UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On-farm internships and land-link programs are two important models for increasing the number of farmers in the sustainable-agriculture movement, according to researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
The majority of newcomers to sustainable agriculture do not enter farming through a family enterprise — the traditional succession process of learning skills and inheriting property is not common among these first-generation farmers.
As a result, novice producers often lack essential knowledge and access to land, both critical for supporting new farmers growing food for local markets, explained Kathleen Wood and Leslie Pillen, both master’s degree students in rural sociology.
For these aspiring farmers, learning to farm often comes through a relationship with an experienced farmer, and gaining access to land occurs through an agreement between land seeker and landowner.
For their theses, Wood and Pillen conducted research examining the role that farm internships (Wood) and land-link programs (Pillen) play in supporting a new generation of beginning farmers in the Northeast.
In their research, which was partially funded through 2012 Northeast SARE Graduate Student Research Awards, Wood and Pillen explored the social processes and structures of farm internships and land-link programs, and studied the implications of these for providing the necessary resources to new farmers.
Their data were independently collected through mixed-method research designs. Both studies included intensive interviewing and Web surveys, and Wood also conducted focus groups and distributed time-use diaries to farm interns. There are few sociological studies conducted on either topic.
Wood focused on the role farm internships play for curious or aspiring farmers to gain hands-on farming skills. She found the emphasis these internships place on labor imparts practical skills to interns.
However, the model leaves gaps in knowledge provided to participants if work is not supplemented with instruction from 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 will gradually gain experience,” said Wood.
“But in many cases, interns feel they are laborers more than learners, and farm interns receive limited instruction apart from labor activities.”
Although most farm interns were given alternate remuneration for their labor, they were more motivated by skills learned and the value of their work, noted Wood. Many of them wished that their employers had spent more time training them in areas of management or farm planning in addition to labor.
Since the farm population in the U.S. has dwindled, and growing numbers of farmers are nearing retirement age, new farmers are crucial to continuing local and sustainable agriculture.
Organizations and individuals that offer their land to farmland seekers through land-link programs see it put to good use and support the growing of food on the local level.
Nevertheless, according to Pillen’s research, these landowners mainly look for credibility among potential lessees when deciding to lease their land.
“Owners may look for prior farm management experience before they trust land seekers to lease their land,” said Pillen. “In my research, I found that over a third of the seekers did not have experience in farm management.”
Land-link programs — often motivated by supporting beginning farmers and local agriculture — manage databases of farmland to help beginning farmers locate properties to cultivate.
However, it is less common that they support farmers and landowners in establishing clear expectations of the partnership in a lease agreement, Pillen pointed out.
“Owner inexperience and owner ‘farming fantasies’ are two barriers land-link programs face when facilitating a lease,” she said.
“Some landowners may be excited about supporting local agriculture, but they might not know exactly what it entails in cases where they themselves have never farmed or experienced a farm.”
The goals of the land seeker and the landowner must be clearly communicated and compatible, Pillen emphasized, so both parties can engage in a successful partnership.
Land access security is another barrier of leases facilitated through land-link programs. “Owners retain ultimate control,” Pillen said. “They have the ability to end the partnership if they are unhappy with it.”
The need for new farmers is evident, the researchers agreed. But there is also a need for farmers and landowners who are prepared to teach aspiring farmers proper farm management and to provide them access to land.
“Without addressing the challenges present in internships and land-link programs within current sustainable agriculture systems, the future sustainability of these efforts to support beginning farmers will remain in question,” Wood said.