Long Haul Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Reporters who really dig into the local food movement ask, “Will this time be different?” We don’t know the answer. But those who do the research find that the long term track record of volunteer-based gardening efforts is not good, and the amount community gardens contribute to the food supply has never amounted to even a rounding error. Gardening advocates try to strengthen their case with the statistic that during World War II US Victory Gardens produced 40% of the country’s food needs. But the fact that these gardens went fallow after the war ended can hardly be claimed as proof of concept.

In the end success is defined by staying power, not growing power. It is easy to inspire people to grow food, and it is easy to help people grow food. What’s hard is to keep them doing it, in significant volume, over the long haul. Unless there is a way to keep lots of people committed and productive, this good food revolution will go the way of Victory Gardens – a temporary fix to get through challenging times that disappears as soon as economic and social conditions improve.

Observers of professional farming admit to the same challenge. Kelvin Leibold, farm and ag business management specialist at Iowa State University, is quoted in a recent article entitled “Challenges Facing Beginning Farmers” on Agriculture.com: “All of my life, people have been saying we’d run out of farmers. The big issue today isn’t getting more people started. It’s keeping those who started in the last 10 years profitable enough to stay in ag.” Mr. Leibold was talking about large scale farmers, but it’s a challenge we all share.

That leads to a point about SPIN-Farming that continues to be missed. SPIN not only makes it easy for new farmers to get started by removing the 2 big barriers to entry – land and capital – it also increases the chances of long term success. How many new farmers are defeating themselves by following the old model and being forced to give up, when they might otherwise have succeeded if they weren’t initially overburdened
financially by debt and operationally by large acreage and overhead?

As we have said before, what makes this time different is the financial incentive. So while we are focused on shortening the distance from farm to plate, let’s be sure we also help new gardeners and farmers go the distance. One way is to teach them how to make growing food pay.

SF photo prices on sign Mooseview Farm


This time could be different if the enthusiasm and interest in local foods leads to the establishment of businesses…

SF photo staying power

that have staying power. Peer-to-peer online networks,which provide ongoing support and continual professional development can help. SPIN-Farming is unbound by ideology or the status quo, and is market-driven.  

Honest Work/Honest Pay

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

Labor is the single biggest expense in any farm operation. Big ag’s reliance on migrant labor has been a source of controversy for a while, but use of unpaid help by small scale farmers is also starting to gain attention. That is why SPIN-Farming is viable. It is owner-operated, and the owner does most of the work, with occasional help from family and friends. When the need for outside labor does arise, SPIN farmers can afford to pay a living wage rate because they are savvy about how they use labor.

For instance, three hour work sessions focused on specific tasks a few times a week is optimal. Managing labor is a big time suck for a farm owner, so the less of it you have to do, the better. Short, focused work sessions eliminates the need for much oversight, and you don’t have to factor in a lunch break.

A few years ago we did a guide on how to make productive use of those who want to volunteer, and the management efficiencies it outlines are just as applicable to paid labor. As we said back then, more and more people are realizing that making the world a better place is up to them, and many of these enterprising and visionary do-it-yourselfers are finding their way to SPIN farmers. How to meet their goals and a farmer’s needs, while also following local labor rules and regulations, is up to each SPIN farmer to figure out. The important point to understand is that the cost of labor has to be factored into the cost of production and prices, and if a farm operation can’t afford to pay a living wage to workers when they are needed, it’s not a viable business.

DDG2 photo 32

Have a savvy labor day!

See part 2 of Honest Work/Honest Pay here.

Check Legal Status on Use of Volunteers and Interns

SPIN’s business model does not rely on unpaid help, though it does tap into the “inhouse” labor pool of friends and family now and then. So the legal status of volunteers and interns in the US should not have have any operational effect on SPIN-scale farms there. But the culture is such that more and more people want to work on farms for their own benefit, and some US SPIN farmers may be welcoming them without realizing what they are  opening themselves up to.  These posts are meant to provide cautionary guidance.  

Courtesy of Andy P., Foggy Hill Farm, Jaffrey NH

The legal status of volunteer and interns is a hot topic right now. Much of the issues within states are dealing with laws and how they define an intern vs. apprentice vs. volunteer vs. employee or contractor. Most states do not legally recognize apprentices as a class and so they fall under the definition of an intern or employee.

An intern as defined must meet 6 criteria that includes having an educational curriculum and that an intern’s work does not displace the work of an employee. For example, I recently heard that interns selling at a farmers market must be considered an employee and therefore be paid minimum wage. This creates a gray area as this is a great educational opportunity for an intern, but the counter argument has been made that the farmer is utilizing free labor and is therefore not up to par with labor laws and the IRS. In addition, states look at how many “man-days” are used during a quarter and whether or not the farm is exempt. For example, in NH, the man-days are 500, and any work done on the farm, even if it is one hour, counts as a single day. For the IRS, tax exemptions are allowed only if a worker is paid less than $150.

So the issue can be very confusing, and every farmer needs to understand labor laws and how farm labor is legally classified in their state. This includes federal, state, and local laws. In addition, it also relates to how a business is legally structured as well as creating/revisiting the goals/objectives of the farm to help in determining what type of worker is best suited for the farm and whether or not the farm can manage the associated risks involved in hosting that type of worker.

Here’s the contact info. for two organizations I’ve spoken to recently regarding these issues and highly recommend them – both presented at two recent risk management workshops I’ve been a part of:

Law for Food, LLC.; Vermont
Kenneth Miller, Esq.
Christina (Christy) Asbee, Esq.

The National Agriculture Law Center; Arkansas
Rusty Rumley


US Regs On Unpaid Labor

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

In most states in the USA it’s illegal for a for-profit farm to utilize volunteers, or interns, to handle routine farm work tasks that would ordinarily be done by paid workers. Many small organic farms have been using farm work volunteers and interns for years and gotten away with it but in recent years the Fed and state labor enforcement organizations have been cracking down and levying huge fines on farms violating the law. Here in California most small organic farms have stopped using volunteers and interns, which has hit many of them hard financially: some were heavily dependent on using such volunteers/interns to keep their labor costs down and be profitable.

Here’s a link to an article in CivilEats, entitled “The Farm Intern Conundrum”, that discusses the issue: http://civileats.com/2010/05/11/the-farm-intern-conundrum/

Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) has a section devoted to urban ag law, appropriately called UrbanAgLaw.Org. (FYI: I’m on the Advisory Board for SELC.)

Here’s a link to a section of the website that specifically discusses the law in California related to urban (same for rural) farm use of volunteers and interns:


Discreetly check the laws in your state or province: being levied a $40,000 fine for labor law violations due to improper use of volunteers or interns can ruin your whole day.

Washington state a few years ago passed legislation that enables for-profit small farms to utilize interns if their farm gross sales are under $250,000 a year, but even there the farms must adhere to strict guidelines on the intern use. Efforts are underway in some USA states to pass similar legislation.

Volunteer Labor Can Be Made to Work

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK

You don’t have to have a bad experience with volunteers. They can be very productive if managed properly. The key is to use them in focused work sessions of around 3 hours. Many volunteers are willing to participate once a week with that type of commitment. I use volunteers when I go to one of my two peri-urban sites. If I go with say, two volunteers for three hours, that means I get nine man hours of work done, instead of just three man hours if I went myself.

Good types of work to assign them is rototiller work which keeps them focused. This allows me to do other tasks, such as hand weeding. Volunteers seem to like being challenged with serious farm tasks, such as off loading and starting a rototiller. This is something they have not been taught at home or at school – how to work physically.

SPIN Photo intern loading tiller

DDG6 photo 14 DSC01163

It is also good to have a pool of volunteers, at least five people, that you can rely on for consistent weekly commitment. Some volunteers might not be available some weeks so it is best to have a pool. Volunteers can be rewarded with produce from your market stand.

More tips for managing volunteers and interns for maximum productivity are available in the latest Dig Deeper guide in the SPIN-Farming learning series.

Also see James Kalin’s post on US Regs on Unpaid Labor.