It may seem a long way off with the snow piled outside and storms on the way, but the growing season is just around the corner for local farmers. They're already planning for the season and one of the things on their minds is securing labour. If you've imagined getting your hands in the soil and learning about farming, then this could be your year to pitch in, and now is the time to think about signing up with a farm to volunteer or apprentice. You wouldn't be alone, all across the country people are committing their time to farm labour for a huge variety of different reasons, like gaining access to valuable mentoring and hands-on experience, reconnecting with the local food system, gaining a better understanding of the land, and while travelling finding an experience that's far different than staying in an urban hostel. Working on a farm can mean everything from committing a few hours to help out a farmer in your area in exchange for fresh vegetables, to living a whole year on a farm for an intensive educational experience, with different levels of responsibility in between. Depending on what you're looking for, the organizations and websites below can connect you with the farmers that need your kind of help. But before you sign up with them, really try to figure out what it is you would like to experience during your time on a farm. Going into it with a clear vision of what you hope to learn, what your comfort levels are, what your income situation is, what your timeline is, and where you can travel to, will make it far more likely that you'll find the right match in a farm. Ask yourself a lot of questions about your planned farm experience, so that when you contact farms, you will know what it is that you need to ask them and how to set up an agreement with them that will benefit both sides.
SOIL (Stewards of Irreplaceable Land)
C.R.A.F.T. Ontario (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training in Ontario)
ASAAP (Alberta Sustainable Agriculture Apprenticeship Program)
Root Cellars Rock! asked a group of people who have been in a range of farm labour positions what their tips for having a good first farm experience are. They've worked on farms in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Cuba, Mexico, England, and Scotland. Here are their hints for new farmhands:
Melissa: I would say that the most important thing is to be open and flexible when you arrive. You will most certainly never know until you get into the thick of things what it will be like, so you have to be able to adapt and go with the flow for sure.
Alison: Don't judge the practice of gardening or farming by the farm you end up on.... the gardening experience can be so different depending on the planfulness, work ethic and vision of each individual farm owner. Get your hands dirty and work hard; it's revitalizing!
Lindsey: If you are dedicating a substantial amount of time to one farm it is important to ensure that your goals as well as the farmer's are going to be met by your stay. If you want to learn about particular elements of a farm, ensure that your work duties will include those things. Conversely, you need to be flexible to take on other duties at the farm as well. You may learn that you enjoy something that you thought you would hate! Also, make sure you will be able to work with the individuals on a personal basis. Find out what is expected beforehand (hours, days, responsibilities and rewards) and hold the farmer to it (something in writing never hurts I learned the hard way). But last of all, be prepared! Everyone (yourself included) is going to put their best face forward when first meeting the individuals you will be working with as well as conversing with them via phone and internet. Things may not be what they seemed once you arrive and get into the day-to-day work of the farm. What-ever happens it will still be a valuable learning experience!
Travis: Meet the people involved with the farm and make sure there is a comfortable level of communication. Having a bit of knowledge about the farming cycles is a really helpful thing; especially when doing a long and tedious task, if you're familiar with the "why" of what you're doing, it makes it a bit more bearable. Pace yourself. On a farm, there are 16 billion things to do. Don't discourage yourself by burning out, slow and steady wins the race.
Aimee: If you are wwoofing, they do send you a little booklet with descriptions of the farms. These are MOSTLY accurate, but take them with a grain of salt and do ask questions when you talk to farms about your stay. Obviously the time of year plays a large role in what you'll be doing, and depending on what kind of farming people are into, there's sometimes just not a whole lot of work to be done at certain times. Tell them right off the bat what, if any, experience you have, and don't be afraid to ask about the kind of work, if you'll be the only wwoofer or if there'll be others, etc.
Justin: Start small! Be creative! Be open to the unexpected!
Melissa: Definitely tangible benefits like delicious, fresh produce, and being able to be outside all the time, using your body to work. I also felt personally like I gained a lot of respect for plants and the planet that I continue to appreciate to today. It was really emotional leaving at the end of the season! I am in the midst of planning a garden for this summer, I'm very involved with the community garden network in Halifax, I grow lots of things in ultra-urban style inside my very tiny apartment, and I've actually gotten some formal training in permaculture design as well.
Alison: Gaining perspective on all the work involved in putting food on one's table. Feeling productive in the most elemental sense. It gave me confidence to grow my own food. I just grew my first crops of kale and arugula from seed to my table this past summer and it was very empowering. I have plans of continuing to garden for my own consumption this year and for many years to come. I have brought the growing experience into my professional life as well. I lead a group of adults who have self-identified barriers to employment, and we have enjoyed much surprise and anticipation attempting to grow our own seedlings. Lastly, I am hoping to connect my amazement with gardening to my interest in producing value-added food products from fresh, local vegetables and herbs.
Travis: Learning the cycles of life involved with growing my own food was an amazing experience. I feel much healthier, and appreciate the food a lot more, knowing where it comes from, and the type and amount of energy went into growing it. Winter is a slow time for farming, indeed. This spring, however holds wonderful opportunities, working with the community garden across the street, and at a friend's farm up the road.
Aimee: Between the four farms I worked on, I did everything from planting and weeding and garden maintenance to selling at markets to general repairs on barns and out-buildings... I pressed apples and bottled juice and cider, did some very long days and nights of haymaking, cut wood, looked after geese, pigs, sheep, chickens, and picked apples and blackberries till I never wanted to see another pie again! So I feel like I got a really well-rounded experience on both big and small farm operations. Sometimes Iwas the only wwoofer, which was an interesting experiment in spending a lot of time alone in the middle of quiet nowhere, and sometimes I worked with up to four other people, mostly from various European countries, most of whom had very little english. So that was an experience in itself, the silent choreography of working together for hours with very few words. and the food! You are never so hungry as when you've been outdoors working all day, and no food ever tastes so good as that which came from the backyard. But I know I'm preaching to the choir here on that one.
Justin: It is a great way to connect to the community, it is a way to learn more than about growing food. It is also a healthy job, spiritually and physically. Farming requires every skill you have. It is so multifaceted that you will use skills and knowledge you forgot that you had from elementary school.
People go on to do all kinds of amazing things with the knowledge, experience, and confidence that they gained doing farm work. They are contributing to community gardens, growing food for themselves in their backyards and indoors with microfarms, they are pursuing more farm experiences and agricultural education, they are helping to run farmers' markets and community food groups, and some have decided to start their own rural or urban farms.
It seems that contributing your labour on a farm will set you towards life-long learning about growing food, the natural environment, your local food system, and also very important, learning about yourself. So maybe this could be your farm year?