On-Farm Apprenticeships: How much do we know so far?

This post was contributed by Lorien MacAuley.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hello! My name is Lorien MacAuley and I have just finished a Masters thesis studying On-Farm Apprenticeship programs in Virginia. My original compulsion to study on-farm apprenticeships came years ago, when I was working picking a variety of vegetables on an organic farm in Washington State. I met a farmer’s apprentice, who was just finishing up his first of two seasons on the organic farm. He was bright-eyed and enthusiastic, had grown up in Seattle (with a decidedly non-agrarian background) and reported confidently that after he completed the apprenticeship, he would become a farmer. I was, of course, impressed by the pluck of this young man, and wished him all the best success.

After moving away, I always wondered if or how the young man ever was able to surmount the myriad barriers facing beginning farmers at start-up nowadays. I feel this question is especially important because our farmer population is aging, and fewer and fewer farmers begin farming each year. Years later, studying Agricultural Leadership and Community Education at Virginia Tech, I was finally able to probe into the questions that haunted me:

  • What kinds of on-farm apprenticeships are available and to whom?
  • What are the most important educational practices, structures, or institutions that support on-farm apprenticeship learning?
  • How do expert farmers participate as educators in these on-farm apprenticeships?
  • How do farm novices adopt expert identities through on-farm apprenticeships?


So I decided to survey and interview farmers and apprentices in Virginia to answer these questions. What emerged is a complicated picture of on-farm apprenticeships. First of all, most apprentices in the study were in their mid-twenties, college educated, white, not from a farming background, and have little access to farmland. Interestingly, host farmers were similar in that they are highly educated, white, and two-thirds were not from a farming background. The types of farms that hosted apprenticeships were mostly diversified, small-scale operations that market through diverse direct markets, such as farmers markets and CSAs.

Importantly, farmers in the study are truly establishing mentor-mentee relationships through informal learning experiences on the farm. Very few structure the apprenticeship learning experience with classes, workshops, or other “school-like” experiences. The relationship between farmer and apprentice drives the learning, and emotional nuances within that relationship truly motivate apprenticeships to strive for success. What emerged was that the context of the on-farm apprenticeship is, naturally, a wonderful place for situated learning, to learn how to farm.

Other questions (for possible future research) also emerged. Apprentices and farmers alike talked about themselves as part of what Patricia Allen, in her marvelous book Together at the Table, calls “alternative food movements.” The apprentices and farmers talked about themselves as part of a movement, which is probably a real motivation behind why they got into farming in the first place. Also, the values that drive a young person to undertake an apprenticeship may create a situation where apprentices are accepting low pay (or no) for farm work, and the farmer is relying on that low pay. This makes me wonder if this is a financially sustainably model of farming that the young people are learning. Also, can everyone afford the low/no pay for the duration of the apprenticeships (unless they have money from parents, etc.), and if they do, how are they ever going to save up capital for their own future start-up costs? However, other farms in the study did show that many former apprentices had gone on to start their own farms, so some farms are surely answering these questions sufficiently!

So, this study paints a complicated picture of on-farm apprenticeships. However, this study has certainly highlighted the promise of on-farm apprenticeship in successfully teaching young people how to farm. I will always wonder what became of the young man I met in Washington State, but I’d like to imagine that, like many of the apprentices in my study, he has successfully achieved the dream, is now farming on his own, and hosting happy, healthy apprentices.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lorien MacAuley is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership & Community Education at Virginia Tech. She works as a graduate research assistant for the Mapping Sustainable Farm Systems Project.