, and so are not really comparable.

#7: Apprentices take up a lot of my valuable time. Maybe in the first month. But any half-bright apprentice with a decent work ethic is going to make up for that ten-fold over the ensuing five, and you can always structure your compensation arrangement to be weighted towards the end of the apprenticeship. If you're a host, and you bring an apprentice to the point that you can leave the farm for an extended period without worrying that the crops will fail, you should know what I'm talking about.

To the extent that some of these axioms are actually...truthy, none of them change the fact that sending an apprentice out to learn-by-doing to the tune of 40 hours per week of bed-prep, planting, weeding, and harvesting in exchange for three squares, a bed, and fifty bucks is a bit exploitive, no matter how cheerfully said apprentice whistles each day on the way out to the fields.  After a first month of learning the ropes, a good apprentice brings value to a farmer’s business and life much greater than what’s typically offered in exchange.

I think they deserve more, and I think it is in a host’s best interest to find a way to provide apprentices with more.  A better-compensated apprentice decreases the likelihood that he will leave the apprenticeship early, which can be more damaging to a farm’s operation than not having an apprentice in the first place.  I know many apprentices who started out pretty enthusiastic about their apprenticeship, but who grew resentful once the sheer delight of wearing work boots faded, and they settled in to a summer of hard work for not much pay.  Another reason is the long-term instability of labour supply that can happen when a farm business plan relies on poorly-compensated labour.

Yet many farms, including mine, don’t see the profit margins to justify compensating an apprentice more than the average I noted above. At least, not out of pocket.  What to do then…not host?  My partner and I considered that for a while, but have since come up with plan for hosting that we believe we can afford, and would compensate our potential apprentices better than the average.  Our goal is for our apprentice to make at least $2000 over and above the room and board we’ll be providing, with the potential for her to earn significantly more.

Our plan is much like the typical arrangement I described above, only we’ll require a less demanding work schedule: five days a week for six hours a day. Two more hours per day, called flex hours, are to be devoted to reading, projects of interest, and workshops given by us.

In addition, we‘ll offer our apprentice a chance to grow a small crop for her own profit, to be sold via a marketing channel we wouldn’t otherwise exploit.  In our case, the nearest town has a farmers’ market that wasn’t netting us enough in sales last year to really justify being there.  But sending an apprentice there to sell her own crop—say, beets and radishes, which were popular items there last year—would give the apprentice valuable marketing experience, an extra source of income, and an added marketing channel for a small amount of our own surplus crops like salad greens. A win-win situation that will likely add an extra $100 per week to the $25 or $50 we intend to offer as a stipend.

The other aspect of the plan is to create a realistic lower and upper revenue target for the season, and then commit to sharing a certain percentage of revenue above the minimum target—say, 30%--with the apprentice, in order to give her more incentive to work hard and to stay for the entire season.  We intend for the window between minimum and maximum revenue goals to be about $4000, which will give our apprentice a $1200 bonus if we reach the upper target.

It remains to be seen whether this results in satisfaction for everyone involved.  And I’m well aware that my tune may change after a couple of years of experiencing all of this as a host. But at this point I can’t imagine, assuming our apprentice has a good work ethic, feeling short-changed under this arrangement. Though I'll publicly recant my position on this blog if I do. We shall see.

I would be curious to know what others think about this issue. Do you agree or disagree with me? And if you're a host, I encourage you to sum up the terms you offer to your apprentices. You can leave comments below. Thanks for your attention folks.