Friday, August 12, 2011

Farm hands & Interns

Say hello to Dan and Sean.  They're both doing a great job on the farm, and I thought it was time to give them credit.   Whether they're up to their knees in mud or their elbows in blood, I've appreciated their work and effort, and they deserve the credit for a job well done.  Thank you both. 

With respect to labor and "interns"...

There are a lot of farms that offer "internships" -- basically free labor with some sort of arrangement for housing and possibly food -- with the theory that what you'll be learning is your primary pay. 

I think that it's an interesting idea -- but I personally don't think that it's fair, or even appropriate. 

This might piss some folks off -- but if your farm isn't producing enough income to pay at least the minimum wage (or more, if you can) is that really something you want to hold up as an example of what a farm should be? 

The most sustainable farms are those that make a profit and continue to exist, and if you're really going to take someone and teach them, take the time and care to teach them something that works.  And to me, if you can't afford labor, it's not working. 

So the next time you see someone offering an "internship" -- think about it.    It's just not sustainable to have a model that depends on free labor. 


Anonymous said...

Is your farm now making profit? the last time I saw you talk about it, your farm was opperating at a loss.

Anonymous said...

and I could have sworn that you were ripping on some other farms for find ways to make their farm "too" profitable. I'm confused here.

bc said...

I'm not sure about the USA, but in Britain the minimum wage changed the face of the country. Post World War I minimum wages and price controls pushed a huge amount of workers from farms. The best description I’ve read of this is from a very well written book called Farmer’s Glory, by A. G. Street, from around 1930. It is autobiographical and shows the changes from when the author’s father ran the farm through inheritance and the changing world. In the old days there were a lot of worker cottages and maybe 40 people involved in farm production. By the book’s end he’s dairying on the same farm with just a couple of workers.

In Britain a lot of worker cottages were destroyed to avoid tax. Here in France they’ve been left alone to run down (at least until the English and Dutch arrived to buy them up and renovate them for their retirement).

Times change, and the beautiful scenes at the start of the book are long gone. But there is still some relevance to today’s life. We are in the early, ramp-up stage at the farm and don’t have much cash flow to pay a salary to someone. But we do have spare housing.

In the old days I’d have a farm worker and family live in the villa and maybe also the salle and pay them some amount extra. There are plenty of unemployed folk around here who would happily trade some work for living rent-free in a cool farm cottage. They’d eat the farm produce. It would be a great life for their family. Now with taxes, minimum wage and insurance the equation changes.

We rent out the villa, but once the tax is paid I’m not going to reinvest it in labor and pay more tax and insurance. The government takes a slice of each transaction. It would be better if the rents were city rates, but rural rents are too cheap and the insurance rates are too high for the system to be worth it. It is a rare farm out here that hires someone.

Like all rules where they don’t work is where they get circumvented. How the locals solve the problem is by doing it on the black market. No rent tax, no income tax, no government involvement. Or you use your extended family, which amounts to the same thing. There are also summer farm worker programs that run like the internships you think are unfair – food, board, pocket money. These are used by foreigners who farm rather than by the French.

You think that minimum wage is fair and appropriate, but with farms returns are low and non-salary gains are high (learning and lifestyle in your example). Your tax situation is likely better than ours for hiring part-time workers, but still you can work in some city McJob for minimum wage or work on your farm, learn the system, raise food and get sunshine and fitness for minimum wage minus a couple of bucks. I think a lot of people would choose the lower paid job if they could.

Still, you have my respect for offering legal wage-paying internships. That's pretty cool.

Will Fifield said...

I think it's way cool that you took the time and space to recognize Sean and Dan. I've been around them three times now and they're good workers and, even better, they're good with people.

That means a lot because you never know when a guy like me is going to drive up looking to buy pigs or turkeys or whatever. Sometimes they're your customer's first impression, and you know what they say about first impressions.

They seem to enjoy working hard and learning. Kudos to them, and you.